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Carl Hudson
April 28, 2024 | Carl Hudson

Carl's Corner - Tempranillo Grape Variety, Neighbors, and Blending Partners

In anticipation of the upcoming Taste of Texas: Tempranillo Showdown at the Texas Wine Collective Event Center on Sunday, 19-May-2024, this post offers information on the Tempranillo grape variety and some of its neighbors and blending partners.

Tempranillo is the fourth most widely planted red wine grape in the world and is most famous for making fine red wines in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro regions of Spain. It is also one of the key grapes grown in the Douro region of Portugal and used in production of Port wines and, these days, many dry red table wines. It is believed that Phoenicians introduced wine grapes to Spain, so the Tempranillo that originated in Spain may well be related to ancient Phoenician species from Lebanon in the Middle East.

Tempranillo is known by various names on the Iberian Peninsula: Tempranillo in Rioja; Tinto Fino in many areas; Cencibel in Valdepenas and La Mancha; Tinta de Toro in Toro; Tinta del Pais in Ribera del Duero; Ull de Llebre in Catalonia; Aragonez in Portugal’s central Alentejo region; and Tinta Roriz in the Douro Valley.

The climate in these regions is hot and dry with a desert-like diurnal temperature shift of 25-40oF between the nighttime low and daytime high. Portions of these Iberian regions sit at relatively high elevations (1,500-2,000 ft above sea level) and in certain areas look a lot like places in Texas, especially the High Plains. Other parts of the wine world also have similar climates where Tempranillo is thriving, like southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, southern Washington, northern Arizona, as well as some elevated regions in Australia, South America, and Mexico.

In Oregon, the grape was introduced by Earl Jones of Abacela Vineyards and Winery in the southern Umpqua Valley AVA where hot summer days and cooler overnights seem perfect for Tempranillo. Plantings in the Yakima Valley AVA in Washington follow the same trend. In Australia, Tempranillo is grown in the McLaren Vale region and in North East Victoria. There are also significant plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico.

The name Tempranillo is derived from the word “temprano”, meaning “early”. This early nature of the variety can cause some issues here in Texas. Tempranillo buds early in the springtime bringing danger of frost damage from early cold temperature events. There are many different clones of Tempranillo, and Texas grape growers continue to experiment to find the one(s) that works best in particular vineyard locations and growing conditions, especially clones that bud and bloom later to help prevent spring frost damage.

Tempranillo is also an early ripening grape, often ready to harvest before most other red varieties and alongside later maturing white varieties. When winemakers are focused on white wine harvests and production, seeing bins of red Tempranillo grapes arrive on the crush pad can cause some measure of frustration as shifts in techniques and equipment are needed to make red wines. However, Tempranillo produces delicious wines in Texas and winemakers most often shrug off the inconveniences involved.

Although Tempranillo is planted in many locations across the Lone Star State, it seems to do best on the Texas High Plains where sandy loam soils, high elevation to promote more productive photosynthesis, and significant diurnal temperature variations favor this variety. The cooling effect of dropping from daytime highs of 90-100oF down to nighttime lows of 50-60oF allows vines to take a break from their process of photosynthesis and “rest” during cooler nighttime temperatures. This helps the vines to integrate natural sugars and flavor components in the grapes. This creates the added advantage of a longer “hangtime” to reach greater physiological ripeness, preserve more of the grapes’ natural acidity, and enhance various flavor components.

Tempranillo offers a relatively mild flavor profile with red fruit characteristics (think cherry) and an earthy minerality often associated with classic European wines (think dusty, almost chalky at the finish). When grown well and ripened sufficiently, typical notes of leather, tobacco, dried cherry, strawberry, tomato, and sandy earth (think Texas road dust) are often found in Tempranillo bottlings.

Because of Tempranillo’s relatively mild flavor profile, it is often blended with other grapes to enhance flavor, color, and tannins: Grenache, called Garnacha in Spain, Carignan, known as Mazuelo in Rioja, and Graciano. All of these grapes have been planted alongside Tempranillo in other regions of the world where climate conditions are favorable. Grenache and Carignan are especially popular in southern France and Graciano is now gaining in popularity in Texas, Arizona, and South America. And it should not come as a surprise that winemakers are developing blends of Tempranillo with more traditional grape varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.

Seek out your favorite Tempranillos and enjoy a Taste of Texas with BBQ and grilled meats, rich cheeses, TexMex cuisine, and even sweets that contain cherry and/or chocolate ingredients.

Drink Well My Friends. 

Learn more from these references:

(1)  Spanish-Origin Grape Varieties in Texas Climates by Carl Hudson, Ph.D., CSW, posted on Texas Wine Lover Website 19-Feb-2021 (https://txwinelover.com/2021/02/spanish-origin-grape-varieties-in-texas-climates/)

(2)  Tempranillo, Wine Folly, by Madeline Puckette, James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year, co-founder of Wine Folly,  https://winefolly.com/grapes/tempranillo/

(3)  Tempranillo, also known as Ull de Llebre, Cencibel, Tinto Fino, Tinta de Toro, and Tinta del Pais in Spain, and Aragonez or Tinta Roriz in Portugal, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/tempranillo# . . .

(4)  Tempranillo, A Guide to Basics, by Brian Freedman, 18-Nov-2022, https://www.foodandwine.com/tempranillo-wine-guide-6829997. This informative article mentions most favorably three Texas High Plains Tempranillo bottlings: Ron Yates Friesen Vineyards 2017, Pedernales Cellars 2019, and Bending Branch Newsom Vineyards 2017.


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