Tempranillo

Introduction

Tempranillo, a thick and dark-skinned grape, is one of the most important native varieties in Spain, and it is an essential part of most of the highly acclaimed red wines from La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. There are near 220,000 hectares of Tempranillo planted in Spain (being the second most cultivated grape variety after Airén). It is also widely extended in Portugal, where it’s used in blends to produce port and dry table wines, and other countries such as Australia, United States or Argentina.

The word “Tempranillo” is a diminutive of “Temprano” (early), so named because it matures a few weeks earlier than other red grapes. Most Spanish Tempranillos spend their youth in oak wood barrels, which combines perfectly with their fruitiness.

There is a white variety of a recent mutation called White Tempranillo.

Origin and History

It is widely assumed Tempranillo has its origin in Spain, though this is not clearly clarified. For years, experts have suspected this grape may be a mutation of a French variety, which could have been brought by Cistercian monks on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, back in the 12th century. Specifically, it was thought to be related to the Pinot Noir grape, due to its similar accelerated cycle and optimum point of ripening. Recent genetic studies, though, discard this hypothesis.

The Tempranillo grape has been cultivated in the Iberian Peninsula since, at least, the time of the Phoenician settlements. The first time the grape is referenced is in a poem of the 13th century, praising the "tempraniellas" as superior to other grapes.

Up until the 17th century, the Tempranillo vines remained limited to continental Spain and mostly to the northern provinces, due to the slightly cooler climate that was the most appropriate for growing it. It was during this century that the Spanish Conquistadores introduced the grape into America, though to not much avail, due to its rather complicated cultivation.

During the 20th century, Tempranillo slowly started to get established around the world. Frederic Bioletti introduced the grape in California in 1905, though it was just used as a blend grape for table wine, due to the difficulties to grow it in warm and dry climates, as mentioned before. It was only in 1980 that the Californian Tempranillo wine production began to flourish, after much trial and error and finding the right way to cultivate the vines. The production in this area has been growing since then, and was also well received in Texas, where the soils had similar characteristics to those of North Spain. Other regions in which Tempranillo plantations have blossomed are Washington and Oregon.

In the 1990s, Tempranillo began to experience a revitalization in world wine production. It started with a new wave of Spanish producers showing that it was possible to cultivate these vines and produce high quality wines in areas outside La Rioja. From then on, significant
plantations started to arise in Australia, South Africa, Portugal, France, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

In Spain, Tempranillo is also known by various synonyms, depending on the region: Tinta Aragonés (Burgos), Tinto Fino (Albacete), Tinta Corriente (Guadalajara), Tinto MadridCencibel… This also happens in Portugal, where Tempranillo is known as Aragonez (in Central Alentejo, where it is used in red mixtures of table wine) and Tinto Roriz (Dão and Douro regions, mainly used in blends to make port wine).

Characteristics of the grape

Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape, which helps to its protection against moisture and rot, apart from producing a strong, tannic wine. It yields the best results on calcareous terrains and when grown at relatively high altitudes, though it thrives on a wide variety of soils and heights, even in warm climates. It requires several hours of sunshine to develop its color and guarantee the appropriate level of sugar but, in turn, too much sun brings an important loss of acidity.

The ideal conditions for growing Tempranillo can be found in Northern Spain, especially in La Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro. In other warmer places, Tempranillo doesn’t grow to its full potential, and it’s usually used in blends with other grapes to alleviate its deficiencies.

Characteristics of the wines

Tempranillo wines usually have a marked intensity, especially those originated in La Rioja Alta, due to the area freshness and humidity. When grown in barrique, the Tempranillo wines are characterized as fruity, dark and slightly spicy. Its charm resides in the wide range of aromas detectable in Tempranillo-based wines, with tasting notes ranging from strawberry, cherry and blackcurrant (in colder climates), prunes, chocolate and tobacco (in warmer climates and older vines). You can also taste a typical vanilla flavor when grown in oak wood barrels. Tempranillo wines have a silky quality and a discreet acidity to them, which softens the intensity of the presence of tannins in the mouth. 

Tempranillo is generally used in blends (with usually 90% of the mixture being Tempranillo), due to the acidity and slenderness of pure wines. It is most frequently mixed with GarnachaMazuela, Graciano, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Other information

Denominations of Origin where the Tempranillo grape is authorized: Alella, Alicante, Almansa, Ampurdá-Costa Brava, Binissalem-Mallorca, Bullas, Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Catalonia, Cigales, Conca de Barberá, Costers del Segre, Jumilla, La Mancha,
Manchuela, Méntrida, Navarre, Penedés, Pla de Bages, Pla i Llevant, Ribeiro, Ribeira del Duero, Ribera del Guadiana, Ribera del Júcar, Rioja, Wheel, Sierra de Málaga, Somontano, Tarragona, Terra Alta, Bull, Utiel-Requena, Valdeorras, Valdepeñas, Valencia, Wines from Madrid, Yecla.

Food Pairings: Baked lamb, tapas, hamburgers, sausages, soft cheeses, blue cheese, Cheddar, goat cheese, Havarti cheese, pasta with light sauces, river fish, stews.