Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Spanish Tempranillo Under $20

Wine Under $20

Seeking the best value for the buck.


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Once upon a time, my elementary school teacher asked a classroom full of fourth graders for the difference between seeing and looking. Glances shot across the room as my classmates and I tacitly agreed this was a trick question, and that the answer was not "they're the same thing" (especially when said with the "I'm practically already in fifth grade" kind of attitude that a nine-year-old is so good at pulling off). We were slow to get there, but she was trying to make us realize that while seeing is passive, looking is a more directed, focused activity that often leads to a deeper understanding or experience than just sitting there with your eyes open. Well, I suppose the same could be said for eating and drinking versus tasting.

The first time I really noticed—really tasted—Tempranillo was at the tapas restaurant Tía Pol in New York. We'd ordered a super flavorful squid dish, which was served in its own, concentrated ink. The smokiness and earthiness of the Bodegas Muga Reserva Rioja wine we drank alongside it was just too delicious a complement to ignore. I was forced out of passively drinking the wine by this splendid combination.* And I've been pretty into Tempranillo ever since.

*Remember Remy's cheese and strawberry moment in the movie Ratatouille? It was sorta like that.

Tempranillo is a thick-skinned black grape native to Spain and it's the main contributor to prominent red wines of its home country. This week, we'll look a bit deeper into Tempranillo—where it's made, what it tastes like, suggestions on how to enjoy it—and offer a lineup of affordable bottles that we recommend.

Where Tempranillo is Produced

Spain is the biggest producer of Tempranillo, with two regions in particular to keep in mind. (The labels of these wines might say the region instead of mentioning the grape, so it's worth knowing what to look out for.) The first is Rioja, with its three respective subregions:

  • Rioja Alta produces wines that tend to be lighter, and more acidic.
  • Rioja Alavesa also produces wines with bright acidity but which tend to have fuller body than Rioja Alta.
  • Lastly, Rioja Baja is the warmest and driest of the three subregions, which means that wines from this area often have higher levels of alcohol and deep, dark color (more on that later,)

The second major Tempranillo-producing region in Spain is Ribera del Duero, where Tempranillo is known locally as Tinto Fino.

There are also some new world regions (such as Chile, Argentina, and the US) that produce Tempranillo.

What It's Like

Tempranillo is known to have some serious structure. What does this winespeak term "structure" actually mean? Typically, there are three major contributors to a wine's structure: acid, tannins, and alcohol—and Tempranillo tends to have a lot of all three.

In terms of acid, let's first talk about the types of acid that are found in wine grapes. The three major kinds to know about are:

  1. Tartaric acid: the most prominent, concentrated acid in grapes
  2. Malic acid: gives a green apple-like sourness
  3. Citric acid: this one is less prevalent in wine grapes, but as expected has an aggressive citrus flavor (but is not as relevant in this case)

Spain is able to produce grapes with substantial amounts of acid, in part because the high temperatures during the day are contrasted with cooler temperatures at night. (This is called diurnal temperature variation, if you want to get fancy.) During the sunny days, when the grapes ripen and sugars develop, the harsh malic acid in grapes can be converted to the less abrasive tartaric acid. During the nighttime, this balance of acids is preserved with the cooler temperatures. (If it were hotter, the malic acid would be metabolized or lost during the night in a process called respiration.) Retaining the acid allows the wines to remain balanced as they get ripe.

Spain's Tempranillo grapes are known for having especially thick skins. What does this mean for our wine? Stronger tannins—our last player contributing to Tempranillo's structure. And because Tempranillo often is aged in oak, we not only get skin tannin, but also wood tannin, as we've chatted about before.

Tasting Tempranillo

With potentially high tannins in this wine, it is often thought that most Tempranillo is best if it has been allowed to age a bit, to mellow out the tannin as well as the acid. Bottles with "Reserva" or "Gran Reserva" on the label will have already had some aging, both in wood barrels and in the bottle. When you open a bottle of Tempranillo, you can also soften it a bit by using a decanter (or pouring it into a pitcher—it's the oxygen that matters, not how pretty the container is.)

With a wine this robust, food is a very good idea. Grilled meats and vegetables are a good match for this wine. And if you'd like to stay within theme, paella or rich Spanish tapas (like the aforementioned stellar squid) would also be nice.

We recently tasted eight bottles of Tempranillo, all from Spain, and all under $20. Here are the results of our tasting:

Our Favorites

The Flaco Tempranillo 2010 ($7) is a great and very affordable table wine with smooth tannins and an acidity that lifted up the wine. The sweet hints of vanilla from the oak were balanced by a smoky savoriness that reminded us of black olives. We'd happily buy this one again.

Another affordable option was the Bodegas Torremoron Tempranillo Ribera del Duero D.O. 2010 ($10), which had a pleasant, earthy core enhanced with citrusy notes. Some tasters thought this bottle had tannins that were a little too aggressive, so you may want to get the decanter out for this one.

We also liked the Dacu Ribera del Guadiana D.O. 2010 ($9), which had a suggestion of sweetness like ripe cherries or even raisins. Although some tasters weren't too wild about the slight burn (this baby is 15% alcohol), most were quite content with the balance of sweetness, acidity, and tannin that they would easily opt for this wine again.

Our last winner was the Bodegas Barco de Piedra 2009 ($15). With firm tannins behind the earthiness, this wine started with deep, dark blackberry flavors that turned savory into the finish. With a beautiful color, and well rounded flavor, we were surprised that this was only 15 dollars.

Recommended with Reservations

We were less crazy for these other wines because they seemed a little off balance, each with some flavor characteristic sticking out in a way that made it hard to get over.

The Montecillo Gran Reserva Tempranillo 2003 ($18) had a pronounced tartness that was too much for some tasters. This is a bottle that would do better with food—grill up some steaks, serve some hard salty cheese, and you'll likely enjoy it more.

The Bodegas Faustino V Reserva Rioja D.O.C. 2005 ($16) started with a scent of eucalyptus that translated to tastes of cedar and a bit of a minty finish. Although this was an interesting bottle, the cedar and pine tastes were much more prominent than the fruit component, which came through like unripe cherries or blackberries. But if you're into woodsy wines, this might be an affordable option for you.

The Dehesa Gago 2009 ($14) was a sweeter wine with fruity plum flavors and spice notes of anise, but some tasters found the body was a little thin, making the high alcohol (14.5%) stand out bit too much.

Lastly, the Spartico Organic Tempranillo ($10) was a juicy wine that smelled slightly of barnyard. With mild tannins, the acidity of this wine was a major player that seemed a little too strong for the delicate flavors of apricot and baking spices that just made it though.

Now that we've tasted, what about you? Are you a fan of Tempranillo from Spain? Have you tasted any bottles recently that you'd like to tell us about? Add your recommendations in the comments section!