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5 Bottles That Showcase Tempranillo’s Finest Qualities

Big flavors and affordable prices are among its draws

Janice Williams By January 25, 2022
bottles of Tempranillo collage
Illustration by Pix

What is red, delicious, and all-around affordable? Spanish Tempranillo, of course.

When it comes to value for money reds, Tempranillo is one of the greatest. It’s also something of a well-kept secret — even though Tempranillo is the third most-planted grape in the world. 

Tempranillo is an old Spanish grape 

Though Tempranillo’s origins are unclear, it’s old. The first records of it date back to the ninth century, and it is believed that it likely originated in the Iberian Peninsula. Today, while the grape is widespread in Spain, it’s Rioja, in the north of Spain, that essentially put Tempranillo on the map. 

Rioja caught the attention of winemakers in the 19th century when French vignerons arrived, hoping to use Spanish grapes for blending following the phylloxera catastrophe that had wrecked their own vineyards. Transporting wine between countries became significantly easier with the first railroad link between the Rioja village Haro and Bilbao in 1880, which led to the opening of more wineries in areas surrounding Haro Station, according to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible.”

Spain eventually suffered its own bout with phylloxera, destroying many of the vineyards in Rioja and elsewhere in the country, and crippling the wine market. Things got even worse for the wine industry in Spain with the arrival of World War I, followed by the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.

Then came the 1970s, and things began to turn around.

A red rebirth

Bottles of Tempranillo from wineries in Rioja like R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia and Bodegas Faustino caught the attention of critics; things continued to prosper in the 1990s when a number of ambitious winemakers across Spain began focusing on quality. 

Tempranillo continues to flourish in Spain, with vines accounting for 84% of vineyards in Rioja, Hugh Johnson notes in the latest edition of “The World Atlas of Wine.” That’s an increase from 2012 figures when Tempranillo plantings made up 61% percent of the region’s vineyard area. Spain’s most famous grape variety, Tempranillo plays the dominant and robust role in many red blends featuring Garnacha and Graciano.

A lover of Mediterranean climates — though it has the ability to stand up to warmer climates — Tempranillo thrives in Rioja Alta and Rioja Oriental, in particular. However, winemakers use the grape in other areas throughout the region, including the most Atlantic of Rioja’s three sub-regions, Rioja Alavesa, within the Basque province of Alava. 

Of course, it is not just Rioja where Tempranillo is grown and produced in abundance. Spanish regions like Ribera del Duero produce it, as does the warm region of Toro to the north. In Valdepeñas, south of Madrid, Tempranillo is the main grape in blends featuring the local white grape, Airén. 

Tempranillo is also an important grape in Portugal, where more than 45,000 acres of the vineyard area is dedicated to the grape. And don’t forget about Argentina. Critics have consistently given high scores to Tempranillo bottles by famous Argentinian producers like Bodega Altocedro and Zuccardi Q, both of which offer plenty of value at reasonable prices.

As for Tempranillo in the U.S., production is still relatively small there. But producers like Jarvis Estate and D’Alfonso-Curran Wines in California have gained favor with drinkers and critics alike.

What does it taste like?

The grape’s name comes from “temprano,” the Spanish word for early, which is fitting since Tempranillo is an early-ripening variety. Overall, the wine style is more savory than sweet. Its most prominent aromas and flavors are cherries and berries — blackberries, raspberries — and notes of licorice, leather, and tobacco. 

A medium-bodied wine, Tempranillo has reasonable acidity and a smooth and balanced tannin structure. It’s a flexible style that can result in complex wines with great ageability, or smooth, easy-drinking wines made for drinking right away. Equally, it can be one of the world’s great food wines, or a style to enjoy by itself.

Above all, Tempranillo is a great, valuable option for those looking for a quality red wine without a bank-breaking price tag. 

5 bottles to try:

bottle of Enfield Wine Co. Pretty Horses California Tempranillo 2019

Enfield Wine Co. Pretty Horses California Tempranillo 2019 (~$29)

It’s all about wines with personality at Enfield Wine Co., and this Tempranillo is the fresh and juicy character out of the bunch. The family project of winemakers John Lockwood and Amy Seese, Enfield sources fruit from independent growers across California. This particular Tempranillo is a blend of grapes from two vineyards in the Sierra Foothills. “Enfield Wine Co. is making new, spirited, and delicious wines,” says Ramon Manglano, the wine director of New York City restaurant The Musket Room. “This Tempranillo is unique, and I also love the name because the wine really is pretty to me! Juicy, aromatic, fresh, and lively!”

bottle of Bodegas Lopez de Heredia Cubillo Crianza Tempranillo 2013

Bodegas Lopez de Heredia Cubillo Crianza Tempranillo 2013 (~$32)

Spanish winery Bodegas López de Heredia has produced wines in the heart of Rioja since 1877, so winemakers there know a thing or two about creating a classic and balanced Tempranillo. “This is my go-to for serious but affordable Rioja,” says Manglano. Bright ruby in color, this wine has the freshness one would expect from a Tempranillo with aromas of licorice and a steady “integration of fruit characteristics and oak” that Manglano says brings the wine to life. Save for later or drink right away as this one is particularly delightful and easy-drinking in its youth. “True classicity with a deft hand, and for the price, it is quite difficult to find a better Tempranillo from Rioja than Lopez de Heredia,” Manglano adds.

bottle of Familia Torres Winery Altos Ibéricos Crianza 2017

Familia Torres Winery Altos Ibéricos Crianza 2017 (~$12)

If the dark cherry red color on this Tempranillo doesn’t reel you in, the intense aromas of raspberry and red cherry certainly will. Produced by Familia Torres Winery, which has made wine in Spain for over 150 years now, this wine is made with fruit primarily grown in the Rioja Alavesa region, known for its higher elevation and cooler temperatures. The growing site results in Tempranillo that has “heightened acidity and tons of character,” says Liz Martinez, the beverage director at Daxton Hotel in Birmingham, Michigan. “Juicy and decadent with sultry red fruit and a kiss of baking spice and pepper, this wine entices with a medium body that is pleasantly rich in flavor, and it has a nice lift from the acid,” Martinez says, adding that the wine is incredibly balanced. “It’s one of the best examples in its category and of incredible value.”

bottle of Sierra de Toloño Rioja Tinto 2019

Sierra de Toloño Rioja Tinto 2019 (~$19)

Here’s yet another gem from high up in the foothills of Rioja Alavesa that comes highly recommended from Woong Chang, a sommelier in Washington D.C. who is also the founder of 6ft Wine Club. Winemaker Sandra Bravo works with some of the oldest Tempranillo vines in its namesake Sierra de Toloño vineyard to produce a multi-dimensional organic wine layered with freshness, spice, and juicy tart raspberry and pomegranate flavors. “[Bravo] is making some of the purest and expressive wines out of Rioja right now,” says Chang, who also appreciates that the wine is made organically with no fining or filtering. “I love her minimal-intervention approach in the cellar, and as a result, her wines always feel fresh and alive. So delish,” notes Chang.

bottle of Luberri Biga de Luberri Rioja Crianza 2017

Luberri Biga de Luberri Rioja Crianza 2017 (~$12)

For a Tempranillo that’s “juicy and fresh with a bit of sass,” Whitney Pope turns to this one by Luberri-Monje Amestoy, made in the town of Elciego within the Rioja region. This wine is dry with an exciting balance of red plum, dill, and leather flavors. A sprinkle of savory spices on the back end results in a memorably edgy finish. “It’s subtle and soft but dials up the charm,” says Pope, a D.C.-based certified sommelier behind the wine education service Whit and Wine. Drink this right away as the second entry in Luberri’s lineup is intended to be enjoyed in its youth.