Tempranillo: A Grape By Any Other Name…

By Alex Fondren

In honor of 2014’s annual International Tempranillo Day on November 12th, Charles Communications Associates hosted a popular Brandlive virtual tasting featuring top Tempranillo bottlings from the Lodi region. It was illuminating to experience a lineup like this, not only because the wines proved superlative for the category, but also because it made me realize how rare it is to experience a domestic Tempranillo horizontal at all.

Tempranillo cluster (note the black skin)

Tempranillo cluster (note the black skin)

Even within the wine industry, it’s just not a grape that gets a lot of ink (ironic, given its marked inky-black hue!). After brushing up on my WSET materials (and perhaps a little Jancis) it’s definitely back on my radar – such a versatile, food-friendly variety deserves to play a far more pivotal role in our weekly wine adventures. 

The principal grape in Rioja, Spain Tempranillo is so named because its grapes tend to ripen several weeks earlier (early = temprano) than its red counterparts. It is also commonly known as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais (in Ribera del Duero) Tinto del Toro (in the Toro), and Tinto Roriz (in Portugal), and less-commonly known as Cencibel, Ojo de Llebre, Aragonez and a half-dozen other names depending on where it’s grown.  It inexplicably arrived in California in the early 20th century as ‘Valdepeñas’.

Vega Sicilia 'Unico': Ribera's most legendary bottling

Vega Sicilia 'Unico': Ribera's most legendary bottling

Tempranillo’s seemingly schizophrenic nomenclature is no accident – though almost always marked by its black, medium-thick skin, it can take on a dizzying multitude of seeming opposing structural and flavor characteristics depending on the area in which it’s grown (making it a difficult grape for a wine novice to get their head around). It can thrive in various climates, but will produce very different results.

While cooler-climate Rioja Tempranillo can be relatively light and elegant (some say ‘pinot-like’), its warmer Toro counterparts produce a darker, jammier version. Portuguese Tempranillo (often used in Port) is often described as fragrant and spicy while Ribera del Duero’s version can be almost Cabernet-like - quite savory, tannic and built for long-term aging, much like Left Bank Bordeaux.

Wherever grown, Tempranillo tends to maintain its leathery, tobacco-laden flavor profile - as the illustrative Jancis Robinson puts it, “There is something sappy, fresh and vegetal about it, but also something definitively masculine, the sort of smells you would expect to find in a stereotypical gentleman's dressing room - which is, I suppose, where the leather comes in.”

Beautiful label spotted on the Forces of Nature Tempranillo

Beautiful label spotted on the Forces of Nature Tempranillo

Ironically, ‘traditional’ Spanish Rioja was aged in American oak for several years, imparting a vanilla-tinged, dill character that often masked much of Tempranillo’s nuanced flavors. Modern winemakers are starting to experiment with shorter aging periods and subtler French oak in order to better showcase the grape’s varietal character.

One thing I love about Tempranillo is the fact that the average American consumer doesn’t tend to have established pre-conceptions of what Tempranillo ‘should’ taste like in the same way that she often does with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel and even Sangiovese. Winemakers who experiment with the variety in the United States are therefore free to let the grape express itself exactly how the soils and climate intend.

TAPAS President and St. Amant Winery vintner Stuart Spencer calls Tempranillo "A grower's grape" and advocates its food-friendly structure - especially when it comes to paella

TAPAS President and St. Amant Winery vintner Stuart Spencer calls Tempranillo "A grower's grape" and advocates its food-friendly structure - especially when it comes to paella

California’s climate and microclimates are quite similar to Spain’s, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that American winemakers are finding success with Tempranillo. The versions I have tasted from California (and one from New Mexico) over the last few years have left me wondering why domestic Tempranillo hasn’t taken off in the same way its Grenache and Sangiovese counterparts have of late.

In spite of the fact that it’s the sixth most widely planted grape in the world, I do think its moderate growth in the US has something to do with its somewhat nebulous consumer recognition factor here. But American winemakers are slowly making efforts to change Tempranillo’s perception (or more importantly, its lack thereof).

I was recently honored to become an ‘Amigo’ of the Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society. Made up of an impressive cadre of visionary winemakers, TAPAS has the goal of promoting Tempranillo and other varietal wine grapes native to the Iberian Peninsula, and wines produced from them in North America.

Lineup of Lodi Tempranillo for CCA's November 2014 Brandlive tasting (Photo Credit: PullThatCork.com)

Lineup of Lodi Tempranillo for CCA's November 2014 Brandlive tasting (Photo Credit: PullThatCork.com)

TAPAS will be putting on their 8th annual grand tasting showcasing dozens of wineries from all over the state on April 26th at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco’s Presidio.

For those who wish to test their Tempranillo savvy (or who simply want to educate their palates on the variety), there will be a ‘Tempranillo Shootout” seminar where four Spanish Tempranillos will be pitted (blind) against four of their American counterparts, with wines chosen by moderator Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits and the LA Times.

Full event schedule:  

                12:00 Noon - 1:30 p.m.  – Tempranillo Shootout.  Tickets are $75, and include early admission to the Consumer Tasting directly afterward.   

                1:00 - 2:00 p.m.  – Trade/Media Tasting.  Qualified members of the wine trade and media may register using the appropriate link below: 

Trade Registration

Media Registration 

•                2:00 - 5:00 p.m. - Consumer Tasting.  Tickets are $55.  In conjunction with the walk-around tasting, the TAPAS Wine School (included with admission) will feature informative consumer-oriented seminars:

       Albariño: Taste an exciting selection of Albariño wines vinified by premier American wine producers specializing in Iberian grape varietal wines made in the USA.

       Iberian Medley: An assortment of lesser-known domestically-produced Iberian varietal wines. 

Tickets to the Tempranillo Shootout and Consumer Tasting are now on sale at tapas15.eventbrite.com

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All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.