Tempranillo is Spain’s prominent red grape, pushed to the forefront of Spanish winemaking by the increasingly popular wines of Rioja. It has been called Spain’s noble grape. Although Tempranillo is usually found in Spain, it has been successfully planted in other places. Known to make wines with flavors of berries, plum, tobacco, leather, herb, and vanilla (when aged in oak), Tempranillo is distinct in both flavors and aroma.
Tempranillo was once thought to be related to Pinot Noir, but recent DNA evidence has proved that it is not. The grape originated in Spain, and has enjoyed success since the beginning of winemaking there. It was transported to America as early as the 1700s by Spanish conquistadors. However, it has only recently begun to thrive in California.
The grape generally reacts well to cool, humid climates, but can lack acidity when planted in too cool climates. This is why it thrives on the cool but continental climates of Rioja. It is prone to rot and other hazards, and the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century wiped out a great deal of it in Spain. The grape’s finicky nature makes winemaking difficult. The most expensive Tempranillos are aged in oak, but the majority are not.
Tempranillo is a grape that still thrives where it originated, in the cool heights of northern Spain. Its most well-known example is Rioja, the dark-red wine that has been so celebrated of late. The oak and vanilla character often imparted by aging in French barrels is a distinctive part of Rioja’s flavors. Extremely long aging was exemplified by Marqués de Murrieta, a winery that released a 1942 wine called a gran reserva in 1983. Unfortunately, producers are now tending toward cheaper offerings with faster gratification, so aging of Rioja is on the decline. Grapes allowed for blending with Tempranillo include Grenache, Graciano, and Mazuelo.
Within Rioja, there are various different wine styles. Rioja Alta produces a more conventional, old-style wine, lighter on the palate and lower in acidity than most other Riojas. Rioja Alavesa has more acidity and a fuller body than Alta. Rioja Baja produces its own style of Rioja, which is usually much lighter, with fewer flavors, and can have as much as 18% alcohol by volume. Many Rioja wineries choose not to blend in any of the other grapes and make 100% varietal Tempranillo, which is usually a wine low in acidity.
The other place where Tempranillo is prominently grown is the Ribera del Duero in Spain; this wine can often age for a long time, even longer than Rioja. Like all Spanish wines in the 21st century, Ribera del Duero wines are increasing in popularity.
Tempranillo is increasingly grown in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. In the US, Tempranillo was mostly used for cheap table wine, but plantings in California have increased with some fine examples being produced. Oregon, New Mexico, and Texas also have plantings.
Tempranillo is truly the noble grape of Spain, and although it may be too finicky to produce reliably great wine every year, the best examples of Rioja and Ribera del Duero will continue to have a great name in winemaking. The special flavors of the Tempranillo grape play a great part in the diverse wines of Spain and the world.