On Saturday, I attended a Sydney Morning Herald’s Growers’ Market NSW Wine Festival tasting hosted by Huon Hooke and Nick Stock. I was impressed with the tempranillo wines on offer, especially the Audrey Wilkinson Tempranillo Hunter Vallery 2009.

Hooke was asked why we are only just starting to see tempranillo being made by a significant number of wineries in Australia. He said that, unlike other parts of the world, Australia has experienced relatively low Spanish migration. Consequently, in contrast to French and most Italian varieties, which are well-known to Australian winemakers, wineries have only recently become aware of the potential of this noble grape of Spain.

As with anything wine-related, the reasons for Australia’s only recent discovery of tempranillo are a bit more complicated. While Spain is one of the oldest and the largest wine-producing countries in the world, the story of modern Spanish wine at least is very young indeed.  As Lettie Teague notes in her book Educating Peter, “So much is happening in Spain – new wines being made, new wineries being built, old regions revitalised, and old vineyards rediscovered. And most of these changes have taken place in a short time – mostly in the past decade or so.” For many consumers, winemakers and critics alike Spain is a relatively recent focal point on the world-wine map. (Educating Peter by Lettie Teague, New York: Scribner 2008)

Indeed, the first vintage of the most expensive wine in Spain, a tempranillo from the rapidly growing Ribera Del Duoro region, was made by a Dane, Peter Sisseck, in 1995. His acclaimed Pingus was considered a revelation at the time of its release. Made from low yielding vines of at least 65 years of age, this fruit forward tannic wine was aged in new French barriques for only 14 months – less than half the traditional length of time a top Spanish wine normally stayed in the barrel. It represented a shift in style away from the American oak influenced aromas and flavours of vanilla, leather and tobacco to  the rich, dark stone fruitiness of plums, dark cherries and blackberries complemented by dried spices and an earthy, savoury character.

Other top makers of tempranillo include Vega Sicilia and Pesquera in Ribera Del Duero, and Artadi and Roda in Rioja – the oldest and most traditional wine region in Spain. My husband and I enjoyed a rich, earthy bottle of Roda Reserva 2003 with paella at Libronz in Wollongong over the summer break. It was a birthday gift from a friend who developed a passion for Rioja while living in New York.

Roda is also a young family-owned winery.  Its first commercial vintage was only released in 1992, but like Dominio de Pingus, the winery has revitalised old vines. Its flagship wine, the Cirsion, typically retails for over $300. The Reserva is a blend of tempranillo, graciano and grenache. It was aged for 16 months in new and one year old French oak and then 20 months in bottle.

In Rioja the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva have quite specific meanings. The classifications refer not only to the quality of the grapes but to the time the wines have been aged in the barrel and in the bottle. Crianza wines are aged for the shortest amount of time (one year in barrel and one year in bottle). A Reserva wine is aged for a minimum of one year in barrel and two years in bottle and a Gran Reserva, which is only made in the best years, is aged at least two years or more in barrel and at least three years in bottle.

This week we’ll take a look at some great Spanish tempranillo producers.