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Tempranillo is the most important grape used in the production of red Rioja and it is also the most widely grown and highly valued variety throughout the rest of the Spanish wine-producing regions. Tempranillo is also cultivated extensively in Portugal's Douro valley, where it is traditionally an important grape variety in the Port blend, as well as being increasingly cultivated in the Dão region south of the Douro in central Portugal. Its Portuguese name is Tinta Roriz and it is being made into very good quality table wines in both of these wine producing regions. It has attracted a degree of interest in its ability to make distinctive wines in Argentina, Australia and even California and plantings have increased as producers strive to make wines that capture the essence of the variety. Up until the early 1990s the most striking feature of the majority of red wines from Spain was overwhelmingly of wood. Wines such as Rioja were traditionally aged for years in oak barrels which had the effect of softening the wine but often at the expense of any fruit character. Experimentation with more modern techniques, including shorter maturation times before bottling, has allowed the grape's natural flavours to come to the fore and Tempranillo's natural fruit expression, one of strawberries, plums and blackcurrants, is much more apparent in such modern wines. It marries exceptionally well with oak, especially the small, new, American oak barrels that are increasingly used for the wines' shorter maturation, which adds vanilla and coconut to its secondary characteristics of leather, spice and tobacco leaves.

The name Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish word "temprano", meaning early, and this "little early one" is one of the very first grapes to ripen in the Iberian peninsula. By the same token it is also a very early budding grape variety and consequently late spring frosts can be problematic for its cultivation. Another potential drawback is that its skins are not particularly thick and it grows in tight bunches so that when it rains a lot during the late growing season, not exactly unknown in Rioja, rot can take hold and decimate the harvest. Traditionally Garnacha (Grenache) and Graciano are also grown in Rioja not only to add both weight and acidity to the Rioja blend but also to offset Tempranillo's potential harvest problems. Tempranillo by itself makes medium-bodied wines with a medium level of acidity. It will partner most meats well but is especially recommended with roast lamb dishes.

History of Tempranillo

Tempranillo's history has a narrative that is unclear. It is believed that the vine was originally introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the ancient Phoenicians who sailed from what is the modern-day Lebanon. Indeed a 66 meter mosaic depicting Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was discovered at Baños de Valdearados in Ribera del Duero which suggests a wine-making culture dating back more than 2,000 years. The first written documentation of the grape dates from the 14th. century. One theory was that Tempranillo was a mutation of Pinot Noir cuttings which had been brought to Spain by Cistercian monks making their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Recent DNA profiling has refuted this hypothesis and has shown that Tempranillo's parentage consists of Albillo Mayor and Benedicto. The former is still grown throughout Spain today but the latter variety is rare as is any documentation. Further DNA research has revealed close links with the Argentinian grape variety Criolla and it is believed that Spanish conquistadores introduced Tempranillo to the Americas in the 17th. century. In 1905 it was introduced to California where it failed to prosper due to the fact that it was unsuited to the very warm lowland vineyards and also due to the growing mood for prohibition which made it an inauspicious time. In the last few decades rather more success has been gained with plantings in more mountainous areas where there is a high diurnal temperature range.

Tempranillo Wines

The very best Tempranillo wines are produced in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Both regions feature high plateaux which are exposed to day-time temperatures as high as 40°C but which also experience comparatively low night-time temperatures. Such a diurnal range serves to retain malic acid levels while encouraging the slow accumulation of phenolic compounds such as tannins and anthocyanins which affect mouth-feel and colour respectively. Rioja is sold either as an un-oaked, fruity young wine (joven) or with increasingly long periods of oak ageing. For wines labelled crianza the regulations stipulate one year in oak and one in bottle, reserva wines spend one year in oak and at least two in bottle and the highest category, called gran reserva, spend at least two years in oak and a minimum of three years in bottle. There are many famous producers of Rioja including López de Heredía, Marques de Riscal, Marques de Murrieta, Contino, Bodegas Muga and CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte del España). In Ribera del Duero there is a fairly common consensus that Bodegas Vega Sicilia stands above all others with its Unico bottling which includes a small proportion of Bordeaux varieties. Tinto Pesquera, Moro and Dominio de Pingus produce wines that are contenders for the top position.

North of the Duero River lies the smaller wine-producing region of Toro where a local, looser-bunched sub-variety of Tempranillo called Tinta de Toro makes very fruity wines although new wine-making talent is moving in and beginning to produce wines that are more subtle in character and intended for longer ageing. Elswhere in Spain Tempranillo is grown under a variety of local names - Cencibel in Valdepeñas, Tinta del País or Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero and Ull de Llebre in Catalonia. Perhaps the best table wine that Portugal produces, the Douro's Barca Velha, comprises only 20% Tinto Roriz as it is known in Portuguese but it is widely used in table wines from the Douro, Dão and Alentejo in the south of the country where it is known as Aragoês and produces quite rounded, plump wines. In California, where it is very much a minor variety in terms of area under vine, it can make wines that have a slightly different flavour profile with notes of tomato and cherry. In Argentina it is known as Tempranilla and makes fuller wines without the danger of autumnal rain that dogs Rioja in some years.


  1. Faustino Gran Reserva, Rioja, 1976

    Faustino Gran Reserva, Rioja, 1976

    This Faustino Gran Reserva Rioja is a Tempranillo dominated blend with a small proportion of both Graciano and Mazuelo grapes.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Tempranillo
    Country Spain


    Out of stock

  2. Lopez de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Reserva, Rioja, 2001

    Lopez de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Reserva, Rioja, 2001

    A wine with fantastic concentration - full of ripe fruits caressed by oak with a nose to rival the best, this medium-bodied red Rioja from the Lopez de Heredia winery combines maturity with elegance.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Tempranillo
    Country Spain

    Out of stock

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