A Taste of Tempranillo

Why do people love Tempranillo so much? Well, it is earthy and fruity and eminently drinkable. It is intrinsically associated with Spain’s Rioja appellation, thus gaining that region’s caché of tradition sans snobbery. Tempranillo is tasty, it’s true, but it is also accessible both palate- and price- wise. Yes, Tempranillo is a friendly grape, an inclusive grape. It is also the Goldilocks of grapes. Like that famous golden-haired girl, Tempranillo likes a well-balanced life, steering away from extreme situations. Its ideal conditions are not too hot, not to cold, not too wet, not too dry… but “just right”.

Though strongly associated with Spain, Tempranillo is (now) also an international grape, with a long history. My Tempranillo tour will take us from Phoenician shipwrecks, to electric street-lighting, Neanderthal caves, coprolites, and the conquistador Pedro del Castillo, which takes us right back to Spain.

1)Phoenician ship (L.), and 2)a Tempranillo vine (R.)

Tempranillo and the Phoenicians

Tempranillo, though well at-home in Spain, is likely the product of a precursor brought from elsewhere millennia ago. By whom? Well, possibly by the main merchants of the Mediterranean from ca 1500–200 BC, the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were based on the western coast of Lebanon at the cities of Tyre and Sidon. But, by virtue of their superior ships, mercantile entrepreneurialism, and no doubt their formulation and use of a true alphabet, they successfully colonized lands around the Mediterranean. Phoenicians founded settlements in North Africa — including at Carthage, Sicily, Spain — notably at Cádiz, and are thought to have been the first inhabitants of Malta. A Phoenician shipwreck off the coast of Malta dating to ca 700 BC documents some of the cargo typical to this Mediterranean trade: jars and jars of wine and oil. But, in addition to moving wine, the Phoenicians also spread grape vines and wine-making knowledge. At about the same time as the shipwreck, ca. 700 BC, archaeological evidence for grape seeds and Phoenician ceramics and wine-making equipment comes from the site of Cerro de las Cabezas. This settlement was in Spain’s interior, in modern Valdepeñas. Coincidentally — or not — Tempranillo is also known as Valdepenas.

Tempranillo and Electric Street Lights

3)Wine Regions of Rioja,

While Tempranillo is still grown in Valdepeñas, it is more closely associated with Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Tempranillo is the primary grape in red wines of Rioja, often with smaller percentages of Garnacha, Carignan, and Graciano. Rioja, itself, is divided into three parts: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is located in the western part of the region, and is the only sub-region that lies entirely within La Rioja. Its vineyards lie (mostly) south of the River Ebro. Also south of the Ebro is Haro, the town that is the heart of the region.

In addition to the presence of many fine wineries, Haro is recognized as the first town in Spain to have electric street lighting; this occurred in 1891, after Haro was already an active port, with wealth from wine export. This made me wonder what was the first US locale to have such lighting. I am used to my current home, Philly, being “the first” for so many achievements. It was the nation’s first capital, is home to the first hospital, first zoo, first library, etc. So, I assumed it would also have had the first electrified street lights. Well, Philly was an early adopter of street lights, being introduced to Philly (and the US) by Benjamin Franklin. But these were not the first to be electrified. That honor goes to Wabash, Indiana, which makes the Hoosier in me proud. In 1880, that city first tested and purchased electric Brush Lights.

4)Grape pickers at CVNE (L.), 5)Cune Rosado (C.), 6)Sign for Wabash, IN (R.)

Back in La Rioja, the CVNE vineyards are located just outside the bright lights of Haro. CVNE — Compañía Vinicula del Norte de España — predates those lights; the winery was founded in 1879 by 2 brothers of the Real de Asua family. The present owners, Victor and Maria Urrutia, are direct descendants of those brothers. In their vineyards, found in both Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, Tempranillo is king. Their Cune Rosado is made with 100% Tempranillo. It is made in the saignée method, in which juice is drained (bled) off after the desired time sitting with skins — in this case 24–48 hours — and the remainder left to be made into a red wine. The resulting rosado is full of bright, red fruits and mineral, with a nice, light balance of acid and tannin.

Tempranillo and the Goldilocks Principle

If Tempranillo is the goldilocks grape, then Rioja Alavesa is Rioja’s goldilocks sub-region. R. Alavesa is located north of R. Alta, north of the River Ebro. Though at similar altitude to vineyards in R. Alta, those in R. Alavesa have poorer soils with which to contend. The result is more concentrated fruits than in R. Alta, but with similar elegance and balance. Wines of both of these regions are juxtaposed to those from Rioja Baja, which tend toward higher alcohol and less acid. In other words, the elegant, well-balanced, fruity wines of Rioja Alavesa are “just right”.

Culturally speaking, however, Rioja Alavesa does not conform to the Goldilocks Principle of existing within certain margins, rather than at the extremes. The sub-region is found within Alava, in the autonomous Basque community. Its capital is at Laguardia. One of the main features of Laguardia are its medieval walls dating to ca the 12th century AD, which were built by Sancho the Strong, or Sancho VII of Navarre. Sancho was purported to have been 7' 3" tall, hardly “average”...! R. Alavesa is also known for its futuristic architecture, which stands in strong juxtaposition to the traditional, historic buildings of central Laguardia. One such building is the home of Bodegas Ysios, not surprisingly the work of Spanish neofuturistic-architect Santiago Calatrava, while another is the hotel/wine museum Marques de Riscal Bodega that was designed by Frank Gehry.

7)Larchago Crianza (L.), 8)Sancho VII of Navarre (C.), 9)Medieval Tower in Laguardia (R.)

Bodegas Larchago is a historic property that does not feature futuristic architecture. It is the successor to Bodegas Chavarri, which dated to 1882 and was the first to be registered as a wine bottler in the Rioja Alavesa. Bodegas Larchago maintains conformity to the tradition and history of its place. They produce a Crianza wine from 100% Tempranillo. Its 25 year-old grapes come from the municipality of Laguardia, where they are farmed at an elevation of ca 550 meters, in the limestone and clay soils that are the hallmark of this sub-region. The micro-climate features short, intense winters, and “just right” levels of sun exposure. The Crianza receives its minimum one-year barrel-aging in American Oak, and the remaining year in bottle. The result is a wine that has a strong bouquet of red fruit and tobacco, and lots of flavor up front with nice acid and a mineral undertone. The flavors mesh nicely, and the wine is elegant and firm. However, it finishes very quickly.

Tempranillo and Neanderthals

It is Rioja Alavesa’s limestone-rich clay soils that help produce the fruity, elegant wines for which that region is known. So, what does that mean for wines made from Tempranillo in the Penedès? This region, on Spain’s Catalan East Coast between Barcelona and Tarragona, has a more extreme climate than does Rioja. Here, the sun is hotter, the days are warmer, and the climate Mediterranean. But, like Rioja, Penedès is composed of three different sub-regions: High (Alt), Middle (Mitja), and Low (Baix).

10)Penedès DO map

The Alt Penedès is located in the northern portion of the region’s mountainous plain. It is at the highest altitude of the three, tempering somewhat the area’s higher temperatures. The more-mountainous landscape also features rocky outcrops and shelters, some of which sheltered Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis.

Neanderthals were a species of Homo whose remains have been found in a swath from Portugal to Georgia, dating from ca 130,000 to 35,000 BC. This species was bigger and heavier than our modern human ancestors, Homo sapiens. Genetically speaking, Neanderthals lost out to H. sapiens. Possibly as a result of their larger size and visual apparatus, it is speculated that much of the Neanderthal brain was devoted to physical movement and functioning, leaving less for the types of more complex social bonding and development at which H. sapiens excelled. That is not to say that Neanderthals did not engage in complex culture, as their archaeological finds prove otherwise. Abric Romani is a rockshelter in Capellades, just outside of Alt Penedes in Anoia district. Here, excavations have yielded thousands of skeletons of H. neanderthalensis, evidence for communal activities, and tools made of stone and wood.

The naturally-occurring rock shelters and caves in which Neanderthals are often found generally feature karstic soils that are full of limestone, which can be attractive to Tempranillo. Less than 15 km away from Capellades and the Abric Romani, Tempranillo has found a home in Sant Pere de Riudebitlles. This site in Alt Penedès has soils that promote a “just right” balance of acids and sugar in the wines, particularly the chalky gravels of Castellroig’s Vinya Bosc parcels.

11)Abric Romani at Capellades (L.), 12)Castellroig Ull de Llebre (C.), 13)Marcel and Marcelino Sabaté i Coca (R.)

Marcelino and Marcel Sabate I Coca are the 3rd and 4th generations to head the the Castellroig winery. They belong to the vins de terrer, sharing in that groups belief in the strong links between the land and the wine. Their grapes are organically grown and hand harvested. The Castellroig Negre Vi de Terrer Tempranillo Penedes 2013 wine is made of 100% tempranillo from the Vinya Bosc parcels. The wine is aged 10 months in American Oak, plus a few more months in bottles. Comparatively speaking, that puts this wine somewhere between a Rioja (Vin Joven) and Crianza in the Rioja classification scheme. The wine has deep, wild, and earthy aromas, joined in the mouth by some dark, plummy fruits. The color is dark, the tannins are chalky, acid is ample, and the wine has a persistent finish.

Tempranillo and… poop?

Tempranillo is definitely “at home” in Spain. Of course, the fit of a grape is not based on nationality or geography, but on micro-climate and geology. It is notions of “terroir” that brought Tempranillo to Oregon. More about that in a moment, but first it is worth mentioning that Tempranillo’s late arrival in Oregon, millennia after its introduction to Spain, does not bode poorly for the quality of the grapes there. That would be akin to decrying the quality of humans in Oregon for their later arrival than in Spain— their much later arrival.

14)Oregon’s Wine Regions

While Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and other early Homo species preceded Homo sapiens in much of the eastern hemisphere, there were no precursors in the western hemisphere. Instead, the earliest arrivals were H. sapiens, themselves. Oregon is at the center of controversy regarding the dating of early settlement in the Americas because of cultural artifacts and… poop.

The dates of arrival of the earliest human settlers in the Americas is unknown. But there is known, extensive habitation by the so-called “Clovis” culture. Their artifacts date them to ca. 13000 BP (before present). Contemporary, non-Clovis sites are also being discovered, but sites pre-dating the Clovis are fraught with contention; sometimes the sites and sometimes the contentions are not valid (read here for a good — though dated — synopsis). Materials from Oregon’s Paisley Caves seemed poised to prove that modern humans were found in the western US at a fairly early date. In fact, the dating of coprolites (dried poop) thought to be from humans indicated occupation of the caves about 1000 years earlier than “Clovis” sites. This was not without controversy, as claims were made that the coprolites were from animals, not humans. Notably, the lead researcher to question the human source of the Paisley poop has allegedly found the earliest human poop — dating to ca 50,000 years ago — from Neanderthals in Spain. Fortunately, Oregon may not have to stand on poop, alone, for its claims of early, modern-human culture. Another settlement, the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, has yielded evidence for human occupation prior to 15,800 BP.

So was it the promise of proximity to early poop that made Earl and Hilda Jones settle in Roseburg, open their Abacela winery, and plant the first Tempranillo in Oregon? No. The answer is definitely no. As the story goes, the Joneses had an abiding love for the wines of Rioja, and an itch to grow those Tempranillo-based wines in North America. After oodles of research drinking wine and visiting wineries in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, the Joneses surmised from their data that some of the keys to Tempranillo success: a short growing season, a cool spring, a hot, dry summer, and an early autumn. They believed they had this in the “just right” Umpqua Valley, which is cooler than Oregon’s Rogue Valley and warmer than its Willamette Valley. Ironically, Roseburg has a sister city in a Tempranillo region of Spain, but, it isn’t in the Jones’ region of choice, Rioja. Instead, it is the city of Aranda de Duero, located in Ribera del Duero.

15)Abacela Vineyards (L.), 16)Abacela Tempranillo (C.), 17)Paisley Cave Coprolites (R.)

Thus did Tempranillo come to Oregon, and it seems the Joneses made the right choice. They planted the grape in 1995, and the international accolades began by 1998. If you like a good experiment, these folks are for you. They have continued to research the “best” Tempranillo clones and plots of land for them, which you can read about on their website.

Abacela Tempranillo 2009 comes from one of their early-maturing clones, and from both Estate fruit and grapes sourced from elsewhere in the Umpqua Valley. Aged in oak. The resulting wine is superb. It is smooth and full, with ripe, wild, red fruits and some soft, floral aromas. Tannins are subtle, finish is long.

Tempranillo and conquistadors

As is the case with early Vitis vinifera throughout the New World, Tempranillo arrived in Argentina with the Spanish. Spanish interest in colonization lay in the resources and potential markets of the new lands, and also in spreading Catholicism. So, the earliest Spaniards to visit the Americas included conquistadors and missionaries. Explorations led to the establishment of missions for religious conversion of the continents’ natives, and those missions planted grape vines for sacramental (and pleasure) drinking.

18)Wine Regions of Argentina

Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the late-15th/early 16th century. They followed conquest of the Aztec empire with that of the Incan empire, effectively controlling most of the land from Mexico to Chile and Argentina (though excluding eastern South America). One of those conquistadors was Pedro del Castillo, who founded the city of Mendoza in 1561. The “Mendoza” of the name belonged to Don García Hurtado de Mendoza, the then-governor of Chile. The Chilean governor’s family was Castillian, though the original Mendoza name came from the eponymous village in Alava — the home of Rioja Alavesa. The full name given to the city by Castillo was Ciudad de Mendoza del Nuevo Valle de La Rioja. del Castillo, himself, was born in Vallalba Rioja, very near Haro. And here we have come full circle back to Rioja.

19)García Hurtado de Mendoza (L.), 20)Pedro del Castillo Plaza, Mendoza (C.), 21)Zuccardi Q Tempranillo (R.)

Now back to Tempranillo. The Mendoza region is, by far, Argentina’s largest producer of wine. But, despite its Spanish origins, the predominant grapes grown are Malbec and Bonarda — both of which have French origins. Nor are the growers primarily of Spanish (or French) descent; large numbers of Italian immigrants were at the forefront of Argentina’s wine-producing revolution. But, regardless of ancestry of grape or winemaker, Tempranillo is receiving more attention in recent years, and its suitability for the sunny, higher-altitude, Andean piedmont zone is gaining it more adherents.

Familia Zuccardi, headed by Sebastian Zuccardi, grows Tempranillo in vineyards located in Santa Rosa, in the hotter, drier, and sandy and clay soils east of Mendoza, at an elevation just over 2000 ft. Grapes for their Zuccardi Q — the Q stands for Quality — come from select grapes in the wineries oldest vineyards. Zuccardi grapes were first planted in 1963 by Sebastian’s grandfather, Alberto Zuccardi. The grapes in the 2010 Tempranillo are from 40 year old vines, planted not so long after that. The wine was aged 1 year in barrel, and one more in bottle. The resulting wine has a great depth of flavor. It balances dark, ripe fruit notes with those of spice box, leather, and tobacco. It is a bit wild and a bit big, but it still has finesse — especially on its lingering finish.

22)Zuccardi vineyard in Santa Rosa

The End

We traveled around the world with our Goldilocks Grape, Tempranillo. It was, indeed, tasty in all of its guises, from the traditional to the modern, Old World to New World. There were definite similarities to be had between wines, especially the presence of an earthy undertone. But, their were ample differences stemming from variation in geology, climate, philosophy, and winemakers. Yet, these variations were not extreme, underlying the “just right” conditions under which Tempranillo thrives. In addition to its taste and tradition, Tempranillo’s story spans the globe from its possible origins with Phoenician merchants, to the electric lights of Haro, the soils of Neanderthal settlements, the story of coprolites in Oregon, and all the way to Argentina and back with Riojan conquistadors.


*Sistiaga, A., Berna, F., Laursen, R., Goldberg, P.2014. Steroidal biomarker analysis of a 14,000 years old putative human coprolite from Paisley Cave, Oregon Journal of Archaeological Science 41: 813–17

Image sources

  1. “Phoenician ship” by Elie plus at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons — https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phoenician_ship.jpg#/media/File:Phoenician_ship.jpg

2. Tempranillo Vine, Wikipedia

3. Rioja Map, https://quentinsadler.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/rioja-map-20101.jpg

4. Grape pickers at CVNE http://www.hatchmansfield.com/ImageHandler/3193w155h155/cvne-vineyard-pickers-jpg?Sequence=3193&Width=155&Height=155

5)Cune Rosado

6. Wabash, IN Marker http://www.in.gov/history/markers/images/8519661.jpg

7. Larchago Crianza

8. By Basilio (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Sancho_VII_el_Fuerte-1234.jpg

9. Medieval Tower in Laguardia http://lugaresconhistoria.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/torre-laguardia-vonkinder1.jpg vonKinder

10. © 2014 D.O. Penedès.

11. Abric Romani at Capellades, by Pastoors 2007 https://www.nespos.org/download/thumbnails/29886513/204228.jpg?version=2&modificationDate=1432717552293&api=v2

12. Castellroig Ull de Llebre

13. Marcel and Marcelino Sabaté i Coca, source http://www.castellroig.com/web-new/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/slide-padreehijo.jpg

14. Oregon’s Wine Regions, http://oregonwinepress.com/article?articleName=regional-review

15. Abacela Vineyards, http://www.abacela.com/images/backgrounds/homeM.jpg

16. Abacela Tempranillo

17. Paisley Cave Coprolites, by Dennis Leroy Jenkins, source http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7329505.stm

18. Wine Regions of Argentina, source http://grapetravel.com/images/page/regions-map.png

19. García Hurtado de Mendoza, http://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/h/hurtado_de_mendoza_garcia.htm

20)Pedro del Castillo Plaza, Mendoza, http://www.turismopractico.com.ar/Fotos/Cuyo/Mendoza/DSC02440.JPG

21. Zuccardi Q Tempranillo (R.)

22. Zuccardi vineyard in Santa Rosa, http://www.familiazuccardi.com/images/vinedos_santarosa.jpg