Tempranillo. It's a Spanish grape whose name is taken from "temprana" meaning early. The grape ripens in September several weeks ahead of other Spanish red grapes.
Early maturity helps to avoid a host of autumnal threats such as rain, rot and mildew. This is a huge plus. But the boon of early maturity on the back end is slightly offset by early bud break on the front end. The vine is very vulnerable to spring frosts.
Although this situation is bad for the grower, it's good for the consumer. A spring frost lowers yield. A smaller harvest is more concentrated and packed with flavor compounds … especially when guaranteed ripeness in a variety that matures early.
Perfect. Or perfecto. True, anyway you say it!
Tempranillo (tehm-prah-neeyo) has a host of other attributes as well. It's a productive black-skinned variety that is extremely adaptable to different growing conditions. It thrives in hot climates that are quite challenging to other grape varieties; it is drought-resistant. Yet it thrives in cool climates where the growing season is short due to its early ripening curve. And because the variety is intrinsically low to moderate in acid, a short, cool growing season does not produce an austere or thin, tart red.
This is a noble grape whose comportment in the vineyard manifests itself elegantly in the glass.
Its inherent adaptability is why the grape is so widespread throughout the Iberian peninsula. And everywhere it is planted it seems to pick up a new name. It is Cencibel in La Mancha, Tinto Fino in Ribero del Duero, Ojo de Liebre/Ull de Llebre in Catalonia, and Aragonez and Tinta Roriz in Portugal. In other parts of Spain, it is referenced as Tinto Madrid, Tinto del Pais and Tinto del Toro.
Interestingly, when it assumes a new name, it also assumes a new flavor profile. There are many expressions of this grape. It runs the gamut from moderate in alcohol to hot, from spice-driven to fruit-driven, from earthy and rich to delicate and perfumed. Best of all, good renditions can be purchased for a song.
But pounce now. Quality this good won't stay at bargain basement prices for long. It's the early bird that will catch the tempranillo.
Montebuena "Cuvée KPF"; Rioja, Spain 2010 ($10). This toothsome red is deep and rich with pomegranate fruit laced with dusty cocoa. There are hints of leather and sun-baked terra cotta, too. Earthy, fragrant, smooth and savory. Fabulous at a fabulous price.
Zaleo Tempranillo; Ribero del Guadiana (Extremadura), Spain 2010 ($14). Here, beautiful black cherry/dark plum fruit is laced with vanilla bean. The wine is big and packs a little heat, but it is smooth as satin. Rich, ripe, delicious.
Burgo Viejo Rioja, Spain 2005 ($10). Hard to believe this is a 2005; this wine is vintage fresh and fruit forward. Lots of vibrancy. Lots of cherries. Silk tannins. Perfume. It is delicious and easy-drinking at a price that is a real crowd-pleaser.