Tempranillo is a less well-known red grape variety in China compared with traditional types such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Spanish wines made with this grape represent good value for money, and offer a range of enticing flavours.
The grape’s origins are unclear. It might be indigenous to Spain but some historians suggest the Moors, who invaded Spain early in the eighth century and occupied it for 750 years, might have introduced the grape.
Tempranillo means “early little one” because it ripens early. It is Spain’s most cultivated red grape. Tempranillo has other names according to where it is grown, though it is best known as the main grape of the Rioja region in northern Spain.
Riojas come in five types: joven, roble or barrica, crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Joven wines are young wines that typically receive no oak. They tend to be fruity with light to medium body, and pair best with simple dishes such as pasta and cheeses.
The roble or barrica category refers to wines that spend some time in wooden barrels, and they perform best with slightly smoky foods like BBQ chicken or hamburgers.
Crianza wines spend at least a year in oak and another year in bottle before being sold. These wines can sometimes be a little rough around the edges. But when the acid and fruit balance is right they can seem quite bold even though they have been aged for at least a year. They combine best with assertively flavored foods such as paella or steak with spicy sauces.
The reserva category spend a minimum of two years in oak and another year in storage before being sold. They go well with roast beef or lamb, or wild game.
Gran reserva are the top of the range of Rioja wines and spend at least two years in oak followed by three years in bottle before being released. They can be the star attraction at a meal, and should be reserved for classic food such as rack of lamb or filet mignon.
A tasting in Ningbo hosted by Dani Rodrigues, who distributes Jumilla wines, displayed the beauties of Spanish wines at a wide range of price points. Based on this tasting Spanish wines are bargains compared with French offerings of the same price.
The 2006 Bodega Finca El Encinal crianza is a clean wine with a creamy taste from the oak treatment. It tastes of sour cherries and rhubarb and has a delightful aroma that the woman tasting near me described as “early morning flowers”. This wine retails for about 200 RMB.
A bodega is the Spanish term for vineyard. It should be noted that this wine is not from the Rioja region, but from Ribera del Duero, also in northern Spain. Ribera del Duero is one of 11 quality wine regions in the country.
Another note-worthy wine was the 2004 Faustino V reserva rioja. It is elegant with soft tannins and good length. I noted pleasant earthy aromas that could be because the wine came from old vines. It also contains 8 per cent mazuela as well as the tempranillo associated with riojas. Some of my tasting companions gave this wine 17.5 points out of 20 – worthy of a silver medal. This is a wine that needs to be paired with beef.
The 1998 Bodegas Faustino I was one of the highlights of the night. The 1998 vintage in Spain was one of the best the country has known, and this wine is drinking beautifully now. It is 85 per cent tempranillo plus 10 per cent graciano and 5 per cent mazuela.
The color was almost black and the tannins remain chewy despite the wine’s time in the cellar. The tannins offered silky threads of pleasure in my mouth and vanilla notes combined with cherry fruit aromas. This is a wine that could last a half century and still be drinkable. Fellow tasters on the night gave it 18 points, just half a point under what is needed for a gold medal.
The evening’s last wine was a 2008 Paco Dulce made by Vinos Vina Elena from monastrell grapes. Grapes are left for a long time on the vines to achieve maximum ripeness and sugar content.
The wine’s jammy ripeness mixed well with the acid profile, making the wine balanced and delicious. It tasted like a vintage port. It had burnt caramel flavors mixed with liquorice and chocolate. It was a momentous end to an evening that was both educational and enthralling.
* “A late discovery of the little-known ‘small early ones'” in China Daily, page 12, 10 December 2011. Find a link here.