No grape is more closely associated with Northern Spain than Tempranillo, and no viticultural region is more closely associated with Tempranillo than Northern Spain. Their pasts and their futures are inextricably linked.
It is often blended with small amounts of Graciano, Garnacha (Grenache) and Mazuelo. Tempranillo is a chameleon-like grape that adapts to its terroir and makes very different wines when grown in different regions. Tempranillo has thick skins and relatively small, spherical berries that grow in tight bunches. Tannins can be moderate to high and acidity medium to low. The flavour profile is most similar to a red-fruited, lower tannin Cabernet Sauvignon or possibly a less acidic Sangiovese.
Tempranillo is an early ripening variety, often ready for harvest some 2 weeks before the Grenache it is sometimes grown with. It takes its name from the Spanish word temprano, meaning early. Tempranillo is ideally suited to growing in Northern Spain, where the Santa Cantabria Mountains block the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean and create a continental climate of hot summer days and cool evenings.
The warm days are required for the Tempranillo to fully develop its flavour profile and the cool nights are essential to preserve its lower natural levels of acidity. The poor, rocky soils of the region also seem to work well with Tempranillo, naturally keeping crop levels low and adding intensity to the flavours and aromas. These unique regional characteristics play a big part in the reason why 87% of the world’s Tempranillo is planted in Northern Spain.
Tempranillo goes by more than one name, as is sometimes the case with other grape varieties. Syarh also goes by Shiraz (in Australia); Grenache goes by Garnacha in Spain; and Zinfandel is Primitivo in Italy. But Tempranillo goes by dozens of different names, just in Spain! Many of them begin with the word “Tinta” as in Tinta de Madrid, Tinta de Toro, Tinta de Rioja, etc. Confusing, yes, but they are all just local names for the same grape, Tempranillo.
The Spanish winemaking community are very aware of how ageing will affect Tempranillo and they focus on releasing their wines when they are ready to drink.
Wineries such as Lopez de Heredia and Vega Sicilia will hold back their wines for a decade so that consumers will catch them after time has worked its magic to soften tannins and bring out complexity. Wines will show on their label the category they fall into in terms of age in barrel and age in bottle. The first wines to be released after the vintage are called Joven, then the Crianzas which have spent more time in barrel and in bottle at the winery, then longer still are the Reservas and finally the longest aged wines are called Gran Reservas. These designations generally correspond to the quality of the wine. A wine that has been aged to Reserva status does not necessarily mean it is of better quality than another’s wine that is Crianza. But typically the best barrels go into the Gran Reservas, the next best to the Reservas, then the Crianzas and then Jovens. Age does not necessarily equal quality, but the wines generally chosen for ageing usually does.
We find it fascinating to note how different Tempranillo can taste, depending on where it is grown and how it is vinified. In Rioja, Tempranillo takes on a decidedly elegant posture for the most part, showing medium to light body, gentle tannins and red fruit or strawberry-like flavours. In this region it can show the suave elegance of a fine Burgundy. It marries particularly well with long oak-ageing, especially bringing out nuance from neutral American oak barrels, a traditional Rioja staple.
In Ribera Del Duero, the Tempranillo takes on a darker fruit profile, often showing more black cherry and deep raspberry flavours and a medium to full body. New oak is often the choice here, and coopers working with French oak seem to be over-taking those using American oak. The wines take on a character more similar to Bordeaux, and often show the cedar and leather notes that bring complexity to many Bordeaux blends.
In Toro, the harsh climate and rocky, high-altitude vineyards produce a more rustic, structured, black fruit dominated wine of full body and lush texture. Think of a less polished version of a Napa Cab. To drink a modern Toro next to a traditional Rioja would shock most tasters to learn they are wines made from the same grape, the two would be that different.
Tempranillo can be made into wines that suit every budget. On a world-wide scale, Spanish Tempranillo can produce some of the highest quality value-priced wines to be found anywhere. At the other end of the spectrum, wines such as Vega Scilia, Pingus and Aalto have become darlings of collectors and fetch dizzying prices at auctions. But overall, at each price-point, Tempranillo from Spain tends to over-deliver the quality.