Some people are never on time, but you can count on tempranillo – it always arrives on schedule. Tempranillo is such an early ripening grape that its name was coined from the Spanish word for early: temprano.
Closely identified with Spain’s Rioja region, tempranillo is so ubiquitous in the Spanish landscape that one is hard-pressed to find a region without this affable vine. Rioja and Ribera del Duero (home to Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most prestigious winery) stand out from the pack, with both regions producing long-lived high quality tempranillo.
Tempranillo from Rioja is usually topped-up with two other varieties, grenache and carignan, and thus tends to be lighter-bodied than wines from the Ribera del Duero region, which is more dense, tannic and powerful. In simplistic terms, one can view Rioja as the Burgundy of Spain and Ribera del Duero as the Bordeaux.
Tempranillo has more aliases than an errant husband (M16 agent?). The grape bears some fifteen different pseudonyms in Spain alone, ranging from the straightforward tinto fino in the Ribera del Duero region to the tongue twisting ull de llebre (eye of the hare) in Catalonia. In Portugal’s Douro Valley, where the variety is a component of the world’s finest port wines, tempranillo assumes the name tinta roriz. In California, the grape goes by valdepeñas.
Perhaps tempranillo has such a long list of aliases because it is not an easy grape to pin down. Descriptions such as strawberry, plum and tobacco leaf are helpful, but limited. Spain’s penchant for maturing tempranillo in American oak barrels, which integrates vanilla and coconut aromas into the wine, bring to mind a strawberry-vanilla Popsicle. With age, tempranillo develops a complex leather and autumnal bouquet. Many tasters note a similarity between tempranillo and pinot noir. Peter Leske, Group Winemaker of Nepenthe winery in Australia’s Adelaide Hills, describes tempranillo as “pinot noir on steroids”. Tempranillo shows so much similarity to pinot noir that it was long believed pilgrims carried the variety from France to Spain during the crusades. Modern science, however, has determined there is no genetic relationship between tempranillo and pinot noir.
Tempranillo may be Spain’s most widely planted grape, but it is one of Australia’s fastest emerging varieties, where tonnage of tempranillo leaped from a mere 29 tons in 1999 to a substantial 3045 by 2011. Tempranillo is not new to Australia: in the 1800’s Hubert de Castella smuggled it into the colony to produce hefty port-styled wines.
Tempranillo is at its finest in cooler climates, such as South Australia’s Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale, though it can be found all over Australia, where well-regarded producers such as Stella Bella in Margaret River and Brown Brothers in northeast Victoria have had great success with the grape.
Why does Australia embrace this variety? Tempranillo sings with red fruit and has silky tannins, similar to pinot noir, but with soft, gentle acidity. The result is an easy drinking wine that is compatible with a range of foods, including Cantonese cuisine. Any other reasons? “It has large leaves,” Nepenthe’s Leske helpfully points out, “and they’re great for people in nudist colonies.”