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Tempranillo-Spain’s Hottest Grape

Think of a great Spanish red and chances are it’ll be from Tempranillo. But, asks MARGARET RAND, how do the different regions produce such variety within a variety?

Tempranillo is the best grape in the world,’ says Xavier Ausas. Since he’s the oenologist at Vega Sicilia, the oldest estate in Ribera del Duero, one hesitates to disagree, though one could point out that not all Tempranillo is like Vega Sicilia’s Tempranillo. In other hands, and in other places, it can make anything from soft, light, inoffensively strawberryish wines to dense reds thick with steroid-driven muscle. It can be complex, though complexity more often results from a mixture of other grapes – perhaps Garnacha, perhaps Graciano, Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec, or Mazuelo. If one looks at Tempranillo in three different Spanish regions – Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro, it becomes apparent that all Tempranillo in these regions owes its style to a balance of climate on the one hand, and a tug-of-war between tradition and fashion on the other.


One could probably plot it on a graph, if one had the time. At one extreme there is Rioja and indeed Vega Sicilia, the most Rioja-like of Riberas. The climate can be at its coolest here. Yes, there is plenty of jammy Tempranillo made in hot Rioja Baja, but Garnacha is the main grape. And Vega Sicilia, while it is in Ribera del Duero and should therefore be hotter, has north-facing vineyards which compensate to some extent. So at this end of the graph we have elegance and aroma, and less alcohol. In Ribera del Duero there can still be elegance – those cold nights, perhaps 20ºC less than peak daytime temperatures, help to conserve acidity. But it is hotter here, and the tendency is to greater chunkiness, exacerbated by a short growing season. If they have proper summers in Ribera del Duero, they also have proper winters: -18ºC.


In Toro it’s even hotter. Drive there from Rioja and you’ll see that the flowers and fruits are far more advanced: even in late May the cherries are scarlet on the trees. The growing season is actually longer here than in Ribera del Duero, but the early-ripening Tempranillo doesn’t need the extra time: it can get to a head-banging 18º here without trying. Such a race to massive alcohol brings rusticity with it, and the efforts of growers here are directed towards soothing and civilising the wines; even so, some of them can be pretty alarming.

And this is where fashion comes in. In Rioja, fashion takes its time. In Spain, where most Rioja is drunk, people like Rioja to taste like Rioja. Yes, they’ve moved away from the ancient, pallid wines of the past that smelled of old furniture varnish and were much the same colour, but often they’ve done so without realising. Bodegas change their style subtly, always trying not to frighten their customers, and cleverly catering to the wish of a lot of Spaniards to talk modern, but drink traditional. A company like Roda, for example, which is often thought to be very new-wave, is actually working firmly in a traditional framework and producing superb wines. Most new-wave Riojas are like this: far fruitier than their ancestors, and with deeper colour, probably more alcohol, and often aged in partly or mostly new French oak instead of old American oak; but they’re still Rioja. Witness Baron de Chirél from Riscal, Ramon Bilbao’s Mirto, Colección Jaime Rodriguez from Remelluri – or even the most modern of all, Baron de Ley’s Finca Monasterio or Aurus from Finca Allende.

Ribera del Duero has few such historical constraints, and Toro has even fewer. In the late 1990s Ribera del Duero boasted fewer than 60 bodegas; now it has 236. Since 1997, when Vega Sicilia bought land in Toro, the number of bodegas there has risen from seven to 42. It’s gold-rush time, and the style of the wines, and of the local Tempranillo, is being worked out on the hoof.

Most styles, not surprisingly, are influenced less by history than by Robert Parker. One way of mastering Toro’s rusticity and Ribera del Duero’s chunkiness is by extremely low yields, a lot of extraction and plenty of new oak; so that’s the way a lot of bodegas go. If they get high Parker points, like 98 for Numantia Termes’ enormous Termantia, they are instantly validated. It takes more patience and bravery (and a sense of the company’s history) to go down the road Vega Sicilia has followed with Pintia. The vines are old, the vineyard north-facing, as at the parent estate, and four vintages were discarded before the team learnt how to master Toro’s rustic tannins. Now it’s a bright, fresh, fruity wine, not elegant in the way that Vega Sicilia is, but positively Audrey Hepburn compared to most Jordan-like Toros. Liberalia is another: the owner plays his violin to the vineyards, which is obviously the secret of finesse.

As to what Tempranillo is actually like, the old answer used to be that each region had its own clone of Tempranillo. In Ribera del Duero you had Tinto Fino and in Toro there was Tinta de Toro, just as La Mancha and Valdepeñas had Cencibel and Penedès had Ull de Llebre or Ojo de Liebre, depending on whether you wanted to be Catalan or Spanish. Elsewhere it could be Tinto Madrid, Tinto de la Rioja, or Tinta del País. And they were all supposed to be different. But half a dozen different clones have been found in Toro. In Ribera del Duero they grow between 10 and 12 commercial clones, none of which are particularly local, and most of which are obtained from nurseries in Rioja. When clone expert Lydia Martinez looked into the matter, she found 552 different types of Tempranillo throughout Spain. The genetic differences between clones in any one region are likely to be greater than any differences between Tinta de Toro, Tinto Madrid and the rest. Vines adapt to their circumstances, and Tempranillo adapts very well. Plant the same clone in different soils and climates and it will develop differently.

Quality not Quantity

Much research into clones was done in Rioja in the 1960s and 1970s, and much replanting resulted. More recently, those in Toro and Ribera del Duero have started their research. Not everyone, though, is happy with the commercial clones of Tempranillo that are available: ‘they’re all selected for quantity,’ says Ausas. Vega Sicilia uses only cuttings from its own vines, and has them propagated by a nursery in Burgundy: ‘there are some good Spanish nurseries, but they don’t have the same philosophy,’ he says.

The idea that the characters of Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero do not come from any particular clones has been implicitly accepted by many merchants and traders over the years – if one is to believe hearsay. Borders between Spanish DO regions can, it is said, be more permeable than the law would like: tankers are said to cross borders to load or unload, generally to give Rioja a bit more colour, perhaps with a dash of Toro (though that may be too expensive now); the border between Navarra and Rioja has always been particularly porous.

If regional differences in Tempranillo can’t be attributed to clones, then how about soil? Certainly in Rioja soil seems to have an effect on style, just as it does at those Ribera del Duero and Toro estates where its effect is not hidden by excessive extraction and overoaking. The effects are much as one would expect: clay gives solidity and structure, sand gives lightness, chalk gives acidity. But with 31 distinct soil types in Ribera del Duero alone – the soils of Toro and Rioja are also pretty varied – soil accounts more for stylistic differences between estates or vineyards than between regions. When it comes to comparing Tempranillo from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro, it comes down to climate – and fashion.

As to which of the three regions has the greatest potential – Rioja at its best is excellent. But one feels that not all bodegas are doing as well as they could be; in some places all that heritage, that domestic market wanting the wines it’s always had, can feel like a bit of an albatross round the neck. And the split between the wineries and the growers, which means that if the wineries want to change anything they first have to persuade the growers, can mean that any change can take a very long time. Estates that own their own vineyards are in a sharper position.

Ribera del Duero at its best can outdo Rioja: with their tight structures and complex aromas, top Riberas have to be the best reds in Spain. But at their worst they suffer from overextraction, poor balance and rubbery notes – all correctable faults. And Toro? This seems to me to be a region in search of a style. Blockbuster wines may be a solution to rustic tannins, but, I hope, only a temporary one. Tempranillo can have more elegance than this – even in such a climate.

Margaret Rand is the co-author of Oz Clarke’s Grapes and Wines: A Guide

to Varieties and Flavours (£18.99, Little, Brown).

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