Old Grapes, Lovely Wines: Muller-Thurgau and Tempranillo

two glasses of wine side by side, one red and one white

All right, I need a break from writing about beer…

so I’ll move over to something I honestly enjoy – wine.  Muller-Thurgau is a lovely German white flavored with elderflowers.  Tempranillo is Spain’s ‘noble grape’.  Both turn out to have fairly old, interesting histories, going back further in time than you might guess.  I made my first wines last summer, from kits, and they turned out remarkably well.  They turned were a pleasure to drink, and were perhaps more uniformly welcome at small parties and dinners than beer sometimes.  There are over a hundred kinds of beer – it’s hard to guess which kind the host will be in the mood for.  Of course, there are something over 75000 kinds of wine!

I entered my wines in a couple of competitions last summer and did very well, but the real fun started when I prepared for an SCA competition on Twelfth Night last January.  I needed documentation, you see.  I could have simply done a little fact finding to say exactly where and when Spanish reds and German whites could be found before the sixteenth century, but that’s kind of lame.  Instead, I looked into the history of the vines themselves, and found I’d gotten inordinately lucky – both vines have venerable pre-seventeenth-century histories.  I found some fun for my ancient-history-lovin’ soul.

Müller-Thurgau , that basic ol’ German table wine, really only dates only as far back as 1882.  Hermann Müller, from the Swiss canton of Thurgau, was trying for the complexity of Riesling combined with the early ripening ability of Silvaner grapes.  He didn’t quite get it, but the wine caught on.  By the 1970s, Müller-Thurgau was Germany’s most-planted grape.  It’s pretty forgiving, thriving in a range of climates and soil types.  The vines mature early and yield generously.  The grape can be used for many medium sweet wines such as Leibfraumilch and Piesporter, so it’s easy to see why it’s popular.

We are learning more and more about grape vines through modern techniques of genetic study.  Sources guessed that Müller-Thurgau was a cross between Riesling and some other types of grape – Chasselas was a popular candidate for a while, and the variety Admirable de Courtiller in particular.  In 2000, scientists proved the actual grape crossed with Riesling was Madeleine Royale, a Chasselas seedling.

Now for some fun: Chasselas turns out to be a reasonably old wine grape.  It may be that Soliman the Splendid presented Francis I of France (1494-1547) with Chasselas vine plants, which Frances had planted at the village of Thomery, near that loveliest of chateaux, Fontainebleau.  It may be that Chasselas vines came from vines from Cahors and Mireval planted at Thomery.  Either way, by the seventeenth century, the Chasselas grape had become famous as the king’s favorite, and was officially the ‘King’s dessert’ (in fact, it’s only really been used as a table grape since the sixteenth century; it was only used for wine before that).  Louis XIV had his gardener grow Chasselas in the Versailles orchards.

That’s good, romantic fun, but it’s nothing compared to Tempranillo.  It’s a native to Spain, a black grape that ripens several weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes.  Spain’s ‘noble grape’ has long been thought to be a pinot noir, but once again genetic study has uncovered a much more interesting story.  I got goosebumps when  I found that Spanish wine grape cultivation of this native variety began in earnest with Phoenician settlement in the southern provinces – Phoenicians moved into Spain some time after 800 BC!  Phoenicia had quite a wine culture, so I guess settlers so far from home were looking to create something familiar.  Later, according to the Roman writer Columella (born in Spain in the 1st c AD, practically recent in comparison), vines were grown all over Spain – and already there were scattered references to the name “Tempranillo”, a diminutive for temprano, or “early”.  That’s a two thousand year old variety!

This grape was mentioned by poet Alejandro in the 13th century:

Ally fallaría ommes las bonas cardeniellas
e las otras mejores que son las tempraniellas

which roughly translates as:

There, everyone acknowledges the Cardeniellas, which are good,
and the Tempraniellas, which are better

Tempranillos are often blended nowadays, and in Spain are bottled under regional names as often as not – Rioja, or Ribera del Duero, for example.  There aren’t a ton of references to it through history, but part of the problem could be the many names for wines made from Tempranillo grapes.  Ull de Liebre (Catalan for ‘Eye of the Hare’) and Tinto del Toro (‘red bull’) are two of my favorites.  It’s a full-bodied, complex, ruby-red wine that ages well – a wine that cries out to accompany a hearty meal with lots of friends, preferably on a shady patio on a sunny day.  I’m a convert.

Have I mentioned that my father collected the family sangria recipe from a Spanish truck driver when we lived outside of Paris?  If you need me this summer, I’ll be out on the patio…

 

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