Tempranillo is an indigneous Spanish red wine grape variety. It is thick-skinned and capable of high alcohols, although as the root of its name Temprano suggests, Tempranillo ripens early. It is is the foundation of Spain's most famous regional brand, Rioja, and is particularly well suited to higher vineyards in the sub-zones of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, where it is blended with varying degrees of Garnacha and Mazuelo (Carignan). Tempranillo is capable of classic, long lived wines.
In Rioja, the quality tiers of Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Grand Reserva are defined by the time a wine has spent in wood, traditionally older American oak. Even rosé and white wines spend the prerequisite period in oak in the hands of traditionalists such as Bodega Lopez de Heredia.
Modern practitioners, however, have largely adopted new French barrique as their vessel for ageing. They have spread their influence further west to Ribera del Duero and Toro, as well as to Rioja's warmer sites. Their styles are predicated by picking late and manicuring Tempranillo's blueberry aromas and dusty tannins into forceful, yet smooth wines of a satiny velour.
This is Tempranillo of the New Spain, or wines of the Alta Esprecioñ as these styles have become known. Examples include Pingus, Roda, Numanthia and Mauro. While it is easy to criticize many of these wines given the sameness to their mould, their high Parker points were responsible for reaffirming Spain as a wine culture to be reckoned with, especially throughout the nineties when Spain's economic boom and the country's growing reputation for creative cuisine was palpable.
However today, the Spanish economy has weakened and possibly, Parker's influence among taste-makers has waned. So too has the cachet of the Alta Esprecioñ and Tempranillo in its most extracted guise. Few of the Alta Esprecioñ have any resale value. Ironically, it is to the traditional mid-weighted and more savoury expressions that sommeliers and buyers turn. After all, Vinã Tondonia and Rioja Alta's wines, for example, are inimitable; while Vega-Sicilia transcends attempts to shoehorn it into any boxes of tradition or modernity and remains an iconic wine. Conversely, Alta Esprecioñ styles can be made anywhere.
Tempranillo is also found in the Penèdes where it is known as Ull de Llebre and in la Mancha and Valdepeñas where it is known as Cencibel. Like everything else in this flat and arid zone, it is heavily irrigated and rendered as entry-level wine. It is also increasingly found in Costers del Segre, Navarra and Somontano. In neighbouring Portugal, Tempranillo goes by the name of Tinta Roriz and is used as a relatively inconsequential blending agent in Port.
Tempranillo's suitability to a wide range of soil types and arid landscapes suggests a bright future for the grape in Australia. Experimental plantings abound, with McLaren Vale producers such as Cascabel and Gemtree showing great promise.