Tempranillo has been a buzzword in international wine circles for decades, if not centuries, as the star grape behind what are two of the Spain’s most famous wine regions, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
When Spanish wine regions face off, everyone’s a winner. Tempranillo has been a buzzword in international wine circles for decades, if not centuries, as the star grape behind what is undoubtedly Spain’s most famous wine region, Rioja. This native Spanish grape is also grown in the neighboring region of Ribera del Duero, an exclusively red and rosé wine-producing area where this noble grape is sometimes referred to as Tinta del País or Tinta fino.
In both regions, Tempranillo yields red wines of outstanding quality that have an excellent capacity for long term aging, as well as noteworthy elegance, a brilliant hue and a fruity palate. However, despite the proximity of these northern Spanish regions, Tempranillo takes on different nuances and characteristics in each thanks to influences like climate, soil and wine making traditions. So, how do you tell them apart? And more importantly, which Tempranillo should you drink when and why? Let’s look at some of the factors and traits that distinguish the products of these two important Spanish wine regions.
Rioja & Tempranillo: where history and tradition meet
Rioja was the first Spanish region to be granted designation of origin status, a coup that was followed in 1991 with its promotion to one of only two Quality Designation of Origin (DOCa) denominations in Spain, a higher category used for wines that have proven and maintained their quality and consistency over time. The region is primarily located in the Autonomous Community of La Rioja and the Basque Country (in the province of Álava), as well as in small areas of Navarre. The three production areas are Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa, each of which has its own soil type and microclimate. Clay and chalky soils generally predominate in the region, and the climate is continental, even verging on Mediterranean (in Rioja Baja), yielding mild temperatures and more gradual ripening.
Although the region boasts different styles of Tempranillo wines (as well as excellent white wines made with other local grapes), most people think of Rioja as the traditional red wines from the Rioja Alta. These are made primarily from Tempranillo grapes, blended with small amounts of local Mazuelo and Graciano – the latter adding acidity – and then aged (typically) in American oak barrels that lend deep and complex notes of vanilla, coconut and spice. These blend perfectly with the sweet tannins and ripe red fruit (strawberries, plums, raspberries), noteworthy acidity, and spicy undertones of classic Rioja wines. In older wines, like the region’s Reserva and Gran Reserva wines – respectively aged a minimum of three and five years, or often much longer – these aromas can take on animal or “barny” nuances.
There are also wine makers, particularly in the Rioja Baja, who produce what is referred to as “corte moderna” (modern style) Tempranillo wines, which are often single-variety and have a more fruit-forward style and fuller body. Although these often have deeper, more concentrated colors, classic Tempranillo wines from Rioja are known for their light-to-medium ruby red color, whose transparency and hue make them easily distinguishable from the deep purply reds of Ribera del Duero.
Ribera del Duero & Tempranillo: The power of red
For its part, Ribera del Duero received Designation of Origin status in 1982, and many believe that DOCa status can't be long in coming for this prestigious region. Located primarily in southeastern Castile-León – where it spans the provinces of Burgos, Segovia, Valladolid and Soria – Ribera del Duero is characterized by soils rich in limestone, marl and clay (although they vary from zone to zone), and vineyards that can range as high as 3,500 feet. The area has an extreme continental climate and low rainfall. Bitterly cold winters and hot summers (with low temperatures at night) mean that the predominant Tempranillo grapes ripen faster here, leading to deeply concentrated fruit. This in turn yields the bold and robust wines of this region – the most classic of which are made with 100% Tempranillo grapes, although some Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Merlot and Malbec, may be added.
Intensely fruity, with notes of riper, darker fruits (cherries, blackberries, cassis), these wines are also oak-aged. Their deeply fruity notes are the stars of the show here, whereas in Rioja, the spiced notes of the oak (frequently French) and the sweet tannins often carry the wines. This intensity makes Ribera del Duero wines ideal for pairing with meat, particularly wild game and the region’s famous wood-roasted suckling lamb, where the wine’s robust acidity is the perfect complement to the silkiness of this flavorful meat. Suckling lamb is also an important dish in La Rioja. However it is typically served here as tiny lamb chops, often accompanied by the region’s red piquillo peppers and other famed vegetables, for which Rioja wines are the perfect compliment. Seafood is also well served by a classic Rioja if you're set on drinking a red.
So which style of Tempranillo should you choose and when? Well, that's entirely up to you. But I always think of Rioja when I picture a cozy fire, a pastoral valley dusted with snow, the smoky flavors of a crackling grill – a yearning for the companionship of an old friend. On the other hand, Ribera del Duero is a walk in a crisply cold, pine forest looking for wild mushrooms, or perhaps a wood burning stove and a five-hour lunch at a historic castle – a shock of elegance and freshness. Does that answer the question? If not, I encourage you to find out for yourselves. You won't regret the journey!
Text: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Photos: Pablo Neustadt / @ICEX, Patricia R. Soto / @ICEX, @IStock.