The Terroir of Tempranillo (El Terruño de Tempranillo)

For my first rambling on wine for The Pigeon Post, I could find no more interesting topic (at least to me, and it is my ramble!) than one of my favorite grapes, Tempranillo (temp-rah-‘nee-yo).  Tempranillo is the major grape in most Rioja blends from Spain, and these are becoming increasingly popular with a segment of American wine drinkers, and thus deserve some more information. 

Despite the fact that most wine drinkers can only name two or three wines by variety, tempranillo and rioja are such catchy words that they are easily remembered by those who try the wines, especially when they taste the fresh, fruit-forward, sunny and sometimes spicy Rioja wines made with this grape and find that the first sip demands a second, and then many more — don’t even get me started on how well wines made with tempranillo pair while munching tapas!

The bright yet moderate acidity of tempranillo so nicely cuts the savory flavors of the grilled meats and vegetables and cheeses in tapas into bite-size salivary prizes, that you find yourself wondering which of the flavor array is from the food and which is from the wine.  Not a bad culinary high!  For those who say put up or shut up, a wine/tapas pairing is at the end of this ramble.  But before or after you drag down to the recipe and the wine recommendations, a word or two about the origin and place-oriented character, or terroir, of tempranillo is in order.

The natural home today of the tempranillo grape is northern Spain, especially the Duero and Rioja regions, though it may have been have been brought by French monks to Spain prior to the 13th century.  It does well in calcareous and ferruginous clay soils, and has affinity for higher altitudes and dry, sunny climes, with large diurnal temperature swings.  It ripens early and is suited for higher altitudes where fall frosts can come sooner than expected.  DNA testing shows it to match the Spanish cultivars Valdepenas, Cencibel, Tinta de toro, Tinta del pais, and Tinta de roriz and Valdepenhas from Portugal. (FPS Grape Program News Letter)

The wines exist in two versions, Joven (meaning young) and Crianza (meaning with breeding).  The Crianza can also be divided into Crianza (one year aging in oak), Reserva (two years aging and at least one of which is in oak), and Gran Reserva (two years of oak aging plus three years bottle aging).  Notably uniform good vintages include 2001, 2004, and 2005, though excellent wines were made by the best producers in all vintages of the last ten years.

My Wine Picks:

Bodegas Aalto Ribera del Duero 2005 (higher price/superior quality, tasted 2009)

Mas de Bazan Tempranillo 2004 (lower price/excellent quality, tasted 2007)

Tapas Recipe:

Croquetas de Jamón Serrano (tasted 2010)

Often served as tapas, croquetas are a favorite throughout Spain. Serve hot with other tapas.


2 eggs, beaten with a little water

4 tbsp flour

A pinch of Spanish paprika

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 cup of milk

1/2 lb of jamon seranno, diced

1/2 onion, minced

2 cups of bread crumbs olive oil for frying


Heat the oil in a pan and sauté minced onions until transparent. Stir in the flour and cook it briefly, then whisk in the milk. Cook, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Stir in the jamón and spread the mixture into a dish. Refrigerate until solid.

Place the beaten eggs in one dish, the bread crumbs in another. With moistened hands, form the chilled mixture into balls or cylinders. Dip each croqueta first in bread crumbs, then in beaten egg, then in bread crumbs again, taking care that they are well covered. Allow to cool for 30 minutes.

Heat olive oil in deep fryer and fry the coquetas a few at a time, until golden, about 3 minutes.

Recipe courtesy of Spain GourmeTour magazine.

*Dr. Menke is the Associate Professor of Enology; Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Colorado State University.

Reader Feedback

2 Responses to “The Terroir of Tempranillo (El Terruño de Tempranillo)”

  • Sunny says:

    I was curious of your opinion on bio diverse and organic wines? I have been reading as much on the subject as I can. We eat mostly organic products, so we would love to find wines without pesticides. We have tried some organic wines and found them awed up.

  • B Thaddeus Balls says:

    Dr. Menke – Glad to finally see an article (other than one of mine) on this site with no lefty spin! An absolute breath of fresh air! -Balls

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