Tempranillo is one of the oldest documented grape varietals. So I will start with the predictable by saying that Tempranillo tastes of leather and cherries. But then I will quickly move on to this grape’s colorful history, telling you how Celts, monks and wagon wheels wove their romance into this beautiful varietal’s heritage!
The name Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish word “temprano,” meaning ‘early.’ Tempranillo is one of those curious reds that matures several weeks earlier than most, and thrives in cooler climates. Grown primarily in Spain’s plateau Rioja region, these grapes are cultivated at a slightly higher elevation and moderately cooler climate than you would typically find such a robust red. (I say robust, as it is akin in flavor to Cabernet Sauvignon, with a more translucent color, due to its thinner skin.)
In Rioja, as in much of the Mediterranean, wine cultivation is attributable to the Phoenicians’ early seafaring travels, trade and settlement. Surprisingly, Celtic Iberians, sometimes called “Celtiberians,” are also credited with taking part in Tempranillo and other varietal cultivation. Yes, you read that right. Celts from the British Isles were industrious throughout the Mediterranean. In early Christian Era centuries, monks were the primary holders of winemaking secrets and cultivation, and as wine making spread to the private sector, others got involved, including the government.
In 1102, the King of Navarra and Aragon (nearby regions) first legally recognized the wine region “Rioja,” quickly followed by harvesters creating a symbol for labeling purposes in 1560 to represent the wine’s quality (followed by official documentation thereof in 1650). Early recognition of the wine’s high quality was evidenced further by a mayoral decree in 1635 that no carts could pass near wine cellars for fear of their vibrations interfering with the wines’ proper aging!
In 1790 foresighted officials, likely with an eye to economics, began to champion better roads and commercial routes specifically for optimal wine transport. In 1991, Rioja was honored as Spain’s first qualified denomination, ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada.’ There is no doubt that the Tempranillo varietal was one primary reason for this designation.
Although it is a tender varietal and prone to pests, the beauty of this grape is that it is easily combined with other varietals, mostly Grenache and Carignan (Spanish “Mazuela”). And in spite of its relative delicacy, it does travel and grow well in other areas, becoming a regularly blended varietal in wines all over the world.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Tempranillo. Please share them here.