If you had to choose one variety that represents all that is great about Spanish wine, it would be tempranillo.
The grape’s spiritual home is in the northern region of Rioja, but it is also planted throughout the Iberian Peninsula from nearby Ribera del Duero and Navarra, to Valdepeñas in the south, and the eastern coastal region of Penedès. Meanwhile, in Portugal’s Douro Valley, it is a vital component for the glorious Ports and robust, dry wines.
Tempranillo’s ace in the hand is its flexibility and ability to translate different terroirs into a range of wine styles.
In the heavily continental climates of Ribera del Duero and the Douro, it makes deeply flavoured, tannic and brooding wines that radiate with intense dark berries thanks to the harsh climates.
Just off the Mediterranean, in the hills of Penedès west of Barcelona, tempranillo takes on a more supple and juicy personality, with a lighter frame and made for early drinking.
What all these wines share, however, are the hallmarks of tempranillo: generous fleshy fruit, drinkability and a savoury, subtle edge.
Tempranillo is the same user-friendly beast here in Australia. It’s ripe without being forced and generous without being heavy, almost like a merlot on the palate with red, rather than black, fruits.
It also has similarities to pinot noir or grenache – reserved and understated rather than fruit forward like shiraz. There is also intriguing complexity underlying that generous fruit – spice and baked earth – that often emerges as the wines open up in the glass, which lifts tempranillo past other varieties.
It’s arguable that it’s really only in the last decade that Australian winemakers have nailed the brief with tempranillo, producing wines that are genuinely varietal. As in Spain, they follow two different styles. The joven wines, which see little or no oak, are classic early drinking wines, with juicy, bright fruits and silky tannins.
At the other end of the spectrum are the oaked styles. Tempranillo shows a real affinity to oak, both American and French, and it is these oak-aged wines that are best at displaying its true rustic character and the best of the variety – the impact of oxygen in the ageing process creating the greatest wines with exceptional complexity.
Gran Reserva Rioja is the epitome of the style – five years of ageing including at least two years in oak, usually American, gives the best examples profound complexity plus a long ageing potential that can be measured in the decades.
In recent times, tempranillo has become one of the most popular alternative varieties in Australia, with plantings from Margaret River through McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills into Central Victoria and the Hilltops.
And all have shown potential although in very different styles, from the elegant wines of Western Australia to the bigger wines of McLaren Vale and Victoria’s delightfully savoury interpretations.
Despite some standout wines, nowhere yet has marked itself as the country’s home of tempranillo and it will be fascinating to see how this plays out over the next decade or two.
However, with tempranillo’s ability to withstand a hot dry climate, and many of the great Spanish wines dry grown, there is no doubt that this variety has a very bright future ahead.
2018 Mount Majura Tempranillo, Canberra District, A$48
A serious style that is immediately complex and varietal. Medium-bodied, but showing underlying brooding power with rich and fleshy blue fruits underscored by tarry, liquorice elements. The palate is dry, focused and tannic with great balance. Needing a decade to show its best.
2019 Gemtree Luna Temprana Tempranillo, McLaren Vale, A$29
Made in a joven style, this is a bright and youthful wine that ripples with sweet, fleshy berry and fruit pastille aromas on a supple palate supported by ripe tannins. The fruit has great generosity with a touch of spicy and dried herb complexity.
2016 Fighting Gully Road Tempranillo, Beechworth, A$32
A very robust and savoury local style with a distinctly Spanish edge – mulberry fruit is supported by roasted meat, tobacco and spice fruit complexity. It is bone dry, firm and full bodied with good acidity.
2018 Mayford Tempranillo, Alpine Valleys, A$40
From Porepunkah near Mount Buffalo comes this ultra-savoury and outstanding Australian example. A little shy at first but over time, pepper, nutmeg and boysenberry emerge with an intriguing edge of bitumen and reserved oak. It's dry and quite tannic on the palate with well-balanced fruit and a baked earth edge finishing long and firm. Good ageing potential.