It’s Never Too Early for Tempranillo

(Originally published September 2008)

Being separated from his usual wine buying stomping grounds, Hanes can’t exclusively drink wines which only three other people have ever heard of. It’s definitely a “back to the roots” place in time for your humble scribe and that has come to mean chugging wines passed by in recent years.

More specifically, this has meant a reengagement with the Tempranillo grape. This noble grape is used to make some of the most famous red wines of Spain, particularly those from the north central regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Most wines Hanes would consume from these regions are expensive and, as such, when buying expensive wines Hanes usually spends his money on wines from France. However, there are many inexpensive Tempranillo based wines and, in his current state of humility, the Hanesian palate has been blessed by such wines. So, c’mon kids, let’s go over some basic facts of the Tempranillo grape!

Tempranillo has been recognized and bottled as such since like forever, even by name as far back as the 13th century. It is most popular and recognized in Spain, the country which has roughly 85% of the world’s plantings of the grape. As Spanish wine production increased and improved through the 17th and 18th centuries, Tempranillo became better known by name. This is particularly so as this is the specific name for the grape in Rioja, the first region to make wines from the grape for export and popular outside of Spain.

The characteristics of the Tempranillo grape are as follows. It is an early ripening grape which favors cooler temperature regions and often higher altitude environments. It can deal with large temperature swings from day to night and often benefits from such. It’s name means the “the little early one” (from the Spanish word “temprano”). The skins are thick yet, despite this, the grapes are susceptible to rot, especially if left to hang and ripen too long. However, the thickness of the skins do help provide tannin for structure in the wine. The rootstock is highly susceptible to the phylloxera root louse and thus the vast majority of grapevines are grafted onto resistant rootstock. The warmer and lower the altitude of growing region, the less acidity the final wine will usually have and potentially less freshness and ability to age. Tempranillo typically possesses more malic acid than tartaric or citric acids and, in relationship to total acidity, has a high pH level. In rough terms, the higher the pH level the more likely the wine will lose color stability and at times develop a certain flabbiness. So pH management is very important with Tempranillo, starting with where it is planted and the soil composition. Because the grape is usually low in sugar it is also often low in alcohol as there are less sugars to convert into alcohol during vinification in order to achieve desired dryness in the finished wine.

When bottled early the wines have more of a ruby to violet coloration but when aged in oak, they lighten into more reddish tones. Given Spanish winemaking tradition, Reserva or Gran Reserva level wines (or those not obeying strict Spanish labeling law but generally following the practices) will be aged for some time in oak and thus derive oak-inspired flavors of cedar, vanilla, chocolate or caramel. Other typical descriptors include tobacco, tea leaf, dried herbs, leather, merde or light gaminess. In many respects, a well-aged Tempranillo based wine can come to resemble aged Bordeaux wines. Taking into consideration the wide potential lifespan of Tempranillo wines, the fruit flavor profile can run the gamut from lighter strawberry, raspberry, red cherry to darker fruit such as blackberry, plum or even prune or raisin notes.

Tempranillo is known by other names, most notably Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, Aragon, Tinto Fino, Tinta de Toro, and Tinto del País (“tinto” technically means red in Spanish (either in masculine or feminine grammatical usage) so, for example, “Tinto de Toro” basically means “the red grape of Toro”). Given the growing popularity of Portuguese dry red table wines, it is useful to know that Tinta Roriz and Aragonez are in fact Tempranillo. Especially since the majority of the buying public are in the dark as regards Portuguese grapes and possibly intimidated by all these unknown grapes which, incidentally, make excellent cheap wines.

While still most famously produced in the aforementioned Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is successfully grown in many other areas of Spain. Toro, Valdepeñas, Navarra, Penedès and La Mancha are the primary suspects.

Tempranillo is frequently blended with small percentages of other grapes. The main partners are Garnacha (aka Grenache), Graciano and/or Mazuelo (aka Cariñena or Carignan). In these crazy contemporary times Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon may get blended with Tempranillo. Frequently, the blending grapes add acidity to the final product and extend ageability. Deeper color is another result of blending.

After Spain, the next country to mention is Portugal. Again, as just noted, it’s not obvious at first that you are drinking Tempranillo since the grape goes by those wacky names Tinta Roriz and Aragonez, among others. It is a vital component of Port dessert wines of the Douro region (although rarely will you see bottles of Port labeled varietally). It’s really more with the dry table wines that the grape blends are listed and, since there are a few Portuguese names for Tempranillo, unless you are a stickler for detail, you’ll not likely recognize the grape from the label. Sucks man. In any event Tempranillo [sic] is a popular grape for dry table reds in Portuguese regions such as the Douro, Alentejo, Dão, Alentejano, Estremadura or Ribatejo.

After Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, the United States, Australia and South Africa are the likeliest suspects. In the United States the grape has gone by the name Valdepeñas (after the Spanish region of the same name) however, you’d rarely see this name commercially these days. In Australia the grape is cultivated all over, including McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and the Margaret River areas. Little of this wine makes it to the U.S. and when it does it is expensive. In Argentina Tempranillo can be forced to yield more than might be desired and thus results in somewhat dilute wines. But the prices are cheap, easily under $10.

Given the general characteristics and sensitivity to environment of Tempranillo, the grape could be said to offer a broader spectrum of finished wines than many other noble grapes. A lot will depend on climate temperature and the percentage and type of blending grapes utilized, if any. The best wines grown in appropriate climates with judicious exposure to oak develop a fantastic bouquet over many years, in some instances decades, of aging. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of cheap Tempranillo to catch a buzz off while waiting for your Gran Reservas to be ready. And that’s what Hanes is drinking!