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by Staff Writer - R. Meoki | April 09, 2011

Tempranillo is a primary red wine grape for much of Spain. It is also a key blending varietal (a wine made principally from one grape and carrying the name of that grape). Tempranillo aromas often combine elements of berries fruit, and herbs. Deep rich red in color, wines made from the Tempranillo grape produce plum-blackberry flavors with undertones of herbs, vanilla and leather. While Tempranillo can have a distinctive character, it can be easily overpowered by oak. The wines present a full body, especially when aged for several years in oak barrels. Not often bottled as a stand-alone varietal, Tempranillo wine is frequently used as the base variety in blends, with its most frequent mixes being Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Grenache. In Spain’s Rioja region, Tempranillo is blended with Grenache and Carignan to produce more acidic wines.

Tempranillo has been termed Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the country’s most important red grape variety and is the main grape in Rioja wines. It was once rarely used outside of Spain except for blending. Tempranillo is now making itself at home in Australia, California and South America. When it is still young, Tempranillo is mellower, a smoother drinking wine than a Cabernet. Like Cabernet, Tempranillo has the alcohol and tannins to age well.

Tempranillo Grapes

Tempranillo comes from the Spanish word “temprano” which means “early” and it was so named because it ripens earlier than most red grape varieties. Tempranillo goes by many names. Inside Spain it goes by Cencibel, Ojo de Liebre (“eye of the hare”), Tinta de Pais, Tinto Fino, Tinta de toro and Tinto de Madred. In Portugal it is known as Tinta Roriz. It’s also been grown in California for grape juice and jug wines and called Valdepenas.

Tempranillo only needs a short growing season because of its tendency for early ripening. Tempranillo vines tend to be more genetically stable than most varieties, but a mutant clone that produces yellow-green grapes, rather than the normal blue-black ones, was isolated in Rioja in the 1980s and has been distributed to growers by the Spanish government.

Tempranillo vines prefer a cooler climate and have low resistance to many vine diseases and pests. The vines themselves tolerate heat well, but the fruit can develop unwanted flavors and undesirable characteristics in warmer climes. The vines can have a tendency to over-crop and the clusters are usually large.

Tempranillo grapes tend to be low both in overall acidity and in sugar, but often high in pH, and nearly always high in tannins from their thick skins. The low acidity of the Tempranillo grape leads most winemakers to blend it with other wines to keep its body after aging. To make Rioja wines, winemakers sometimes use as much as 90 percent Tempranillo grapes in their blends.

Prominent in world viticulture (cultivation of grapes) in Spain, small amounts of Tempranillo are also grown in California and Oregon. Grown initially just in mainland Spain, specifically the La Rioja and Valdepeñas regions, Tempranillo vines prospered in their northern, high-altitude climates. Those provinces which receive abundant warm sunshine during the day and cooler temperatures at night best suit the Tempranillo vines growing culture.

Tempranillo Food Pairings

Tempranillo is best served at a temperature range between 61º-65º F. Most believe that the same foods that go well with Cabernet Sauvignon, also pair well with Tempranillo-based wines. The food pairings that go best are beef, ham, lamb, pork, olives, sausage, spareribs, hard cheeses and other spicy foods. Other good choices are Spanish dishes such as paella and various Spanish-style appetizers such as tapas.

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