Tempranillo Wine, the rich Spanish red

two glasses showing red wine with and without oak aging

Tempranillo is a variety of black grape native to Spain.  It is called Spain’s “noble grape”, and is the main variety used in Rioja[1].  Spanish cultivation of vitis vinifera, the ancestor common to wine grapes, began in earnest in classical times with Phoenician settlement in the southern provinces.  Later, according to the Roman writer Columella, wines were grown all over Spain.[2]  There are relatively few references to “Tempranillo”, possibly because it was the main indigenous variety.  There is an early reference to this grape in a verse attributed to the thirteenth century poet Alejandro, referring to the Ribera del Duero region, in which he refers to the Castilian grapes by name:

Ally fallaria ommes las bonas cardeniellas

E las otras mejores que son las tempraniellas

Roughly translated:

There, everyone acknowledges the Cardeniellas, which are good,

And the Tempraniellas, which are better.[3]

Tempranillo was once thought related to Pinot Noir, but ampelographers (identifying and classifying grapevines) currently believe it is an indigenous variety.  Notoriously climate-sensitive, until the seventeenth  century it was believed that Tempranillo vines were best suited to the slightly cooler climate of Spain’s northern provinces (now, it is grown in North and South America as well).  Thus it is the wine regions of La Rioja and Valdepeñas where Tempranillo made its historical mark.

At one point it may have had as many as 40-50 native varietals, but a twentieth-century vine killing phyloxerra removed a great deal of this biodiversity.[4]  In modern times, this grape has many synonyms.  In Portugal, it is called by local varietal names such as Tinto Roriz, Tinto Monteiro,  or Aragoñez.  In Castile it might be called Tindo del Pais, in Madrid Tinto del Toro, in Catalonia Ull de Liebre  (“eye of the hare”).

A Brief History of Wine

Brewing as we enjoy it in the West originated in the Middle East – all of it: wines, beers, and distilled beverages all came to Europe from the Middle East.  This region is now predominantly Muslim, a faith that prohibits alcohol.  It hasn’t always been, and there are still many, many distinct cultures and a vast variety of practices and beliefs in the region.

The Levant was a drinking culture, primarily of wine.  We have clay tablets, papyri, and archeological finds supporting the numbers:  when the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 BCE) inaugurated his new capital at Nimrud, on the Upper Zab tributary of the Tigris river, he provided 10,000 skins of wine, 10,000 units of beer, and 100 units of a “fine, mixed” beer, which Dr. Patrick McGovern writes probably had wine and special flavorants added.  Assyrian kings called this “irrigating the insides” of their subjects.[5]

Amphoras make the distribution of wine relatively easy to track.  Until barrels were invented by the Franks around the 3rd century BCE, and discovered and spread by the Romans several hundred years later, amphorae were the universal vessel used in the Mediterranean and Levant to ship wine, oil, and vinegar.  Distinctive shapes, maker’s stamps, and sometimes receiver’s stamps help identify where the vessels were made and where they were shipped to.  Amphorae and their sherds give us many of the clues we have about where wine was traded.

The wine industry is ancient and a major economic force.  In order to produce wine, three things must be in place: this grape, pottery to store it in (and for us to find), and cereal crops that would provide year-round sustenance.  By 5400 BCE, the Hajji Firuz wine industry was well established in the Zagros Mountains north of Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq and Armenia).  Dr. McGovern estimates that domesticated grapevines was well established in the northern Levant by this time.  The fifth century BCE Greek playwright Euripides’ The Bacchae even has the wine god Dionysos (Roman Bacchus) coming from this region, specificallythe west coast of Anatolia (Lydia and Phrygia).

Winemaking spread from the northern Levant to Greece, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, and thence to Egypt.  Domesticated transplantation in the region may date back as far as the sixth  millennium BCE (the wild vitis vinifera grapevine still grows throughout Lebanon and coastal Syria ).[6]  By the fourth millennium BCE, both wine and vinegar are known to have been introduced and well established in Egypt.  From there they spread to Mesopotamia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.  McGovern believes Phoenicians were primarily responsible for bringing Etruria, now Tuscany, “into the wine-culture fold” via trade from their colonies on Motya, off the coast of Sicily, and the Lipari islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  By 4000 BCE wine was regularly shipped from the Zagros to Mesopotamia.  Gaza, the Jordan Valley, and the southern Levantine hill country had been planted with domesticated vines by around 3500 BCE, and were so well established that in 3150 BCE  this region supplied King Scorpion I of Egypt all the 4500 liters (700 amphorae) of wine for his afterlife.  By 3000 BCE there was limited grape production in Egypt; it would eventually become one of the major products shipped to Rome, as many thousands of marked amphorae smashed on the ground and resting at the bottom of the Mediterranean attest.    Etrurian vineyards established by Phoenicians millennia ago have become the Italian wine producers we know and love today.

By 600 BCE Etruscans had become the principal exporters of wine to southern France.  Romans continued to carry production of their preferred beverage (Romans were never much for drinking beer) north across trans-Alpine Burgundy and the Mosel until they reached the climatic limit for domesticated vines.  When thirty thousand or more liters of wine were lost in the wreck of the Tanit and Elissa, two ships sailing out of the Phoenician colony of Carthage in the late eighth century BCE, they represented a very small dent in the enormous amount of wine shipped out of Phoenician ports like Tyre, Biblos, and Sidon (north of Jerusalem) and Berytus (modern Beirut).[7]

[1]  “Tempranillo, Spain’s Noble Grape”. In-Spain.info. 2003. http://www.in-spain.info/top20/tempranillo.htm retrieved 1/04/2012

[2] “Valdepeñas, History” (in Spanish). Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Valdepeñas. 2004. http://www.dovaldepenas.es/DOhistory.php.  Retrieved 1/05/2012

[4] “Grape varieties: Tempranillo”. riojawine.com. http://www.riojawine.com/en/viticultura/uva-tempranillo.htm.  (Reference for synonyms but not their locality.)Last retrieved in 2008

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[5] McGovern, Ancient Wine, p. 190

[6] McGovern, ibid., pp. 205, 295, 301

[7] McGovern, Ancient Wine, p. 190-1

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