What is Tempranillo?

Azienda Agricola Beconcini Pietro, il tempranillo della Toscana
Fabio Ingrosso/Flickr

Much of Spain's red wine glory hinges upon the jammy, soft red and black fruit of the Tempranillo grape. Found primarily in the northern regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero along with the centrally located La Mancha, Tempranillo tends to dominate as a single bottle variety and is also a key player in many Garnacha based blends. It produces a medium to full-bodied red wine with lower acidity, decent tannins, and full fruit flavor characteristics.

The Many Names of Tempranillo

It's not unusual for a grape in one region to go by a different moniker in another wine producing country. Take French Syrah for instance, the same grape wears the rowdy, Aussie-induced label of "Shiraz," in the land down under. Similar naming themes run deep with the Grenache/Garnacha grape. In France, it's the easy flowing "Grenache," in Spain separate syllables remain in vogue and this less tannic red goes by the more rustic sound of "Garnacha." When it comes to Tempranillo, the rules change. With no less than eight synonyms for this single grape, five of which are in Spain (Tinta de Toro, Tinta del Pais, Tinto Fino, Ull de Llebre, Cencibel) and are regionally derived and two (Aragonez and Tinta Roriz) reside in Portugal, Tempranillo can cause some serious consumer confusion. Fortunately, the term Tempranillo tags many bottle labels these days, as do the regional place names of Rioja or Ribera del Duero.

Flavor Profile

Styles vary when it comes to how Tempranillo is handled in the bottle. Ranging from light to medium bodied, with soft pliable tannins and often carrying a heady mix of red and black berry fruit, Tempranillo can come across as a cozy cousin to Pinot Noir sans the acid profile that can give Pinot that extra little lift.

Prone to easy ripening in the warm weather regions of north and central Spain, this particular grape would benefit from the cooling effects of ocean breezes, altitude and diurnal temperature swings to gather in a bit more acidity during the process of physiological ripening. Taking easily to oak, the winemaking temptation can sometimes lean in the direction of over-oaking, resulting in a wine that lacks forward fruit and can come across full of vanilla, leather and a little dry and dusty. Another aspect of Tempranillo that tends to show well in the glass is that of an innate earthiness (again similar to Pinot Noir). This earthy character can take the form of tobacco in older vintages and adds both depth and dimension as the primary fruit recedes and the wine's evolution continues.

Food Pairings

Tempranillo wines are perhaps one of the most food friendly wines around. They offer versatility and value - without forsaking flavor and palate engagement. Consider pairing Tempranillo with hometown favorites - tapas, pork, grilled or roasted steak, chorizo themes and poultry picks.The local love of Manchego cheese makes plenty of room for a glass of Tempranillo as does all forms of the famed regionally-inspired Iberian ham (known as Jamón).

Producers to try:

Baron de Ley, CVNE, Faustino, Gramercy Cellars (WA), La Rioja Alta, Marques de Caceres, Montecillo, Muga, Muriel, Osborne

Pronunciation: Temp-ra-knee-oh