Why tempranillo is star grape of Spain, no matter what you call it

This is one of those big-fish-in-a-big-pond situations.

The pond is Spain, the place with more vineyard acreage than any other country on earth, and the fish is tempranillo, Spain’s big red grape variety. It’s actually not Spain’s most widely planted wine grape; that honor belongs to the white grape variety airen. But as anglers and wine buffs know, big ponds often have more than one kind of big fish, and all big fishes are not equally rewarding to catch.

Tempranillo is the trophy catch of Spain. The word itself is derived from “temprano,” which is Spanish for “early,” and it is believed that the grape got its name because it tends to ripen on the early side of the harvest season. Despite its widespread presence on the Iberian peninsula — or perhaps because of it — tempranillo also goes by many other names in its home country.

In the storied region of Rioja, where the grape has gathered most of its acclaim through the decades, it is called tempranillo. But that is where the clarity ends. In nearby Ribera del Duero, a region that has been gaining ground on Rioja in both quality and reputation for years, the grape is called tinta del pais or tinto fino. In Toro, it is called tinta de toro. In Penedes, it is called ull de llebre in the local Catalan language (and ojo de liebre in Castilian, i.e., good ol’ espanol), and in Valdepenas and La Mancha, it is known as cencibel. Of course, none of this is sensible to the outsider, since all of it is tempranillo. (And there are many other aliases too.)

It is easy to understand why another country would have an alternate name for it (that whole “different language” thing), and even Spain’s neighbor to the west, Portugal, has two separate names for it: tinta roriz and aragonez. It’s almost as if the people who know what a great grape variety tempranillo is have been trying to distract and confuse everyone else, just to keep their secret safe.

But alas (or thank goodness, depending on which side…

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