Tempranillo, arguably the most famous of Spain's native grapes, is a vibrant, aromatic varietal that offers spicy, red fruit aromas and flavors. The grape's name translates to "little early one," a moniker that references fruit's early ripening tendency-- Tempranillo thrives even with a short growing season.
The varietal is at its best in top Riojas, where oak aging is employed to generate increased complexity and harmony. From the best sites, these wines can be remarkably concentrated with great aging potential. New wines from this region are darker, and more robust, with more dynamic primary fruit flavors than traditionally styled examples. These wines seem to reflect the influence of Spain's other key region for Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero. Regardless of style, Riojas tend to be medium bodied wines, with more acid than tannins. These wines generally feature Tempranillo blended with Garancha, Mazuelo, and Graciano. For these wines, there are three quality levels, which will appear on the label. Everyday drinking wines fall under the category of "Crianza", "Reserva" denotes more complex and concentrated wines, and "Gran Reserva" refers to the most intense wines, made only in the best years.
The same labeling scheme applies to wines from Ribera del Duero, which, like Rioja, is dominated by Tempranillo and shares similar blending grapes. Again, Ribera del Duero wines are generally darker and more powerful than the most traditional Riojas. These wines also generally see less oak treatment than Riojas. From Rioja, we like wines from Marques de Caceres, Montecillo, and Cune. In Ribera del Duero, consider Dominio de Pingus, Convento San Francisco, and Pesquera.
In Portugal, Tempranillo is called Tinta Roriz, where it is used to produce wines that are fragrant and complex, with good color, body, backbone, and resistance to oxidation despite possessing only moderate acidity. The second most widely planted variety in the Douro region of Portugal, it is increasingly popular as a stand-alone variety for dry red wines. (Tinta Roriz is called Aragonez in Alentejo, where it is softer and more liqueur-like.)
Pair older-style Rioja with simple meats like chicken, leg of lamb, and pork loin. However, the newer style of Rioja and Ribera del Duero works especially well with bolder meat dishes or an aged Spanish cheese like Manchego or Idiazabal.