With a huge WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) all-day wine exam coming up in June, my New Year resolution is to taste my way through every major wine region. Granted, it’s an ambitious task but necessary for my studies — all in the name of education. Presented with seemingly endless topics for discussion, I chose a grape variety that is rooted in the Old World but still evolving within New World wine regions — tempranillo (tem-pran-e-yo).
This variety gets its name from Spanish temprano, meaning early and the suffix –illo, meaning little. Literally meaning the little early one, which is fitting being that tempranillo ripens early. This attribute can be beneficial in areas that have an early winter or autumn rains. Although relatively easy to grow, this variety is difficult to master. Tempranillo needs a cool climate to retain its acidity, as not to produce a flat or flaccid wine. A warm climate is needed, however, to ensure adequate sugar resulting in sufficient alcohol level.
If these requirements were not difficult enough, tempranillo behaves much like the pinot noir grape. The quality is highly yield sensitive, meaning that over-cropping leads to a decrease in quality and diluted flavors. For this reason much of the tempranillo is blended with other grapes varieties to fill in the “gaps” depending on cropping and wine making techniques.
Tempranillo is grown in many different areas of the world. In Portugal it is one of the five preferred grapes used in port wine production. Although Argentina has many areas that would be favorable for this finicky variety, locally called tempranilla, it has been relegated to an overproduced workhorse grape. Unfortunately, very little quality varietal tempranillo wine is produced here.
Spain holds the bragging rights for being the Old World home to tempranillo. In particular, the areas of northeastern Spain, Rioja and Ribera del Duero have a long standing history of producing fine tempranillo-dominated wines. Unlike other Old World wine areas, however, the wines of Rioja were traditionally defined less by their terroir and more by the amount and type of oak aging. This again was a delicate balance with tempranillo. Even though it has an affinity for oak aging, because of its natural resistance to oxidation, the mild fruit flavors are easily dominated by too much oak.
The trends have changed in the Rioja. These wines are now more terroir driven, with Alavesa producing the most delicate examples and Alta producing dark, firm, rich wines. The Baja wines are more grenache driven with tempranillo playing a supporting role. The trend here is now toward less oak aging. So the traditional flavors of strawberry, allspice and baking spice have given way to plum and black cherry nuances.
Ribera del Duero is southwest of Rioja and is the other region well established in producing tempranillo (here known as Tinto Fino) based wines. This area has an even stronger continental climate but the heat of the growing season is tempered by the higher-altitude vineyards. This change in terroir along with a shorter ageing period compared with Rioja produces wines that are deeply colored with higher but sweeter tannins and have a full spectrum of black fruit nuances.
The United States has also thrown a hat into the ring with attempts at producing this unruly grape. The majority producing state in this country, California, reserves its best spots for varieties that sell easily: chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir and its marketing “experts” tell them that U.S. consumers don’t want a varietal they can’t pronounce. So, for the time being, tempranillo has very little area under vine and is usually grown in sites that are too hot.
In Spain, St. Vincent’s Feast Day is widely celebrated and appreciated among the wine community. As the patron saint of wine growers, the legend states that if the sun is out today, good wine crops can be expected for the coming season. So head out to your local store, buy some tempranillo and on Jan. 22, raise a glass with me and drink to a good harvest. Salud!