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Tempranillo is the most widely-planted red wine grape in Spain. It is especially prominent in wines from the Ribera del Duero and throughout the Rioja. Tempranillo is also a key blending varietal in Port, known by the name of tinta roriz in Portugal's Douro Valley. Tempranillo is relatively uncommon, however, in most other wine-producing countries.

photo of Tempranillo cluster.At one time, Tempranillo was thought to have been brought southwest to the Iberian peninsula by French monks. DNA testing1 however, in 2012, proved it to be an indigenous variety, a cross between albillo mayor, an ancient variety still cultivated in the Ribera del Douro, and benedicto, an arcane grape originally from Aragon, but no longer commercially grown.

Needing only a short growing season, this early ripening tendency is the source of the name tempranillo, which translates to "little early one". The grape also has many different regional identities in Spain and worldwide, including aragon, cencibel, extremadura, valdepeñas and many derivatives of each.

Tempranillo quality seems to prefer cooler climates, but low resistance to many vine diseases2 and pests can be problematic. The vines themselves tolerate heat well, but the fruit develops indistinct flavors and undesirable characteristics in warm climes. Quite vigorous by nature, they have a tendency to over-crop and clusters are usually large. Leaf thinning, suckering, and crop thinning or "green harvesting" are commonly required to insure a balanced crop that fully ripens.

Although more genetically stable than most varieties3, a mutant clone that produces yellow-green grapes, rather than the normal blue-black ones, was isolated in Rioja the 1980s and is now being distributed to growers by the Spanish government.

Tempranillo grapes tend to be low Tempranillo leaf photo.both in overall acidity and in sugar, but often high in pH, and nearly always high in tannin from their thick skins, although low in color intensity. Mindful of high tannins, many cool-climate producers advocate partial whole berry fermentation. Cool fermentation temperatures can also serve to decrease tannins and increase fruit flavors. In favorable climates such as the cool higher elevation of Ribera del Duero, tempranillo (aka tinto fino, tinta del pais) can make wine that is moderate in alcohol, but long-lived.

Prominent in world viticulture only in Spain, small amounts of tempranillo are also grown in Oregon and California, where it was probably first introduced in the late 1890s. Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties, Alexander Valley, Lodi, Sonoma, and Paso Robles all are now producing and bottling tempranillo.

Tempranillo aromas and flavors often combine elements of subtle berry-like fruit, herbaceousness, an earthy-leathery character (which is sometimes mistaken sensorially for Brettanomyces), minerality and forceful tannins. While its varietal character can be distinctive, it is also somewhat vague and easily overpowered by oak.

*Typical Tempranillo Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques, so this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive, merely suggestive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: (subtle) plum, currant, blackberry


Floral: (not sweet) wildflower

Oak (light): vanilla, coconut

Fauna: leather (often mistaken for Brettanomyces)

Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar

Herbal: very, can even be weedy Bottle Age: 
Spice: cinnamon  
Mouthfeel: aggressive, thick, powerful tannins can be astringent and drying

Over the past 30 years, as tempranillo plantings have increased in Spain and vinification techniques have changed to promote youthful drinkability, single-variety bottlings have become the norm. Prior to the 1980s, an unblended bottling was the exception, rather than the rule. A average base of 80% tempranillo was commonly filled out with cariñena (aka mazuelo, contributing fruitiness), garnacha (to soften tannin), or graciano (to boost acidity), or some combination thereof, depending upon availability and style.

More recently in the Rioja, some tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blends have attempted to boost international appeal (although traditional producers decry this interloper)4. In California, tempranillo remains in an experimental stage, some bottled as a stand-alone variety, but it more frequently used in blends, often with Rhone varieties or Zinfandel, or Bordeaux varieties to a lesser degree.

Jim LaMar

Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society

1. As reported by researchers at the University of La Rioja and cooperating agencies, published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (Vol 63, Issue 4, Dec, 2012), "Genetic Origin of the Grapevine Cultivar Tempranillo". RETURN

2. Particularly "shatter" and, in certain combinations of clone and colder climate, inflorescence necrosis, which keeps the vines from forming flowering structures. At best, either of these conditions keep yields low, seeming to offset the variety's propensity to overcrop and negate the need for shoot thinning or green harvesting, but severity can sometimes be enough to make cultivation impractical. RETURN

3. Only four clones are identified in California: FPMS Clone #1, from UC Davis' Foundation Plant Management Services; FMPS Clone #2, originally from a Catalan nursery in the Rioja; FMPS Clone #3 (aka Clone #43), also from the Rioja, by way of the Viticulture Institute of Logrono; and the "Jackson Clone" (aka ValdepeƱas Clone #3) from the original cuttings brought to the state in the late Nineteenth Century. RETURN

4. Spain's most renowned wine, Unico, produced by Bodegas Vega Sicilia in the Ribera del Duero region, has been a blend of roughly 80% tempranillo and the balance usually cabernet sauvignon, but occasionally also much smaller portions of merlot and malbec, since its inception in the early 1900s. RETURN

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

3. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

4. Eleanor & Ray Heald, "Tempranillo Acquires New World Presence"; Practical Winery & Vineyard; Jan-Feb, 2003; p 16-30.

5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et al. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

6. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

7. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

8. Doris Muscatine, Maynard A. Amerine, Bob Thompson (ed), The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1984

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Page created October 5, 2001; last updated March 19, 2018
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