With red fruits, spices and a healthy amount of oak, tempranillo brings a decidedly Spanish flavour to the table. It’s neutrality allows the wine of this grape to offer as wide a range of experiences as any other red.

For those outside of Spain, ordering a bottle of tempranillo might be an uncommon affair, not least for the confusion surrounding the pronunciation of the name (temp-rah-nee-yo for those playing at home). 

But any initial hesitation is usually dismissed at the first sip, with this versatile wine proving to be the ultimate dinner date. Be it blended with grenache or merlot, or bottled by itself, tempranillo is continental red wine in its most unique, affordable and appealing form.

A Spanish affair 

The first thing most people notice about tempranillo is its name. Unlike the particularly French designations of “cabernet sauvignon”, “pinot gris” and “Champagne’, tempranillo has a decidedly Spanish sound. The name is actually the diminutive of the Spanish term “temprano” meaning “early” – a reference to the grape’s tendency to ripen weeks before other Spanish red grape varieties. The etymology of the name also hints to the grape’s ancient origins. 

Like many ancient varieties, the origins of tempranillo are uncertain. The most generous theories suggest that the variety has been used for winemaking for the past 3000 years, which would make it the oldest grape still used in wine production today. This argument is counterbalanced by the fact that the earliest official mention of the variety was recorded only in 1807. 

Sitting in the hilly north of Spain, Rioja is the most famous tempranillo growing region in the world. Over 16,000 vineyards produce largely tempranillo, but also viura, garnacha (grenache), graciano and mazuelo.

Tempranillo takes to travel

Tempranillo was long known as a particularly fussy and difficult vine to grow in anything but the conditions that it had evolved to excel in. It was this fact that caused production to be contained almost entirely within a few small regions in Spain. But as the world began to get a taste for the variety demand soon encouraged international vineyards to make a proper fist of cultivation. 

One of the first new-world destinations was the US, where tempranillo was imported in the early 20th century. This unfortunately coincided with the rise of the prohibition movement, which led to a reception best described as tepid. It was only in the 1990s that American tempranillo – generally from California, Texas or Oregon – began to make a name for itself. The Spanish influence in Chile, Argentina and Mexico also saw the grape being ever more widely planted in these countries as the twentieth century progressed. 

From a small cottage industry in the 90s, Australian tempranillo production has since gone from strength to strength. Areas like McLaren Vale and the Northeast Victoria have been found to offer ideal growing conditions for the grape, and now over 300 different Australian wineries boast tempranillo vines.

''Blended tempranillo wines are more common than pure tempranillo wines, largely due to the fact that tempranillo has a neutral flavour profile when compared to most other grapes, and readily takes on other characteristics.'' 

Tempering the taste 

In tempranillo you’ll get an instant hit of purple and red fruits, most notably plum, cherry, tomato and dried fig. The American or French oak of the barrel will then come to the fore, along with cedar, leather and a hint of tobacco. Spice notes of clove, vanilla and dill also commonly feature. 

Blended tempranillo wines are more common than pure tempranillo wines, largely due to the fact that tempranillo has a neutral flavour profile when compared to most other grapes, and readily takes on other characteristics. For this reason blends can be made up of as much as 90% tempranillo, with grenache or viura most commonly making up the balance.

Tempranillo is also more capable than most of taking on the flavour of the barrel in which it is aged. This makes for a marked difference in a wine that is barrelled for a short time versus one that is aged generously – the same wine can go from fresh and fruity in the former to complex, dark and distinct in the latter. 

An adaptable tablemate, tempranillo can be paired with a wide variety of foods, making it perfect for a night of tapas. But to truly showcase the wine, choose an Italian dish with a tomato-based sauce or barbecued meats.

Uncorking the classic or contemporary

For the true tempranillo experience, purchase a Gran Reserva (a wine that has been aged for 10 or more years) from Rioja. Torres and Alion offer the finest tempranillos in the world, and can be surprisingly affordable. 

On Australian shores the likes of Heirloom, Serafino and Jericho offer up unique and contemporary takes on this Spanish icon.

Tempranillo titbits

  • Despite Spain playing host to over 80% of the world’s tempranillo vines, the variety is still the fourth most planted grape in the world.

  • Tempranillo is one of the Nine Red Noble Grapes – grape varieties chosen for their quality and historical significance to represent the full breadth of wine experience.

  • If you’re a fan of autumn it makes for the perfect time to visit a tempranillo vineyard, as these vines are one of the few that turn bright red as the temperature begins to cool.

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