Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
True, Spain is also home to two other important quality red wine grapes, Garnacha and Monastrell, but these two varieties are qualitatively more successful respectively in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol appellations of France. Spain's best known red wine appellation, Rioja, first brought Tempranillo to the attention of the world outside Spain. Its identity however remained hidden by the Rioja place name and within the Rioja blend where it was combined with significant amounts of Garnacha (Grenache) and Mazuelo (Carignan). Tempranillo accounts for about 6O% of the vines planted in Rioja Alta and Alavesa, but a significantly lower share in the Rioja Baja subzone, where Garnacha is more prevalent in volume of production if not in hectares planted. On the heels of the notoriety of Vega Sicilia, Spain's most famous winery and example of a Tempranillo-dominated wine, the Ribera del Duero appellation has given the world a better approximation of the potential of varietal Tempranillo wine. Despite the success that Tempranillo has achieved in the last 2O years, it remains largely a Spanish variety. Does it have a hope of breaking out of the Iberian Peninsula and becoming an international variety?
Legend has it that monks from Burgundy first brought Tempranillo to the Rioja area during their pilgrimages to Santiago di Campostella. The legend implies that Tempranillo is related to Pinot Noir. There is however no historic or scientific proof of this connection. Whatever Tempranillo's origins, the variety soon spread all over north and central Spain. Among its many other names and outposts are Ull de Llebre in the Penedes, Tinto Fino between the cities of Valladolid and Aranda del Duero, Tinto de Toro west of Valladolid, and Cencibel in the Valdepenas and La Mancha areas southeast of Madrid. By the 18th century, however, Tempranillo made its first, and so far its only, significant step outside Spanish territory. It arrived in Portugal's Douro Valley, where it is known to have been planted at the wine farm Quinta de Roriz, from where it took its Portuguese name, Tinta Roriz. The variety became one of the many participants in the Port wine blend. Less well known is that Tinta Roriz is the most important variety in Barca Velha, the Douro's most famous and historic still wine. Tempranillo, alias Tinta Roriz, is increasingly found in the Dao wine zone south of the Douro. It also arrived in the Alentejo area well east of Lisbon, taking on the name Arragonez in reference to its Spanish heritage.
The name Tempranillo derives from the Spanish word, "temprano", meaning "early". The vine does nearly everything early - it buds and flowers early, and ripens by as much as 2 weeks earlier than Garnacha. Early budding makes it susceptible to frosts. Ribera del Duero is located in a valley on top of a Spain's huge central plateau. Because vineyards have little cold air drainage and lie between 7OO and 1OOO meters above sea level, spring frost is always a risk. This frost risk was one of the incentives that have driven investment away from Ribera del Duero towards the less frost vulnerable Toro wine zone to the west. Tempranillo's other vulnerabilities include susceptibility to wind damage, to a wide variety of insect pests and to fungus diseases such as botrytis, peronospera, oidium, mal d'esca and eutypiose. On the positive side, it is a productive vine. It resists drought well, a frequent occurrence on Spain's central high plateau. Because Tempranillo ripens early, it is more likely to be harvested in the warm sunny weather that usually precedes autumn rains and cold. Its tendency to grow upright reduces the manual labor necessary to position shoots. In Spain, the Tempranillo is usually trained low-to-the-ground using the head-trained spur-pruned system in the traditional round bush configuration. More recently farmers have used low cordon-spur pruning employing stakes and wires.
The variety seems to give its best results in the Ribera del Duero wine zone where summers are short, with as few as a hundred frost-free days a growing season, and where winters are long and very cold and summers are short and hot and dry. Perhaps even more important is day to night temperature variation. Summer daytime temperatures frequently rise to 4OšC (1O4šF) and nights cool down to 2OšC (68šF). The cool nights help Tempranillo preserve its acidity. The hot days help it ripen. Ribera del Duero Tempranillos have deeper color, more acidity and a higher concentration of phenolic compounds than the wines of Rioja.
One problem with Tempranillo is the low total acidity of its musts. In Rioja, the addition of Mazuelo, a grape with high total acidity, helps remedy this condition. Tempranillo seeds are relatively soft and easily broken. Aggressive extraction during fermentation can easily allow oily, bitter flavors to enter the wine, so more gentle maceration is necessary. Tempranillo responds well to carbonic maceration, which makes it successful for inexpensive fruity wines. Despite its low acidity, Tempranillo naturally has a low oxidizing enzyme content which makes the wine particularly resistant to oxidation. As a result, it can mature in barrel for periods that would turn other red wines into pallid ghosts. Many Riojas spend well over 2 years in barrel before bottling. Tempranillo wine regularly weighs in at modest alcohol levels, on average 13%, a godsend in these days of prickly-hot, head-splitting reds.
I just tasted a 1998 Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Reserve Tempranillo that would be a dead ringer for a red Burgundy in a blind tasting. Tempranillo's moderate to light garnet pigmentation can easily be confused with Pinot Noir or perhaps with Sangiovese. Its strawberry-cherry nose is very close to that of Pinot Noir. Slight leather nuances, however, send the imagination more in the direction of Sangiovese. Tempranillo aged in oak shows spice (cloves, in particular) and tobacco smells particularly reminiscent of Pinot Noir. Unless a taster can identify the scent of American oak, the oak type usually associated with Spanish wine maturation, he might easily confuse his blind sample with red Burgundy. When Tempranillo grapes are harvested over ripe, a frequent occurrence in the Toro region, wine color becomes darker and browner, the wine smells more figgy and shows thick, "sweet" tannins.
Today, there is not much Tempranillo planted outside the Iberian Peninsula. Near Mendoza, the Argentines have forced "Tempranilla" vines to produce as much as 2OO hectoliters per hectare, over 4 times the maximum legal yield in Rioja. Hopefully, Argentina's rising image in the wine world will convince Argentine producers to spare Tempranillo such hard labor. In the United States, Tempranillo is mostly planted in California's Central Valley where, under the name Valdepenas, it anonymously participates in jug wine blends. Among larger, more established producers, Clos du Bois has for some years made an Alexander Valley Reserve using mostly Tempranillo and some Cabernet Sauvignon. R.H.Phillips makes an EXP "Viaje" out of Dunnigan Hills grapes. The wine also includes small percentages of other grapes such as Merlot, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which fill out the Tempranillo. The wine is juicy, oaky, thick, and sugar-nuanced on the palate. On the internet, I also found smaller producers such as the San Pasqual Winery in San Diego County in California. It makes Felicita, a 5O/5O Tempranillo/Grenache blend. Verdad Wine Cellars, a Santa Barbara County-based winery, makes a Tempranillo/Grenache/Syrah blend from Santa Ynez Valley grapes. Abecela winery in Oregon makes a 1OO% Tempranillo with Umpqua Valley grapes. Half a world away, Australian producer D'Arenberg has just released its first "The Sticks & Stones" Tempranillo/Grenache/Souzao blend. The grapes come from Maclaren Vale in Southeast Australia.
Tempranillo is also grown in many experimental vineyards, both publicly and privately owned, throughout the world. If producers deem the market ready, they are in a good position to, within five or six years, put Tempranillo into the international market mainstream. I, however, have yet to taste a great Tempranillo made outside of Spain. Recently two Spanish Tempranillos reminded me how wonderful Tempranillo can be. A 1996 Vino Pedroso Ribera del Duero Reserva showed dark garnet coloration with a garnet-orange rim. In the nose, a mix of prunes, boiled cherries, oak, and leather, introduced a mouth filled with supple textures and mature fruit smells. Underbrush and cinders lingered in the finish. The other wine was made from 1OO-year-old Tempranillo vines in the Toro region. The 1998 El Albar, Excelencia, made by the Bodegas J&F Lurton, a French owned company, was delicious. The wine had an opague garnet color and smelled of tobacco and super-ripe fruits. On the palate, it was dense, rich and soft in the mouth.
New World producers could produce wines like these. Perhaps they may not have sited Tempranillo where there are significant enough annual and daily temperature extremes. Or maybe they have not yet learned how to offset Tempranillo's weaknesses by blending in varieties that support the variety rather than cover it. Or they might have not yet succeeded in unlocking the wonderful tertiary aromas through extensive barrel aging. Whatever the reason, this very old grape is a young debutante ready and waiting to walk out onto the world stage.