17. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 6: Tempranillo
Here I'm deliberately choosing a grape variety which the great experts of the wine world would put further down the scale, after, for example, Merlot and Grenache. But wines made from Tempranillo (or, more accurately, made predominantly from Tempranillo) have frequently and consistently given me much pleasure; it is the great grape of Rioja, and the finest Riojas, when mature, can be glorious wines â€“ there is a softness and beauty about them that no starry Merlot or grand ChÃ¢teauneuf du Pape can match. To illustrate the point further: cheap clarets are made mainly from Merlot, and I would much rather drink a cheap Rioja than a cheap claret; so across the quality spectrum Tempranillo beats Merlot.
Apart from being the most important variety in the best areas of the Rioja region (Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa), it is the dominant variety in Ribera del Duero, home to Spain's grandest and most expensive wine, Vega Sicilia. It is also grown all over the rest of Spain, covering more than 100,000 acres; in particular, it is grown in PenedÃ¨s, where it is known as Ull de Liebre, and in ValdepeÃ±as, where it is known as Cencibel. It is also to be found in Portugal, where it goes under the name Tinta Roriz in the Douro, appearing as a component in port, in the DÃ£o region, and in the Alentejo, where it is known as Aragonez. There are some plantings in the south of France, and rather more in Argentina (over 10,000 acres), and occasionally it is seen in Australia, and, in fact, I stocked an example in the shop, though rather dramatically I did take a bottle along to a tasting one evening a few years ago and one of the people present had an epileptic fit, fell off his chair, foaming at the mouth, and went stiff as a board (I still don't think it was the wine). And it seems likely that the variety ValdepeÃ±as in California is actually Tempranillo.
What does it taste like? It's hard to pin down, but often displays notes of strawberries; as a result, commentators criticise it for not having a distinctive personality â€“ but then Pinot Noir's flavour is also difficult to pin down. Tempranillo definitely tastes best with oak, and most drinkers associate the variety with flavours of vanilla, leather and spice, which actually come from its ageing in oak. Again, I see no problem with that: oak is a seasoning, like salt, and, for example, a risotto without salt is a dull affair, and yet the dish, with salt, is one of the greatest gastronomic treats known to humanity.
As they might say in Spain: Viva Tempranillo!