Tempranillo is a primary red wine grape for much of Spain, especially wines from the Ribera del Duero and the Rioja Alta. It is also a key blending varietal in Port and known by the name of tinta roriz in Portugal’s Douro Valley.
It needs only a short growing season and this early ripening tendency is the source of the name tempranillo, which translates to “little early one”. Tempranillo also has many different regional identities, including aragon, cencibel, extremadura, valdepeñas and many derivtives of each.
Although relatively genetically stable, 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 vines prefer a cooler climate and have low resistance to many vine diseases and pests. The vines tolerate heat well, but the fruit develops indistinct flavors and undesirable characteristics in warm climes. Tempranillo grapes tend to be low both in overall acidity and sugar, but relatively high in tannin from their thick skins. In favorable climates such as the cool higher elevation of Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo can make wine that is moderate in alcohol, but long-lived.
Its aromas and flavors often combine elements of berryish fruit, herbaceousness, and an earthy-leathery minerality. While its varietal character is distinctive, it is also somewhat vague and easily overpowered by oak. Rarely bottled as a stand-alone varietal, but frequently used as the base variety in blends, its most frequent mates are grenache, (aka garnacha in Spain), carignan (aka mazuelo in Spain) and, more recently, cabernet sauvignon.