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Tracking Spain's Elusive Tempranillo
By Michael Franz
Jan 20, 2009
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The remarkable recent renaissance of Spanish wine has intensified worldwide interest in Spain's most famous red grape:  Tempranillo.  With Tempranillo-based reds from regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero rising to challenge the best bottlings from Bordeaux and beyond, the grape is destined for comparisons with the world's top red varieties.

Indeed, it already seems clear--at least to me--that only six red varieties grown anywhere in the world are comparable to Tempranillo in potential greatness:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Syrah.  And once Tempranillo is included in such elite company, the questions naturally arise:  What are Tempranillo's prime characteristics and capabilities?  Can we identify its essential nature?

Although these questions arise naturally when we try to get a grip on Tempranillo, they turn out to be very difficult to answer.  Tempranillo is a remarkably complex variety with an amazing array of facets and features.  It is clearly one of the world's greatest cultivars, but also one of the most elusive.  It is possible to discern certain important essentials that give us a sense of the grape's distinctive characteristics, but only after encountering a lot of complications in the course of the search.

* * *

Tempranillo has traveled to many different places within Spain (and to a few other countries), and has done so under a variety of names.  In fact, it is only in Rioja and Navarra that the grape is called Tempranillo with relative regularity.  In Valdepeñas it is known as Cencibel.  In Penedes it is called Ojo de Liebre (in Spanish), and Ull de Llebre (in Catalan).  Within the region of Castile-León alone, it travels under at least three different names:  Tinto (or Tinta) del País in Cigales, Tinta de Toro in Toro, and Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero.  Here and there, one also hears it called Tinto Madrid or Tinto de la Rioja.  It is known as Tinta Roriz in Portugal, and as Tempranilla in Argentina, but since the nomenclature is already sufficiently confusing just within Spain, we'll keep our focus there.

This hodgepodge of names wouldn't necessarily pose grave difficulties for understanding if the grape produced strongly similar wines from these various places.  But it doesn't.  For example, Rioja, surely the world's most famous rendition of Tempranillo, has traditionally been characterized as a light- or medium-bodied wine, prized for complexity and prettiness much more than power.  At the other end of the spectrum, wines from Toro tend to be massive and very intense, packing a wicked wallop of alcohol and lots of gutsy tannin.

These differences in profile indicate that Tempranillo is sensitive to different climatic conditions from region to region.  Yet, that shouldn't prove too confusing, right?  We should expect lighter, leaner wines from cool climates and richer, more robust renditions from warmer regions.  That much is certainly true, but the complexities don't end there, because the variations we see in finished wines aren't simply the result of different climates having different effects on a single grape variety.  In fact, the different climates in which Tempranillo is grown have actually gotten into the variety itself, in the sense that the vines have adapted to different growing conditions over many centuries.

Localized adaptations complicate our effort to get a grip on Tempranillo, since they create sub-types within the variety.  However, the adaptation process itself is easy enough to understand.  It has two key elements, a spontaneous one arising from nature, and a deliberate one stemming from human viticulture.

The natural element is genetic mutation, which occurs randomly in all sorts of organisms including grape vines.  Most mutations aren't advantageous to a vine, but some are.  For example, some mutations will enable a vine to resist drought or mildew, or to produce more fruit or ripen it earlier.  When growers notice such advantages in a mutant vine, they can use cuttings to replace other vines, or even propagate many new plants to establish entire vineyards with vines that are clones of a single parent.

Use of clones for large commercial vineyards didn't begin until the 1920s, but replacement of vines with cuttings from plants altered by adaptive mutations has been practiced for centuries.  Over time, particular regions have ended up with quite distinctive strains of particular vine varieties, and Toro provides an important case in point. 

The Toro region near Zamora is very dry during the growing season, with sandy soils and wide temperature swings from day to night, largely due to vineyard altitudes between 2,000 and 2,400 feet.  These are very challenging conditions for Tempranillo vines, but, over hundreds of years, Tempranillo has adapted to meet these challenges.  After centuries of mutations and selective replantings, Tinta de Toro vines have unusually deep-running roots to help them seek water, as well as leaves that grow in a way that helps the plants retain moisture.  And, perhaps most importantly, Tinta de Toro grapes are extremely small.  Since the components holding color, aroma and flavor in wine grapes reside principally in the skins, the low ratio of juice to skins in the Tinto de Toro gives it the potential to yield wines of great depth and intensity.

This is of course great news for wine lovers, but not such great news for those hoping to get a grip on Tempranillo.  It means that we must not only track it to many different places under different names, but must also recognize that our elusive quarry has transformed itself into several sub-types wherever it has settled.  Moreover, our search for Tempranillo's essential nature is complicated by the fact that, in all of these different places, the human beings who grow the grapes and turn them into wine do so differently, further muddying the waters.

For example, if asked whether Tempranillo produces light or heavy wines, we would really need to respond with multiple answers.  Based on the factors we've already considered, we'd need to say that a Tempranillo-based wine will be heavier if grown in a hot climate, but lighter if grown in a cool one, and heavier if it is Tinta de Toro being grown, but lighter if the vines are high-yielding commercial clones.  And after considering the influence of the viticulturalist, we'd also need to add that the wine will be heavier if yields are restricted by pruning and crop-thinning, but lighter if yields are increased by fertilizers and irrigation.

For this reason, it is no longer possible to say flatly that Rioja, for example, is a relatively light wine.  Yes, it can be as light as cool-climate Pinot Noir, but it can also be as syrupy as Shiraz.  A significant number of producers in Rioja have severely cut the crop loads from their vineyards to make 'high expression' wines that can compete with the world's richest, meatiest reds.  Winemakers have gotten into the act as well, replacing many big old casks with barrels that are much smaller and replaced much more frequently, adding spice and tannin to their wines.

On top of all this, many wines from regions traditionally associated with Tempranillo actually incorporate significant proportions of other grapes.  Sticking with Rioja as our example for a moment, many producers seeking richer wines are not only decreasing yields but also blending in larger percentages of Graciano.  And in Ribera del Duero, where Tinto Fino makes rather muscular wine on its own, some producers are seeking even bulkier bottlings by adding Cabernet Sauvignon to their blends.

* * *

It is important to acknowledge all of these intricacies and complications, yet we can nevertheless identify some red threads of continuity that help us get a fix on this great grape.  By comparison to other red varieties, Tempranillo ripens relatively early.  Indeed, its name derives from temprano, which means early in Spanish.

Early ripening helps us understand why Tempranillo is so widely planted.  It grows well in rather hot climates like Valdepeñas, but can also thrive in cool zones, ripening before the autumn chill shuts down the growing season in places such as Rioja Alavesa.  Similarly, its short growing cycle enables it to deal with the rigors of growing conditions in Ribera del Duero, which has an annual weather pattern that a grower once described to me as 'one month of summer and eleven months of hell.'

Although Tempranillo wards off cold weather problems in autumn by ripening early, it does not avoid spring frost problems by sending out its buds particularly late in spring.  This sometimes poses problems for growers, who can suffer serious crop losses if spring frosts kill the young buds or shoots emerging from the vines.  Frost damage is a particular problem in north-central Spain.  In some cases, however, what growers regard as a problem turns out to be a boon for consumers.  Spring frosts reduced crops dramatically in Toro and Ribera del Duero in 2001, and this mandatory yield reduction contributed significantly to the density of wines from this vintage, which many observers and winemakers regard as the greatest in a generation.

Another characteristic that enables Tempranillo to grow in cool climates (where it can produce particularly refined wines) is that the grapes are lower than normal in acidity.  This is especially helpful in growing seasons that are lacking in sunshine and warmth, and hence marginal for ripening.  Whereas more acidic grapes would produce tart, angular wines in such a year, the more forgiving Tempranillo provides more balanced results.

Relatively low acidity is not a straightforward advantage in warmer regions, but neither is it a clear disadvantage.  In hotspots like La Mancha or parts of Castile, Tempranillo's low acidity is not well suited to making ageworthy wines, yet the flip side of this is that bottlings of varietal Tempranillo from these places are wonderfully soft and accessible at a very young age.

Finally, with regard to aromas and flavors, some critics have maintained that Tempranillo is lacking, or that, at a minimum, it lacks a strongly defined identity.  One version of this criticism contends that a lack of aroma explains the historical frequency with which Tempranillo has been lavished with oak.  (Oak ageing directly furnishes notes of spice and vanilla, and indirectly lends leathery notes over time due to oxygen passing through the wood's pores and between the staves.)  Another version of the criticism holds that Tempranillo's lack of assertive aromas and flavors explains why it has so often been blended with grapes like Garnacha and Graciano.

In my view, neither of these criticisms stands up to close scrutiny.  Both are virtually refuted by the recent rise of wines that are composed entirely of Tempranillo and only minimally oaked.  Many of these wines are designated as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, but Ribera del Duero also produces Roble wines in this style, and Rioja makes Joven wines that fit the profile. 

In most cases, these wines are neither lacking nor indefinite in aroma or flavor.  On the contrary, many are very expressive, featuring notes of red and black cherries, strawberries, or blackberries, with flavors so appealing that one begins to wonder why so much Tempranillo has been submerged under so much oak over the years.

I believe there are at least two answers to that question.  The first points to the influence exerted by winemakers from Bordeaux, who migrated to northern Spain after oidium and phylloxera devastated their vineyards in the second half of the 19th century, and who brought their proclivity for oak ageing with them.

Second, the practice of ageing Tempranillo in oak had the effect of altering consumer expectations, which in turn constrained producers in how they could vinify Tempranillo.  The practice of designating wines by reference to oak ageing (Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva) contributed to the impression that more time in oak is simply better than less time, and over the decades the notion that Tempranillo needs wood to be interesting hardened from a novelty into a tradition, and ultimately into something like a dogma.

Today, however, the dogma has receded, and we now see a wonderful welter of diverse renditions of Tempranillo from all over Spain.  In the absence of a ruling orthodoxy regarding how Tempranillo must be crafted, the little nuances lent by its various genetic strains and far-flung vineyard locations are being revealed more fully with each successive vintage.  As this process continues into the future, we are certain to enjoy many years of friendly debate regarding which styles--and which regions--stand as the ultimate expression of Tempranillo.