May 29, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Spring 2012 issue
Words: Albert Cilia-Vincenti
Tempranillo is the main grape for Spain’s two most famous red wines, Rioja and Ribera del Duero, and a crucial part of Portugal’s most famous wine – port. It’s only in relatively recent times that Rioja has been accorded any great fame and respect outside Spain. So when Californians, Australians, South Africans and the rest were looking for grape varieties to transplant back home, they were obsessed by the French classics – they dreamt of making Pauillac look-alikes and never cast a glance south of the Pyrenees. But if they had glanced at Ribera del Duero – and they could have done since Vega Sicilia had been Spain’s most famous and expensive red wine for a century – they’d have discovered that the main grape was Tempranillo.
The same grape, Tempranillo, is called a variety of names in different regions: Tinto Roriz and Aragonez in Portugal, and back in Spain, it’s called Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinto Toro in Toro, Cencibel in Valdepeńas and La Mancha and Ull de Llebre in Penedés. There probably isn’t any other red grape that so completely dominates a country’s quality wines as Tempranillo does Spain’s.
New World winemakers have made grape varieties famous by putting their names on the labels. Because Tempranillo was in the wrong place, nobody wanted to copy Spanish wines – and Tempranillo was never on the label, anyway, because Spain and Portugal followed the French in naming their wines after areas, not grapes. And since Spanish table winemaking was so old-fashioned, who would care to find out if their grapes were actually any good?
It was only when some “flying winemakers” turned up in Spain to try and transform hopelessly old-fashioned wines into something saleable, that the vineyards actually got a close look. Such winemakers have turned Iberia’s wine into some of the most exciting in Europe – and time and again, they’ve discovered that the local grape is Tempranillo.
When wine writers who are not stuck in the rut of one continent, one country, or even one region, like Hugh Johnson, earmark Spain as the wine country to watch, open-minded wine-lovers are bound to take notice. He calls it the “new Spain” and quotes Rioja which is blending tradition with modernity in a thoroughly Riojan style, while all other Spanish wines are now showing increasing sleekness with personality and are not being dragged into a global rent-a-style of ripeness and alcohol. When he remarks that, although Robert Parker’s labelling of Alejandro Fernéndez’s 1982 Pesquera as Spain’s Château Pétrus might or might not have been apt, it did bring the wine and the region to worldwide attention. Ribera del Duero became DO in 1982, and it was immediately clear to everybody that there was now an alternative to the (then somewhat unreliable) Vega Sicilia to show the way forward.
Spain’s recent explosion of quality has attracted growers worldwide to its grape varieties in their search for commercial alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Brown Brothers, for example, are betting that of all the emerging grape varieties in Australia, Tempranillo is the one to back. Tempranillo and American oak got on like a house on fire, the rich vanilla oak flavour suiting the grape’s ebullient fruit. However, the trend in Spain is now towards shorter aging in new French oak, or even unoaked. Wines aged for many years in old oak are no longer the norm and may even disappear.
Pure Tempranillo rarely evolves much with age, so some Graciano, Mazuelo or Cabernet Sauvignon is usually blended into wines destined for aging. The taste of Tempranillo is said to be a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Its main attractions are supposed to be its lush texture and supple exuberant fruit – blackberries, black cherries, mulberries and raspberries, changing to tobacco, plums, prunes and cocoa with age. With long oak aging the flavours are said to become savoury and strawberryish, with a touch of coffee bean and dried fruits.
Our “Il-Qatra” blind-tasting wine club recently decided to expose members to some of the quality Riojas of the “new” Spain, which were shipped from London’s Berry Bros & Rudd via their local agents Stilon & Vincenti. I have to admit I found it very difficult to put preferential scores to the four wines presented, but scored Muga’s Prado Enea Gran Reserva Rioja 2004 (14%) a little less than the other three because, in my view, it had the weakest nose, possibly because this was the youngest wine, but had a well balanced plumy palate with good acidity. Muga is a traditionalist and all steps of their winemaking are in oak containers. This was the majority’s favourite by a small margin.
Marques de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial Rioja 2001 (14%) was the membership’s bottom-placed of this closely scored bunch. I thought it had a ripe sweet nose, the most intense of the lot, but apparently some mistook this for a new-world cheapie – just goes to show what progress cheap new-worlds have made to be mistaken for quality old-worlds! This wine also had very good balance between fi ne tannins and acidity, and is usually regarded as splendid by critics. Established in 1852, Marques de Murrieta is regarded as the founder of modern Rioja.
CVNE’s Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja 1999 (13%) had a delicate nose with refined mouthfeel and gentle acidity. Established in 1879, this producer is regarded as representing much of what is best practice in modern Rioja.
Vina Ardanza’s Reserva Rioja 2000 (13%) had a lovely intense Pinot Noir-like nose and a lively palate with fi ne tannins and sharp acidity.