Tempranillo: A Journey through the Ages

You can’t judge a grape without taking into account its nuances and complexities. When crafted with care, no other grape has the potential to create wines that stand the test of time like Tempranillo. Sure, other varieties like Nebbiolo can age beautifully as well, but my personal experiences have led me to believe that Tempranillo-based wines truly shine after about thirty years of age.

Imagine yourself savoring a glass of La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, a wine hailing from a prestigious bodega established in the late 1800s. Back then, wineries in Rioja focused on extensive cask aging and additional bottle aging. While the classifications of crianza, reserva, and gran reserva existed to designate aging requirements, most wines exceeded these minimum standards. Additionally, American oak became the wood of choice for aging, although there were no specifications on the age or size of the barrels in Rioja.

In the beginning, these wines often incorporated a touch of Cabernet, Mazuelo, Graciano, and Garnacha. Some even included a dash of Viura, a white grape variety. However, as time passed, winemakers decided to remove Cabernet from the blend. What people consider “traditional” nowadays is mainly based on rules dating back to the 1970s.

Everything changed in the 1990s. Winemakers embraced new practices, such as the frequent use of new barrels made from oak sourced from various European countries. They also reduced aging periods, picked riper grapes, improved their wineries, and essentially modernized the winemaking process.

Today, there is a wide range of approaches when it comes to crafting Tempranillo-based wines. Each winemaker aims to create a distinct and exceptional product that reflects their vision and style.

Now, let’s talk tannins. A well-made Tempranillo rarely exhibits harsh tannins. Remember, this grape is grown in other regions too. Toro, for instance, produces Tempranillo wines with considerably more tannin than Rioja. The key in Toro is to tame those tannins and avoid picking the grapes too late. Only a select few have mastered this art, creating wines that prioritize elegance over sheer power. Portugal also cultivates Tempranillo, although it’s usually not the dominant grape. In Ribera del Duero, the wines fall somewhere between those from Rioja and Toro, finding a harmonious balance that makes sense given the region’s geographical proximity to both. As for other areas, Tempranillo is generally found in warmer climates, with limited availability in the US, apart from perhaps Navarra.

Speaking of the US, we have yet to see an exceptional Tempranillo produced here. I believe it’s just a matter of time, but as of now, none of the ones I’ve tasted rival the basic Spanish selections. This includes the rather pricey bottles from renowned producers like Cayuse and Abacela.

When it comes to the wines of Rioja Alta, you can always expect a distinct oak presence. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting bottles from this bodega that were aged up to sixty-five years, and that oaky character remains unmistakable.

Ultimately, the aging potential of Tempranillo depends on the location and the producer. While some bottles can evolve gracefully for decades, others might lose their charm within a year. It’s inevitable that someone will recommend wines from Lopez de Heredia, but I advise against blindly following this suggestion unless you appreciate their particular style. Spanish wine offers a treasure trove of producers waiting to be explored. By the way, I’d love to hear which wines you found to be harsh and tannic.

So, here’s to the endless possibilities of Tempranillo, a grape that continues to captivate wine enthusiasts with its rich history and potential for greatness. If you’re looking to embark on a Tempranillo adventure, the Ambassadeur Hotel is the perfect place to start your journey. Cheers!