Tempranillo is a popular red wine variety known almost entirely for its use in the infamous Rioja Spanish blends. With flavors ranging from black cherry to raspberry, leather, damp earth, and chocolate, it’s a robust and complicated wine that takes years of practice to understand its rich flavor profile.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into Tempranillo wine, its growing region, tasting notes, serving recommendations, and of course, plenty of food pairings.
Characteristics of Tempranillo
Tempranillo, derived from the Spanish word Temprano which means “early”, is a red wine grown primarily in Spain, though you may be surprised to know it’s also a predominant grape in Port wines, where it’s known as Tinta Roriz.
The flavors of Tempranillo wine vary depending on how long it is aged, whether it is blended, and the region it stems from. Flavors range from black cherry to dried fig, baking spice, tobacco, and earth.
The best examples of Tempranillo are aged in oak for an extended period, most notably in La Rioja, Spain. Tempranillo works equally as well as a standalone varietal or when blended with other higher-acid grapes. When blended, Tempranillo adds aroma, acidity, and aging potential.
Tempranillo Tasting Notes
Tempranillo is a dry, medium-bodied red wine with medium-high acidity, medium-high tannins, and medium alcohol content, around 13-15% ABV. Its flavor will vary depending on how long it is aged in oak and the climate of the region.
The longer this wine is aged, the more rounded its flavor profile becomes. Extended aging makes for mellow dark fruit aromas with flavors of baking spices, earth, and leather. Young Tempranillo, enjoyed after just a couple of years of barrel aging, results in a brighter flavor with fresh raspberry, red cherry, and plum notes.
The warmer the climate, like in Ribera del Duero, the lower the acidity and the higher the alcohol content. This makes for more punchy and juicy reds, best enjoyed young or in blends.
How to Serve Tempranillo
Notable Growing Regions for Tempranillo
Tempranillo is swiftly becoming a well-known varietal for its diverse flavor profile and versatility with food pairings. While over 80% of Tempranillo production happens in Spain, several other regions are worth noting.
La Rioja, Spain
The best examples of Tempranillo come from La Rioja, where it is simply referred to as Rioja. This region sits in Northern Spain along the Ebro River and is one of the only two regions given the classification of Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOCa. This is the highest classification level for Spanish wines and guarantees wines made here are of the most superior quality.
There are three subregions in Rioja: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alvesa, and Rioja Oriental. The best examples come from Rioja Alta and Alvesa, where wines are rich with dark cherry, plum, tobacco, vanilla, and meaty flavors.
It is worth noting that while rioja wines are often made with 100% Tempranillo grapes, blending with other wine grape varieties such as Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano, and Carignan is common.
Ribera del Duero, Spain
Second to Rioja in its prominence for Tempranillo is Ribera del Duero. This region is known for robust red wines with texture, grip, and notes of coffee, ripe black fruit, chocolate, and earth. While both Ribera and Rioja primarily use the Tempranillo grape, Ribera uses an entirely different clone called Tinto Fino.
Duoro Valley, Portugal
The Duoro Valley is known for making Port, fortified, sweet, and incredibly rich dessert wines. Port is made with various native Portuguese varietals, but one of the most prominent is Tempranillo, though, in Portugal, it’s known as Tinta Roriz.
When added to Port blends, Tinta Roriz adds aroma, acidity, and flavors of black cherry, stewed berries, and cocoa. Check out our full guide on Port wine for more info!
Spanish settlers introduced Tempranillo in the 19th century, and while it’s got nothing on Malbec, it’s found a ton of success. The first wines made from it were used for cheap jug wines, though winemakers are beginning to branch out and produce higher quality Tempranillo.
While this is still much of an up-and-coming region, the best examples of Tempranillo are expressive, with bright red fruit and refined structure. They even make delicious rosé wines.
A Word on Rioja’s Labeling Terms
Every country has its labeling terms that help determine quality. In Spain, specifically Rioja, wines are categorized by how long they are aged.
Here’s a quick breakdown of Rioja’s label terms:
- Crianza: Everyday drinkers that come from good vineyards. White wines must be aged for a minimum of six months in oak. Red wines must be aged for at least two years, with one year in oak
- Reserva: Grapes from exceptional vineyards. They’ll be more expensive since they’re not guaranteed to be made every year. White wines must be aged for two years, with six months in oak. Red wines must be aged for three years, with one year in oak.
- Gran Reserva: Very rare and only made from exceptional vineyards. White wines must be aged for a minimum of four years, with one year in oak. Red wines must be aged for at least five years, with two years in barrels and three years in bottles.
- Joven or Sin Crianza: These wines are simple, cheap, rarely exported, and best enjoyed young.
Tempranillo Food Pairings
Tempranillo is a fun food pairing wine due to its high acidity, tannins, and complimentary fruit and meaty flavors.
Youthful, more fruity Tempranillo is best when paired with spiced dishes, tomato-based dishes, and roasted veggies. Consider paying your next bottle with our Sun-dried Tomato Pasta, Sheetpan Roasted Vegetables, or Tender Rosemary Roasted Lamb Chops!
More aged Tempranillo wines do great with smoked meats, hearty proteins, burgers, or lamb. Try serving it alongside our Smoked Leg of Lamb, Skirt Steak with Cilantro Chimichurri, these juicy Lamb Burgers.
When in doubt, go local. As Spain’s top red wine, Tempranillo is a must for Spanish dishes like paella, Spanish cheeses, garlic prawns, or cured jamón serrano.
Whether you’re pairing it with food or sipping on its own, you will love exploring Tempranillo. Be sure to shout out below any favorite food pairings or specific Tempranillo wines you’ve tried and loved!