Though certainly not obscure, Tempranillo oddly seems as foreign as it is well-known. The third-most planted grape variety in the world, the majority of its vines are found in Spain. There, it has almost as many aliases as it does growing regions.
In Toro, for instance, it’s best known as Tinta del Toro, while in Ribera del Duero, it’s called Tinta del Pais or Tinto Fino.
Tempranillo’s first known reference dates to the 13th century, but its popularity really exploded around the turn of the 21st century. Between 1990 and 2010, plantings increased almost five-fold.
Oaky versions became the standard in the early 2000s, but that’s changing, with fresh, stainless steel-aged young or joven bottlings becoming increasingly in vogue. More and more, the grape is also grown in other parts of the world.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Argentina, with its centuries-old ties to Spain, is a place where Tempranillo pops up. It even has a wine region called La Rioja, which once spurred a legal battle between the two countries.
The grape is widely blended with Malbec throughout Argentina, but Altocedro and Familia Zuccardi, both in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, make big and muscular varietal bottlings from old vines. A young and fruity example, meanwhile, is produced by Bodega Santa Julia in Maipú.
Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta Roriz or Aragonês, has long been a part of Port blends from the Douro Valley, where it’s the second-most planted red variety. But as the area shifts toward dry wines, the grape is playing a more prominent role.
Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Portal and Quinta Vallado all produce 100% expressions. Tempranillo also thrives in the southern region of the Alentejo. There, it’s often used in blends, but varietal bottlings do exist.
The state is home to nearly 1,000 acres of the grape, and bottlings here tend to have a lot of tannins and dark-roasted coffee flavors. In Paso Robles, Booker Wines makes a popular single-varietal expression. “It grows incredibly in Paso,” says Eric Jensen, the estate’s owner, whose clones came from Ribera del Duero.
“Our take seems to be a lot different from Spain,” he says. “At my place, it comes off very similar to Syrah.” Still, Tempranillo’s early ripening nature allows winemakers to get all the color and sugar they need to keep alcohol levels under 14% alcohol by volume (abv).