Jun 25, 2021
A Look at Tempranillo and What Makes It Spain's Flagship Varietal
Does any grape have as many synonyms as Tempranillo? Most of these are Spanish – not surprising given that it’s the country’s most planted red variety by far – but if you throw in a few more from places like Italy, Malta and Portugal, you quickly arrive at nearly 70 different names for this world-class cultivar.
Such a range of aliases is a tribute to the diversity of Tempranillo and the high regard in which it’s held across a swathe of wine regions. It’s as if each area wants to claim the grape as its own. Our Tempranillo is different, they seem to be saying. It’s adapted to our conditions over time – a long time in some instances – and reflects and expresses our terroir. It’s no accident in my view that Castilla-La Mancha, Penedès, Ribera del Duero, Rioja and Toro all call it something different.
It’s not just that Tempranillo is clonally diverse – Roda in Rioja has more than 500 of them in its experimental nursery in Villalba. It also makes a wide range of wine styles, sometimes within the same region. In fact, I’d say its adaptability is part of its appeal. Tempranillo can produce everything from juicy, carbonic maceration-style quaffers to some of the most serious and age-worthy reds on the planet. It works with or without oak and with differing levels of alcohol, tannin and concentration. It’s also capable of producing exceptional wines on its own, as well as in partnership with grapes as various as Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo and Merlot.
Spain has 87% of all the Tempranillo in the world. And I don’t think it’s questionable to argue that nearly all of the best examples are made there. In that respect, it’s a bit like Sangiovese in Italy, another variety that is capable of great things at home, but isn’t a happy traveler.
That’s why, in the end, Tempranillo is surely Spain’s most distinctive grape. There are people who argue that Garnacha is a more noble variety, but the point about Garnacha is that its greatness is spread across the globe. Spain makes fantastic Garnachas, all right, but so do Australia, France and South Africa. Where Tempranillo is concerned, Spain is out on its own. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the country’s signature red.