Tempranillo: A Guide to the Basics

It’s a key grape variety in Spain, and increasingly important from Portugal to Texas.

Tempranillo Wine Guide

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Tempranillo is at the heart of Rioja, Spain’s most iconic wine region. Rioja wines (the red ones, that is) are traditionally a blend that’s built on a base of Tempranillo and blended with Garnacha and occasionally Mazuelo. In Texas, it’s found an unexpected yet highly successful home, especially in the Hill Country and High Plains appellations. Meanwhile, in Portugal, it’s known as Tinta Roriz and can often be found in Port as well as the dry wines of the Douro Valley and Dāo regions. The variety’s Spanish name, which is the most commonly used around the world, is a reference to the fact that it tends to ripen a bit on the early side. In Spanish, “temprano” means early, and it’s the linguistic root of the name Tempranillo.

As temperatures continue to climb in much of the wine world as a result of climate change, Tempranillo’s ability to thrive even in hot, dry conditions promises a bright future for the grape. 

What is Tempranillo Wine?

Tempranillo is a red wine produced from the grape of the same name. In the so-called New World, it’s likely to be labeled as such, yet on labels from its classic growing regions of Spain, the name of the region is more likely to appear. Just know that the vast majority of red wines from Rioja are blends that are based on Tempranillo, and most of the great reds of Ribera del Duero are entirely Tempranillo. 

Where Does Tempranillo Wine Come From?

Tempranillo is most commonly produced in Spain. It’s a key variety in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, and also important in Navarra and Valdepeñas, as well as other places through the country, mostly the northern two thirds. In Toro, wines like those from Bodega Numanthia and Bodega Matsu are particularly notable. Tempranillo has seen some success in California, and pockets of the Pacific Northwest and Australia, yet it’s in Texas that this grape has arguably found its most unexpectedly effusive sense of success in the United States. 

Why Should You Drink Tempranillo Wine?

Tempranillo is capable of greatness both on its own and alongside other grape varieties. Its brambly berry and spice notes work well alone and lend serious depth to blends, and it can express both the terroir and the character of the growing season with effusiveness. It can be produced into dry wines that have the ability to age for decades, and contributes complexity to the sweet, fortified wines of Port. (The Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny Port, which incorporates the variety in the blend, is terrific, like the liquid version of the holiday season. It gushes with sweet spice, caramel bubbling on the stove, pralines, honey-coated roasted almonds, walnut brittle, dried figs, and white raisins, all of it decadent and balanced at the same time.)

Tempranillo also promises to become ever more important around the world in the coming decades as climate change continues to affect the growing conditions in regions from Rioja to Texas and beyond. Indeed, in many warming regions, Tempranillo is likely to become a more important part of the literal and figurative landscape, if it hasn’t already, given its ability to thrive in heat.

And at the table, it’s a fantastic pairing partner for a wide range of foods. Barbecue and grilled meats work very well with it, as does game. A youthful Rioja with a plate of Spanish ham is terrific, and alongside Manchego cheese, it makes for a perfect late-afternoon snack. And given the range of great Tempranillo-based wines available from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere, you can easily find a delicious one for less than $20. (You can spend much more, too.)

What Does Tempranillo Taste Like?

Tempranillo’s notes of brambly berries, cherries, and, in warmer climates and vintages, plums, find counterpoints in sweet and occasionally woodsy spice and hints of cigar tobacco. Its tannic structure allows it to age for a relatively long time, depending on how it’s been grown and vinified. As it ages, Tempranillo tends to take on more savory characteristics, like leather, cigar humidor, and earth. If it’s been aged in new oak, the classic spice notes of that wood vessel tend to grow more assertive.

Tempranillo should be served at slightly higher than cellar temperature, as warm Tempranillo-based wines can taste stewed and sometimes even prune-like. They are best enjoyed from Cabernet Sauvignon-style or universal red wine glasses, and decanting often opens them up and allows the underlying fruit and spice to shine through the tannins framing it all, especially in its youth. And the best of them tend to maintain a sense of acidity, which allows them to remain fresh and also to cut through richer foods.

Five Great Tempranillo Wines

There are countless great Tempranillo wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Tempranillo has to offer.

Abadia Retuerta

From the Castilla y León D.O. comes the 2016 Pago Negralada Viñedos Propios Tempranillo, a uniquely toasty expression of the variety that still shimmers with plenty of energy. It reminds me of eating black cherries by a bonfire in the middle of summer, and would pair well with everything from grilled steak to hard cheeses.

Beronia, Bodegas Montecillo, and Conde Valdemar

Beronia is a mainstay in many collections, and for good reason: The wines are consistently well-crafted and age-worthy. The 2015 Rioja Reserva, a blend of 95% Tempranillo with 4% Graciano and 1% Mazuelo is a well-defined, precise wine with mouthwatering cherries, huckleberries, and sweet spice. Also from 2015, the Montecillo Gran Reserva 22 Barricas is deeply spiced with cracked black peppercorn and savory with cured olives and tobacco, yet with enough cherries and plums to keep it generous. Tannins from the Tempranillo itself as well as from the oak aging make this appropriate for further evolution in the cellar, but it’s also drinking very well right now. And the 2015 Conde Valdemar Reserva, from a producer now in its fifth generation, drips with kirsch and pomegranate-syrup-drizzled dark chocolate truffles, a seam of spice lending it all tension and length, a flash of black licorice riding through the well-structured finish.

Familia Torres

From the venerable producer of standout wines throughout Spain, the excellent 2020 Clos Ancestral is a winner. It’s a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and the indigenous variety Moneu, all grown in a not-quite-40-acre vineyard in the Penedès D.O. Its energetic structure carries loads of black cherries dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, blackberries, violets, sweet tobacco, and cracked peppercorns.

La Rioja Alta

The highly respected La Rioja Alta crafts several expressions of Tempranillo, and the 2016 Viña Alberdi Rioja Reserva is a delicious one. Sweet root beer-like spice lends an extra layer of richness to velvet-textured notes of kirsch, chocolate ganache, and toasted vanilla.

Ron Yates, Pedernales, and Bending Branch

The 2017 Ron Yates Friesen Vineyards Tempranillo is generous and open-knit yet with wonderful structure that promises another decade of evolution. Still, I wouldn’t want to age it that long and miss out on all of this gorgeous fruit right now: Generous mulberries and blackberries, with licorice and candied violets pulsing beneath it all, vanilla, a hint of plums, and something that reminds me of tobacco. The spicy, brambly-berry rich 2019 Pedernales Tempranillo from the Texas High Plains and the dense, rich, plummy 2017 Newsom Vineyard Tempranillo from Bending Branch Winery are also worth acquiring for a collection…or, even better, for enjoying right away.

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