If I had to bet the house on one of the so-called “alternative” grape varieties it’d be Spain’s tempranillo. We crushed only about 3000 tonnes a year in Australia (equivalent to perhaps 225 thousand dozen bottles) – a mere splash compared to the more familiar varieties we grow.
In 2012, Australian vintners processed almost 380,00 tonnes of shiraz, 220,000 of cabernet sauvignon, 127,000 of merlot and almost 33,000 of pinot noir (much of it for bubbly). After that the volumes tail away, dropping sharply to 19,000 tonnes of petit verdot, 15,000 of grenache, 10,000 of ruby cabernet and 5,000 of mataro (aka mourvedre).
But the tiny tempranillo crush (2,818 tonnes according to the Winemakers Federation of Australia; 3,440 according to the ABS) reflects neither its geographic spread nor a growing fascination with it among vignerons and wine drinkers.
A web search of the variety turned up more than 100 Australia tempranillos (and blends) on offer from one retailer alone. And a 2012 ABS survey lists 341 tempranillo producers. The retailer list included wines from many regions in every state except Tasmania. But the ABS figures say even Tasmania crushed two tonnes in 2012 – just behind the ACT’s three tonnes and Queensland’s six tonnes.
Though widely dispersed – from Queensland’s Granite Belt in the north to Tasmania in the south, and from the Hunter in the east to Greater Perth in the west -– the majority of the plantings lie in warm continental climates rather than in milder coastal areas.
Tellingly, vineyards in the hot, dry climates along the Murray River in South Australia and Victoria, and the Murray and Murrumbidgee in NSW, account for one third of the 2012 tempranillo harvest. Significant plantings in these traditionally high-output, low-cost areas suggest tempranillo may already have begun its shift into the mainstream – or at least that growers in these areas, aided and abetted by winemakers, see it heading that way.
South Australia dominated production in 2012 (317ha, 1503 tonnes), followed by NSW (220ha, 1134 tonnes), Victoria (119ha, 520 tonnes) Western Australia (46ha, 272 tonnes), Queensland (6ha, 6 tonnes), ACT (2 ha, 3 tonnes) and Tasmania (2ha, 2 tonnes). Note, the ACT figure reflects only a small part of the Canberra region, located predominantly in NSW.
The Barossa holds the biggest planting for an individual region. Its 135ha produced a miserly 490 tonnes in 2012, a yield per hectare of just 3.6 tonnes. We could expect greater yields – perhaps double those of 2012 – in more favourable vintages. However, the Barossa can never hope to match South Australian Riverland’s almost 12 tonnes to the hectare.
Total Australian tempranillo plantings of around 700 hectares represents less than half a per cent of our 155,000 hectares of grape vines. So for us it truly is a niche or “alternative” variety. But in Spain it’s a different story.
In Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, Penguin 2012), Jancis Robinson writes, “Spain is the kingdom of tempranillo, a kingdom that extended to 206,988ha [greater than Australia’s total area under vine] in 2008, making it the most widely planted red variety. It is widely distributed across the country, albeit under a host of synonyms”.
Based on historical and DNA evidence, Wine grapes concludes tempranillo is a native of Spain, probably originating in two adjacent regions north west of Aragon – Logrono in La Rioja and Peralta in Navarra.
The vine fairly quickly found its way to Portugal, Italy, France and even to South America in the seventeenth century.
Spain’s tempranillo-based reds, particularly those from the cooler Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions, inspired our vignerons to try the variety in Australia, including Canberra
Mount Majura winemaker Frank van de Loo writes, “We believe it is a variety well suited to our site, with Canberra having high levels of climatic similarity to the leading Spanish regions Rioja and Ribera del Duero”.
In 2010, with other tempranillo producers, Van de loo introduced a series of TempraNeo workshops to study and promote the variety. The group held workshops again in 2011 and 2013.
Courtesy of van de Loo, I recently tasted the 2012 vintage wines from the workshop, and threw in the recently released Quarry Hill 2013 (Murrumbateman). The line up covered a spectrum of climates – Canberra, Barossa, Wrattonbully, Porepunkah (near Bright, Victoria), Heathcote, Alpine Valleys, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale.
The wines varied widely in style – from the medium bodied, spicy elegance of van de Loo’s Mount Majura 2012, to the confronting savouriness and puckering tannins of Don Lewis and Narelle King’s Tar and Roses 2012. And one outrider, Quarry Hill 2013, made by Alex McKay, revealed a contrasting, bright and fleshy face of the variety, bottled young and fresh.
Mount Majura Canberra District Tempranillo 2012 $42
Frank Van de Loo’s tenth vintage of the variety, rose to the top – appealing for its just-ripe cherry and plum varietal flavour, medium body, elegant structure and attractive spice and pepper notes. A day after the tasting we paired it deliciously with salmon in pastry with currants and ginger, cooked by Linda Peek. The other tempranillos would’ve overwhelmed this exceptional dish.
Quarry Hill Canberra District Tempranillo 2013 $18
Juicy and strawberry-musk fruit, buoyant and plush, with substantial tannins washing through. Pure, unadorned tempranillo fruit.
Running with Bulls Barossa Tempranillo 2012 $16–$22.95
Shows the Barossa’s ripe, generous fruit flavour and comparatively soft tannins, though somewhat firmer than in the region’s shiraz.
Running with Bulls Wrattonbully Tempranillo 2012 $16–$22.95
Same maker (Yalumba) as the Barossa wine, but fruit more fragrant and reminiscent of summer berries with elegant structure of fine but firm tannins.
Mayford Porepunkah Tempranillo 2012 $35
Savoury and acidic, with blueberry-like fruit buried deep down under layers of firm tannins.
Tar and Roses Heathcote–Alpine Valleys Tempranillo 2012 $24
Earthy, savoury and gamey, with powerful, mouth-drying tannins – a wine to enjoy with rare red meat or ultra savoury food.
La Linea Adelaide Hills Tempranillo 2012 $27
Medium bodied with sweet, cherry-like fruit, seasoned with spice and pepper and a solid wave of tannin washing across the palate.
Gemtree Luna Roja McLaren Vale Tempranillo 2012 $25
The fullest bodied of the wines, featuring ripe, black-cherry flavours on a round mid palate, cut through with rustic tannins.
Lind Peek’s recipe, Salmon in pastry with currants and ginger.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 9 October 2013 in the Canberra Times and goodfood.com.au