In Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals, contributor Chantal Martineau unearths how a particular grape drinks differently around the globe.
Winemaking regions are often beautiful places. If you had to rank them, Rioja, in northern Spain, would surely fall into the world’s top ten. It lays south of the Cantabria mountain range, along the Ebro river, all rolling green hills and quaint medieval villages. La Rioja is also the spiritual home of Tempranillo, Spain’s noblest grape.
For many years, wine experts believed Tempranillo was a cross between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. A 2012 report dispels this theory, confirming that the grape is all Spanish. It was born some 1,000 ago in the Ebro Valley, in the area now known as La Rioja. The variety’s parents are two rare grapes indigenous to the area, a white and and red grape: the Albillo Mayor and the Benedicto, respectively. As a tribute to its early ripening, the thick black-skinned grape was named for the Spanish word for “early”: temprano.
In Rioja, Tempranillo is most often blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. Each of these contributes color, aromatics, body, acidity or fruit to the final blend. Years ago, Rioja was the new kid on the block: a fun, fruity yet earthy wine at a bargain price. As Spanish wines became more popular, they got more expensive. Soon, Tempranillo was regularly blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and aged in barriques for a more concentrated, structured style – one that’s come to define modern Rioja wines.
Tempranillo is also the main grape planted in the chalky slopes of Ribero del Duero, where it’s known as Tinta del País (the country’s red). In Portugal, Tempranillo is called Tinto Roriz or Aragonez, blended for both table and port wines. The grape has made its way to the new world, where it’s planted in South America, California, even Texas.
Here are five Tempranillos to try and where to find 'em:
Viña Tondonia Reserva Lopez de Heredia 2002, Rioja (Spain)
From one of the last traditional Rioja wineries (and surely the most famous), this blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha is full of intrigue and finesse. Velvety and earthy with dried fruit flavors and hints of spice, it still manages to show a bright freshness. Drink it now or keep it for a decade. Buy it at Hi-Time Wine for $40.
Quinta Milú 2012, Ribera del Duero (Spain)
At this tiny winery, the grapes are still crushed with human feet and the wines are made with little manipulation. The rare 100% Tempranillo, made from old vines, is aged in different types and sizes of casks for complexity without a heavy hand. The result is a totally quaffable wine full of brambly fruit with subtle wisps of toast and spice. Buy it at Chambers Street Wines for $15.
Quinta do Infantado 2009, Douro (Portugal)
This small producer is known for its ports, and makes use of typical port grapes for its table wine. A blend of organically grown Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional, the wine is full of darks fruits, warm spices and a hint of the herbaceous. Buy it at Astor Wines for $17.
Abacela Tempranillo 2008, Umpqua Valley (Oregon)
Earl and Hilda Jones, a husband-and-wife team, suspected that Oregon was a better environment than California in which to grow Tempranillo and bet everything on that hunch. The pioneer winery makes several Tempranillos, including this berry-fruited wine full of intense flavors and powerful tannins. Buy it at Williams-Sonoma Wine for $35.
Altocedro Tempranillo La Consulta Año Cero 2011, Mendoza (Argentina)
Specializing in Malbec, this winery also farms Tempranillo using sustainable growing practices. The wine is dark and brooding, with forest fruit, leathery notes and rather aggressive tannins. Buy it at Napa Cabs for $15.
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