Tempranillo – the rising star

An excerpt from Daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

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daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

daring pairings by Evan Goldstein


When I’m asked which is my favorite wine, I usually reply in one of two ways: it’s like your kids – it depends what day; or, as long as it's balanced, varietally correct, and true to its specificity of place, I’m happy.

But at the end of the day, I suppose I’m a pinot noir guy and – a tempranillo guy. I love pinot noir because of its seductive charm, intoxicating complexity, and amazing peacock’s tail of flavor (when it’s at its best). But tempranillo I rate equally high because of its incredible food-friendliness, range of styles, and unique character.

The most important grape of Rioja, Spain, tempranillo has rich red to black fruit, signature balsamico flavors (see below), and an ability to age gracefully. Like Tuscany’s sangiovese, which it resembles in some ways, tempranillo is wonderful on its own and in blends. It varies from easy-drinking to age-worthy and serious, and is made according to so many classifications (in Spain) that the wine lover has a wide range of age and flavor profiles to choose from.

Alternative Names Cencibel, tinto fino, tinto del Pais, tinta del Toro, Ull de Llebre (Spain), aragonez, arauxa, tinta Roriz (Portugal)

Styles Light-medium to full-bodied dry red, medium-bodied dry rosado

Sometimes Blended With mazuelo/carignan, garnacha/grenache, graciano, viura, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, monastrell/mourve`dre (Spain), touriga Nacional, touriga Franca, trincadeira (Portugal), bonarda, malbec (Argentina)

Flavor Lexicon Fruit/vegetable: Black olive, dried cherry, fennel, fresh cherry, red plumFloral: Herbs (dill, marjoram, mint, oregano, thyme), laurel, patchouli, tobacco. Earth: Dust. Wood: Cinnamon, cocoa, masala mix, vanilla

Similar Sips Pinot noir, sangiovese, lighter-style syrah

Where It’s Grown Argentina (Mendoza), Australia (South Australia: Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale), Chile, Mexico, Portugal (Alentejo, Dao, Douro), Spain (Castilla – La Mancha: Valdepenas; Castilla-León: Ribera del Duero, Toro; Catalonia: Penede`s; Navarra; Rioja), Uruguay (Canelones), U.S.A. (California: Central Valley [Lodi], Sierra Foothills, Sonoma County [Green Valley], Southern Central Coast [Paso Robles]; Oregon: Umpqua Valley; New Mexico)

For wine lovers, tempranillo is Spain, and Spain is tempranillo. Though the grape is grown in other parts of the world, Spain is its geographic and spiritual home. It’s planted all over the country, but it’s at its best in the northern and central areas. Temprano means “early,” and the grape ripens well before most of the varieties that it is usually blended with, in Rioja as well as other regions.

Any conversation about tempranillo must begin in Rioja, easily Spain’s best-known region for table wine. Here tempranillo shines in blended wines. It plays the role of cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux, an important and complex varietal that nevertheless can appear more interesting and complex in the company of its siblings, graciano, mazuelo (carignan), and garnacha (grenache). Rioja blends of tempranillo are elegant and complex, like a great Burgundian pinot noir, rather than powerful. This complexity is expressed in the multiple classifications of Spanish wine, including joven (unoaked and easy to drink), crianza (with some oak and some bottle aging), reserva (with more oak and longer bottle aging), and gran reserva (even more oak and aging: these wines can’t be sold until the sixth year after harvest). Tempranillo in Rioja has a unique flavor called balsamico. It was explained to me as a combination of flavors that include the herbal (marjoram, cilantro, oregano, and rosemary), the exotic (sandalwood, incense, curry, and hyssop), and the especially distinctive (thyme, lemon thyme, peppermint, chocolate mint, and spearmint).

In contrast to the elegant wines from Rioja, those from Ribera del Duero and Toro are all about power and purity. In Ribera del Duero, Tinto del Pais (tempranillo’s local alias) makes wines that are chunky, powerful, and complex – arguably the best big red wines of Spain, where they go by the classification Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León. (Vinos de la tierra are table wines made by producers who want to create wines like these but bypass the strict rules governing them.) Ribera del Duero, the home of Spain’s famous and fabulous Vega Sicilia winery, produces wines that show a plummier black fruit, more vanilla-scented oak, and a dusty earthiness, along with faint notes of balsamico. Toro’s wines can be even bigger.

This region makes wines that fit the name (toro means “bull”) and can be heady. Toro’s hot climate produces wines with high levels of alcohol and significant richness and concentration. Made from very old vines with low yields, these wines are ample and brooding. In Spain’s other regions, tempranillo is a staple grape either on its own or blended according to local tradition, still delivering quality, a distinctive signature, and (once you leave Rioja, Toro, and the Ribera del Duero), great value. Indeed, many of the best values in Spain today are tempranillo- based wines coming from Valdepenas, Utiel-Requena, Penede`s, and especially Rioja’s neighbor Navarra, where tempranillo planted at higher altitudes makes exquisite wines.

As you cross the border from Spain into Portugal, the Duero River changes its name to the Douro River. Here tempranillo, now known as tinta roriz, is an integral part of port wines (to which it adds spice and rusticity) and dry Douro red wines. In the Alentejo, it’s blended with trincadeira for an enjoyable drink, and in the Dao it’s again part of a red-wine blend.

It makes sense, given the historical connection, that tempranillo has made its way to Argentina. Here, especially in Mendoza, it can be a lovely wine and a tasty change of pace from malbec. Alas, it’s often underachieving, blended off into nice but not stellar bottles. The situation in Chile and Uruguay is pretty much the same.

In the United States, California has long grown a grape called valdepenas, though no definite connection has been established between it and tempranillo. Given California’s Mediterranean climate, this grape ought to perform well, but it’s new on the scene, and a true style has yet to be established. Efforts led by winemakers in the Lodi and Paso Robles regions appear promising, and the best bottles have that hallmark balsamico character. Abacela Winery, in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, is leading the way in the Northwest, and there are plantings in other spots, from New Mexico to Mexico proper. Tempranillo is now challenging sangiovese as the rising star among red varietal wines in Australia. Plantings have exploded of late. Stay tuned.

Vintner’s Choices Aged vs. not aged, old oak vs. new oak, red vs. rosé (rosado), single variety vs. blended, traditional vs. modern approach

Much as I love tempranillo, it’s not a perfect grape. In spite of ripening early, it has comparatively low acidity. This means it can be vibrant in youth but may not age well on its own. Thus winemakers often blend it with other grapes. Even so, some wines that are pure or almost pure tempranillo do very well. Toro, arguably the biggest and most age-worthy of all tempranillo wines, must be at least 75 percent tempranillo and is often 100 percent. The same is true of some of the better wines from the Ribera del Duero and Castilla-León.

The judicious use of oak, most often American, is important to these wines. The debate over traditional versus modern approaches that swirls around nebbiolo in Italy is also taking place with tempranillo in Spain. Some winemakers favor the traditional approach: longer time in oak, more oxidative character, and later release dates on their reserva and gran reserva wines. In Rioja, they include Faustino, La Rioja Alta, and Marqués de Arienzo. The unabashed modernists include Martínez Bujanda, Cosme Palacio y Hermanos, and Roda. The traditionalists are more likely to use a little older oak for an accent, whereas the modernists use ample new wood. There’s more middle ground between these styles in Spain than in Italy. Generally these producers make individual cuvées that lean toward the traditional, such as Marqués de Riscal’s Baron de Chivel and Cune’s Contino.

The age-based classification system also influences wine styles. Wines labeled crianza, reserva, and gran reserva must spend different minimum periods in the cask (barrel) and in the bottle before they are released for sale. Reserva and gran reserva wines are generally made only in exceptional years: the extended aging requirements call for only the best fruit, which can handle aging without drying out. The personality of a gran reserva is shaped by its time in oak: it will have more bouquet, more development, and a more fruit-forward character than younger wines that have seen minimal oak (crianza) or no oak (joven), and it is likely to be more suited to immediate consumption. The strict requirements governing these wines have led many producers, especially in the Ribera del Duero, to opt out of the system: they simply name their wines in a proprietary manner and label them as table wine. Something similar happened earlier in Tuscany with the advent of the Super Tuscan category, proprietary blends of the local sangiovese and other grapes, mainly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which produce world-class red wines such as Tignanello, Sammarco, and Sassicaia. The new cuvées from Rioja are also the product of this movement.

In addition to red-wine tempranillos, wonderful rosés (or rosados) produced in many parts of Spain contain tempranillo. Rosados from Rioja are exceptional: they are usually made from tempranillo in concert with varying amounts of garnacha and sometimes a little white viura grape. Refreshing and full of spicy strawberry, tangelo, and watermelon flavors, they are lighter than many of the other blush styles I’ve discussed.  


Reproduced with permission of University of California Press © Evan Goldstein 2010

Read our full review of Daring Pairings here »

Daring Pairings by Evan Goldstein is published by University of California Press (Berkeley and LA; 2010; hb 353 pp) and retails for RRP US$34.95  or RRP A$55.95 in Australia.

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