Mention the grape called “tempranillo” and the savvy American wine fan will smile. The word conjures up images of easy-drinking Spanish red wines, nicely priced for their quality.
The fan will picture tempranillo’s most famous regions – Rioja, a 2,000-square-mile area 150 miles northeast of Madrid, and Ribera del Duero, 50 square miles southwest of Rioja.
The fan will think of tempranillo’s wines, fruity and smooth, with firm, spicy tannins and flavors of cherries, plums, blueberries, vanilla, cloves, even leather and tobacco. Foodies drink them with roast meats, tapas, meaty casseroles, grilled beef, venison, mature cheeses, even powerful fish such as salmon and tuna.
Fans who have visited the regions will also picture lush, green hills and high plateaus, small towns and nearly 1,000 wineries, many open to visitors.
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They’re old regions, in a couple of ways. Their first grapes were planted by Romans well before Christ, so growers have more than 2,000 years of practice cultivating the red tempranillo and the region’s main white grape, viura.
Also, tempranillo wines age famously, and winemakers take advantage, making it possible for example, to buy a wine with seven or more years of aging for little more than $20.
In Rioja, tempranillo is grown under rules that help wine fans to know what they’re buying. The wines come in four categories:
1. Rioja joven (young), with no oak aging and one or two years in bottle.
2. Rioja crianza, with a year of oak aging and another year in bottle.
3. Rioja reserva, with a year in oak and two in bottle.
4. Rioja gran reserva, with two years in oak and three in bottle.
The rule of thumb, of course, is “the longer the aging, the better the wine.”
Tempranillo, while primarily associated with Spain, is growing more popular throughout the wine world. In neighboring Portugal they call it “tinto roriz” and blend it into their famous port wine. It’s catching on, too, in Australia and California.
Less well known outside Spain is Rioja’s white grape and wine. Called “viura” in Rioja, it is better known elsewhere as “macabeo,” the popular white grape of northern Spain. It makes wines that are dry, crisp with aromas of flowers and almonds.
▪ 2009 Valdubon Reserva, Ribera del Duero, Spain (100 percent tempranillo): deep red hue, hint of oak, lush aromas and flavors of black plums, anise and cardamom, medium body, soft tannins, long finish; $24.
▪ 2015 Monopole White Wine, by CVNE, Rioja (100 percent viura): pale green hue, dry and crisp, with aromas and flavors of green apples and melons; $13.
▪ 2011 Vina Eguia Reserva, by Bodegas Muriel, Rioja DOC (100 percent tempranillo): bright red hue, hint of oak, flavors of red plums, anise and spice, smooth; $19.
▪ 2012 Real Compania Tempranillo Oak-Aged, La Tierra de Castilla, Spain (100 percent tempranillo): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and bitter chocolate, long finish; $12
▪ 2015 Vina Real Rosado (Rose) by CVNE, Rioja (85 percent viura, 15 percent tempranillo): light pink hue, with aromas and flavors of flowers and tart cherries; $15.
▪ 2014 Valdubon Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero, Spain (100 percent tempranillo) deep red hue, aromas and flavors of red raspberries and coffee, crisp acids, smooth tannins; $15.
▪ 2014 VAZA Tempranillo, Rioja (100 percent tempranillo): medium violet hue, medium body, aromas and flavors of red raspberries, soft tannins, $12.
▪ 2013 VAZA Crianza, Rioja (100 percent tempranillo): deep red hue, hint of oak, soft and smooth, aromas and flavors of red plums, anise and earth, long finish; $15.