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Most people will have drunk Tempranillo at one time or another, probably without knowing. It's the highest quality red grape in Spain, and arguably makes the best quality wines.
Tempranillo is a gentle grape with soft tannins and low acid. It's pale coloured and full of ripe strawberry flavours and a little leather. Because it's so light-bodied it responds well to being blended with other grapes, and to being oaked. Which makes it perfect for use in Spain's greatest wine, Rioja.
The name Tempranillo comes from the Spanish word "early", referring to the fact that Tempranillo ripens very early in the season. It's a master of disguise however, and appears under many other names, including Ull de Llebra, Cencibel, Tinto del Pais and Tinta Toraz or Aragonez in Portuagal. It was introduced to California as Valdepenas.
The term Rioja refers to the name of the region where it is made, and lends it's name to the oak-aged, mostly Tempranillo-based wine loved by so many. Other grapes that may be blended with Tempranillo in Rioja wines include Garnacha, and Mazuelo.
One of the defining features of Rioja wines is the oak aging, which adds body and coconut, toast and vanilla flavours to the ripe fruit of the Tempranillo. Rioja labelled Crianza must spend at least 12 months in oak, Reserva wines must be at least three years old and spend at least a year in oak, and the very best Rioja, the Gran Reservas, must be at least five years old, and spend at least 2 years in oak casks.
Similar oak-aged Tempranillo wines are also produced outside Rioja in the surrounding regions. Look out for these, as they can be much better value than the sometimes very pricy Rioja wines.
Unoaked Tempranillo wines are soft, fruity, and easy drinking and can be picked up relatively cheaply. So if you like your red wine to be very easy to drink, full of fruit, without oak flavours, try an unoaked Tempranillo.
Less well known than Rioja, but producing some of Spain's most prestigious wines, this region is slightly South West of Rioja, along both banks of the river Duero. Its high altitude, and limestone rich soil make it ideal for Tempranillo to thrive. Grapes from this region are thicker skinned and have higher acidity than their Rioja counterparts, meaning the wines have more body, are more powerful and full of dark blackberry fruit and plums.
Mostly oak-aged, 100% Tempranillo, these wines are exceptionally high quality and have been compared to the best wines from the Medoc in France.
This great grape of Spain has also become well established in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. Probably introduced by Spanish settlers it responds very well to the climate and soil of South America. Australian makers are experimenting with this funky little grape and producing some lovely fruity wines, both unoaked and oaked, which are well worth getting your gums around. There are many bargains to be had from these regions, as well as some very fine wines too.