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While Rioja is known the world over, the main grape variety used in its production is less of a household name. Chris Losh shares the secrets of this most Spanish of grapes
Tempranillo. What do you mean, you’ve never drunk it? It’s planted all over Spain, appears in almost every bottle of Rioja and is starting to interest winemakers from the New World as well. So the chances are that you have tried it, you just haven’t realised it.
Like most European countries, Spain (until recently) didn’t really ‘do’ varietal labelling – the practice of telling you the grape varieties used to make the wine – which explains why the grape might not be ringing as many bells as it should. Because make no mistake, Tempranillo is one of the big stars of the wine world. The trouble is, it hasn’t travelled much yet or learned to speak English. It’s Penélope Cruz 10 years ago…
But in Spain, it’s a megastar. It’s the numero uno red grape variety in Rioja and Ribera del Duero; and even in places like Navarra that have no problem using non-Spanish grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s often on stage in a supporting role.
There is a school of thought, in fact, that Tempranillo is at its best when combined with a little dollop of something like Cabernet Sauvignon. On its own, it gives wine with a lovely soft, juicy mid-palate, often with flavours of strawberries or redcurrants. Add in Cabernet’s trademark blackcurrant intensity and firm tannins, so the thinking goes, and you end up with a wine that has it all: structure, flavour, aromatics and a juicy mid-palate. Even in Rioja, there are those who think it should be permitted to mix the grape with its French counterpart.
"Make no mistake, Tempranillo is one of the big stars of the wine world"
A far greater majority, however, think this is wrong: that Rioja must remain defiantly Spanish, and while that often means a percentage of Garnacha (aka Grenache) in the mix, essentially Rioja is
all about Tempranillo. In good years, the wines have a winsome combination of ripe fruit, freshness and a whiff of violet aromatics. They can also age, as anyone who’s tried a 10-year-old Rioja
Reserva will testify. Tempranillo, say the traditionalists, doesn’t need any help.
The point becomes even harder to ignore once you take a look at the wines of Ribera del Duero. Ribera’s high, dry vineyards soak up sun during the day and cool right off at night, giving wines of real intensity. Dark, rich and even brooding, these are wines that will turn your teeth purple and absolutely cry out for a great lump of steak or lamb.
The beauty of Tempranillo, though, is that for all its ability to make expensive, ageworthy wines for special occasions, it’s also happy knocking out cheap, simple bottles of glug that work with a Tuesday night pasta or a Friday night take-away on the sofa.
All of which makes it surprising that it hasn’t really travelled beyond Spain’s borders, other than to Portugal, where it’s known as Tinta Roriz. It has some presence in Argentina, and the Aussies are looking at it too. But really if you want to try it, stick to Spain. Although you probably knew that already… even if you didn’t realise it!
Navarra, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Toro
Chivite (Navarra); Pesquera, Pingus, Vega Sicilia (Ribera del Duero); Contino, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Murrieta, Muga (Rioja)