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Tempranillo: Spain’s King of Grapes

For red wine lovers, experimenting with different grape varieties is essential. But if you think swapping your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon for a Merlot qualifies as exploring, you’re missing the boat. Steer that boat towards Europe and dock it somewhere in Spain, where the wonderful Tempranillo grape is king. Tempranillo has ancient roots in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine-producing regions, where it has been grown for over 2,000 years, but it is now increasingly used in other locations such as Valdepeñas and Penedès. Nearby Portugal also uses Tempranillo extensively, where it goes by synonyms such as Aragonez and Tinta Roriz. Some bold New World producers are working with Tempranillo, most notably at Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., at Abacela Vineyards in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and at Verdad and Longoria along California’s Central Coast. Yet for many non-Europeans, Tempranillo remains a mysterious grape, which is a shame as it’s very versatile with food and offers amazing value across many price points.

Just why do our Iberian friends love this grape so much? Tempranillo is kind of like the love-child of brawny Cabernet and seductive Pinot Noir; it has the tannic structure and deep color that Cab lovers adore but offers incredible complexity of aromas and subtleties that will appeal to Pinot Noir fans, especially if the Tempranillo is allowed to age for long periods of time. On the nose, Tempranillo typically offers dark cherry and cranberry fruit notes with elements of leather, green herbs and vanilla. Notably, the choice of oak barrels is a critical one for traffickers of Temp. Despite its proximity to the oak forests of France, Rioja producers often use American oak barrels, which can add dimensions of dill and coconut to this aromatic soup.

Just how long Tempranillo wines are aged both in oak barrels and in bottle varies from region to region. From juicy, fruity, young Crianza wines to elegant, incredibly complex Gran Reserva bottlings, Rioja is the place to start your tasting journey. Essentially, Rioja producers age the wine for you, by cellaring their bottles for years before releasing them to the market, which is a handy trick for consumers who might not have a huge wine cellar to stash their collections. A bit further to the south, the Ribera del Duero region offers high altitude vineyard sites and a big contrast between hot days and dramatically cooler nights. This is what Tempranillo digs, quite literally, as it helps the vines’ roots work to produce more intense grape flavors on the vine.

What to eat with Tempranillo-based wines? The answer is … pretty much anything! They’re substantial enough for meaty stews and steaks, particularly those made in a youthful, fruit-forward style and aged in American oak. Older wines made from Tempranillo will show complex secondary aromas, and pair beautifully with cheeses and cured meats. Interested in easy entertaining? Consider inviting some friends over for an evening of Spanish wines and cheeses.