Historically there are six “noble grapes” of the wine world: three red (merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir) and three white (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling). They get this acclaim for their appeal and ubiquitous plantings in all the major wine-producing regions of the world. It’s also common for a country to have its own “noble grape,” and if you’re talking Spain, that would certainly be tempranillo (tem-prah-NEE-yoh).
Believed to have received its name from the Spanish word “temprano,” meaning early, this grape is an early-ripening variety that can perform in an enormous range of climates and soils. In fact, due to this versatility, you may find tempranillo under several monikers across Spain’s outstanding wine-producing regions. No matter where you find it, you will find flavors of strawberries, spices, leather and fresh tobacco, with an ability to turn savory and earthy with bottle aging. There’s no better place to begin your journey than in Rioja with Lopez De Heredia Vina Bosconia 2007. On my last visit to the Old Homestead at Borgata I was pleasantly surprised to see this in stock for $77.
In the DO of Ribera del Duero, tempranillo is known as “tinta del pais,” where wines here are often bottled varietally, though some famous producers like Vega Sicilia, also at Old Homestead, are blended with the Bordeaux varieties of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Tempranillo from here is often elegant, well-balanced and rivals Rioja in terms of age worthiness.
DO is an abbreviation for Denominacion de Origen. It is the Spanish system for wine classification. To qualify for DO status, wines must meet specific requirements such as: geographic areas where grapes must be grown, grape varieties, vineyard practices and alcohol content, to name a few. It is very similar to the AOC of France.
The DO of Toro calls this grape, perhaps not coincidentally, “tinta de Toro.” For the cabernet sauvignon drinker, this one is for you. Here the wines can be very full-bodied and rich, thanks to the hot, dry climate. In fact, the grapes build sugars so quickly, the rules for production state that the alcohol level cannot exceed 15 percent. Be sure to check out Bodegas Numanthia Termes Toro Termes 2012 at Passion Vines in Egg Harbor Township for $24.99.
Catalunya or Catalonia is the DO near Barcelona, where there are several sub-regions experimenting with different tempranillo-based blends, where the grape here is called “ull de llebre.” The most popular blends from this region are done with monastrell, the super-dense, chewy, concentrated grape variety that gives lots of alcohol and dark fruit flavors.
While this strays outside of Spain, Portugal relies on tempranillo — where it is called “tinta roriz” — as an important grape in creating the great fortified port wines. Here it acts as a counterbalance for the other local grapes in the blend and adds structure for the long-haul, especially in vintage port.
Confused? Don’t be. All you really need to know is that there is so much to explore with just one grape variety acting as the star of the show. Try a few examples for yourself and taste the difference.