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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Tempranillo

Wines Of Now
1 July 2021. Words by YGOW.

Tempranillo is unarguably Spain’s most recognisable variety, forming the bedrock of that country’s most famous red wines. It is also a grape that has seen explosive global growth, with more tempranillo planted since 2000 than any other variety, and by a big margin. In Australia, it has made a modest but meaningful mark, but with limited genetic vine material, the potential for the grape is exponentially bigger, and with new clones now online, a Deep Dive into Australian tempranillo is called for.

Our panel: Mark Walpole, vigneron/owner Fighting Gully Road; Sarah Andrew DipWSET; Michael Wren, vigneron/owner Wren Estate and Grande Vindima Wines; Lucy Forbes, owner Pais Imports; Raquel Jones vigneron/owner Weathercraft; Beth Bicknell, Iberian wine buyer Vinomofo; Andrea Infimo, sommelier/wine buyer Movida; James Vercoe DipWSET.

We gathered every tempranillo we could find and set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

The Top Tempranillo in Australia

2019 Innocent Bystander Tempranillo, Victoria $25 RRP

This was given top billing by Forbes, Infimo and Jones, was just one place back for Vercoe, and it also made Bicknell and Wren’s lists. “This wine kept on giving to the senses with interesting intent,” wrote Jones. “One minute I was immersed in red cherries and plums and the next I was transported with sun-dried leaves, herbs and spice thrown into the mix – such a wonderfully contrasting range of expression.” Forbes saw a “Heady perfume of violets, sour cherries and a lovely herbal undertone. There is a wonderful hit of sweet raspberries, sour cherry and cola which is complemented by mouth-watering acidity and fine tannins. It’s a lovely example of a bright and fresh style tempranillo that would give the styles from Rioja a run for their money.” Infimo saw, “A lot of plum and cherry, complemented by toast, cedar and cloves and a whiff of non-intrusive eucalyptus, juniper and shrubby wild herbs. The palate has a solid intensity of flavour and a vibrant crunch with fine, perfectly shaped tannins that carry the succulent fruit on the finish and a graphite-like minerality.” Vercoe wrote that “It dances down the palate leaving a memory trail of poppies, redcurrants and wild thyme.”

 

2020 Hither & Yon Tempranillo, McLaren Vale $29 RRP

This made the top-six lists of five tasters, with Wren placing it first on his sheet, while Andrew had it just one place back. Forbes, Jones and Infimo also rated it highly. “Cherry cola on the nose coupled with lifted red fruits such as cherries and plums – reminiscent of a summer berry pudding,” wrote Andrew. “The line of acid and tannin provide energy on the palate and carry the vibrant fruit which presents as juicy and moreish on the mid-palate. Not overly complex but radiates vibrancy and freshness for an early consumption tempranillo.” Wren saw “Lovely fruit purity and weight without being heavy. Fine tannin with really nice length on the finish. Deep red berry fruits with ripe cherry and a hint of savoury spice.” “The scent of tomato leaves mixed in with cherry cola and hints of myrtle-leaf citrus enliven the senses,” wrote Jones. “On the palate, cherry notes are broodier with strands of pomegranate molasses and summer tomato. The use of oak carries the fusion well and referees the respectful play between the sweet and savoury elements. Forbes saw “spice, leather, ferrous and earthly undertones. This wine has a great sense of ease. A lovely Aussie expression of this variety.”

 

2021 Gemtree ‘Luna Temprana’ Tempranillo, McLaren Vale $26 RRP

“There is a real intensity to this wine,” wrote Vercoe in picking this as his top wine of the tasting. “Dark plums, bramble, cola root, dried nori and delicately balanced, light mace and nutmeg spice get you interested. But it’s the velvet-like palate offset by an electric blackcurrant acidity that really gets you hooked. There is also an earthiness and an umami savouriness that makes sure you know you are drinking tempranillo. The cold crushed rock mineral character teamed with the subtle but present, fine-powdered natural tannin give the most refreshing finish. This wine has it all.” The wine occupied second place for Wren. “Plump, juicy blackberry and cherry and a herbal touch on the nose that flows through to the palate,” he wrote. The Juicy mid-palate is complemented by some slightly grainy but well-placed tannins. A bit of a crowd pleaser.” Forbes found it “Packed full of cola, sweet spice and plum, this is a wine that’s not shy of its identity. A lovely freshness complements the density and depth of this wine and vibrant fruit and chalky tannin will leave you coming back for more!”

 

2019 Anderson & Marsh ‘Parell’ Tempranillo, North-East Victoria $45 RRP

This made the top-six lists of four panellists, Bicknell, Wren, Walpole and Jones. “Peppery spice with a medium body and good concentration,” wrote Bicknell. “The wine has serious length and a very savoury finish, a step up in the bracket. It’s an awesome intersection of just ripe fruit (cherries) with fresh green herbs, a bit of spice and abundant tannin. Super long, a wine to revisit and see what new has popped up in the glass. Wonderfully vibrant and long.” “Licorice and spice and all things savoury!” wrote Jones. “The depth of purple-red colour is precursor to the complexity within. With each taste, there was more to discover. Chalky tannins held together the complex array of flavours with a seamlessness to the overall finish. I very much enjoyed this wine.” Walpole saw “Dark red and black fruits, with classic spicy cola aromatics. Soft fine tannins and sweet fruit profile – very fine and persistent.” Wren thought the palate showed “a lovely brightness and freshness atop a dark undertone. Great acid/weight balance and purity of fruit. Some herbal spice and fine yet present dark cocoa tannins round out the finish nicely.”

 

2019 La Linea Tempranillo, Adelaide Hills $27 RRP

Forbes placed this in second position on her tasting sheet, while Jones and Andrew also included it in their top six. “Lifted red fruits with macerated strawberries and bramble berries overlain with fresh sage and thyme,” wrote Forbes. “Evocative sour cherry and earthy notes carry through and finish with a nice bit of grip that would allow this to be a perfect food wine.” “A savoury and brooding nose that draws you in from the outset,” wrote Andrew. “Dark cherry and plum are combined with sage spice on the palate which then transitions to an earthy undertone and salt bush character. This wine is showing the benefit of both barrel and bottle maturation. The tannins are ripe and formative on the mid-palate but also extend the savoury fruit profile with cooked beetroot seen on the long finish.” Jones noted that she “kept thinking how balanced this wine was. It was savoury as much as it was sweet, flavourfully juicy but with structure and control. Despite its youthful appearance, there were wisps of tobacco and even leather from oak used. These intermingled with primary, varietal characteristics of black cherry and dried fig. Each element appeared to dance respectfully alongside the others.”

 

2020 Battles Tempranillo, Margaret River $32 RRP

This was rated highly by both Andrew and Infimo, with the latter placing it second on his top-six list. “A great combination of ripeness, freshness and savouriness,” he wrote. “The aromas of crushed violets, the opulent plum fruit and a mild herbaceousness (think ripe stalks) remind me of a Chinon cabernet franc from a warmer vintage. The palate is dense and velvety with upfront clean blackcurrant, blue fruit and crushed violets that slowly give way to a mild meatiness and a gentle tomato-vine like savouriness. Good length. Chocolate and dried fruit on the finish.” “Perfumed, with cherries, plums and blue fruits greet you on approach, suggesting a core of sweet fruit,” wrote Andrew. “Chalky tannins frame the mouthfeel and guide the fruit, transitioning to a savoury mid-palate that displays a hint of brine and umami notes. A lovely oak spice combines with these savoury flavours and the finish is extended and remains persistent due to vibrant acidity. This has time on its side for enjoyment now or in the future.”

 

2020 La Kooki ‘Las Piedras’ Tempranillo, Ferguson Valley $40 RRP

This made the top-six lists of Wren, Jones and Bicknell. “A little cola/sarsaparilla on the nose,” wrote Wren. “Plush fruit with good brightness. Some slightly grainy/youthful tannins but certainly not out of place and for me adding complexity and interest to the wine. Good varietal expression. Bright red fruits dominating, as they should be.” Bicknell saw “Spice and reds fruits on the nose. This wine is so beautifully fruited. It’s long and cool with an elegant texture and tannins on a palate of cherry, plum, nutmeg and a few cool forest notes. It’s so light on its feet, with real power behind the fruit. It’s not challenging, simply very delicious.” “This wine was an interesting contrast for me,” wrote Jones. “The ripe cherry on the nose, with additional brown sugar, had me expecting sweetness on the palate, and yet the savouriness that ensued was fabulously different. It was earthy, yet fleshy, with laurel leaf and touches of clove, highlighting the generosity of fruit. The wine maintains youthful freshness, while the rich savouriness at the end is mouth-wateringly impressive.”

 

2020 Tar & Roses Tempranillo, Heathcote $26 RRP

This was selected as a top-six wine by four tasters, Walpole, Andrew, Infimo and Vercoe. “Juicy aroma and fruit profile on the palate, driven by primary red and blue fruits (think cherry, plum and blueberries),” wrote Andrew. “A hint of violets opens in the glass. Lovely secondary characters of oak spice (vanilla and cedar) add to the engagement on the nose but work to ground the lifted fruit on the palate. Sweet followed by savoury on the palate, this wine is definitely fruit driven, however linear chalky tannins drive the mouthfeel.” “A heady wine in the blue fruit spectrum of tempranillo,” wrote Vercoe. “It’s all lavender, mulberry and dark blue fruits, with hint of dry spice. The palate takes you on wild adventure through the blackthorn, bramble and over the hedgerow – with a hint of every berry, leaf and twig that you trample along the way. The fruit is both savoury and sweet and the sense of earth is shown through humus-like savouriness and a campfire charcoal tannin. The finish has a hint of everything touched along the path with a gently tart acidity directing you home.”

 

2020 Franca’s Vineyard Tempranillo, Riverland $22 RRP

Bicknell had this in second place on her tasting sheet. “This one is full of ripe, juicy dark plums and puckering red plums with a little bit of minty freshness,” she wrote. “It’s a bit of a fresh Australiana thing on the nose, which gives a tiny lift to the otherwise fruit-dominated nose. On the palate, plump plums, freshness, tiny tannins with blue and red fruits. This wine takes me to good, new-wave Rioja. There’s a bit of oak to support generous fruit and lots of spice (licorice and hard herbs). Freshness with grainy tannins are there, but it’s all about the plump cherries and plums.” Forbes also picked this in her top six. “An assortment of florals and blackcurrant, bramble and blackberry fruits make for a luscious red wine that looks to Ribera del Duero. There’s an array of sweet kitchen spice with juicy berry fruits and cola that’s celebrated with chalky tannins and a fresh finish.”

 

2018 A. Rodda ‘Aquila Audax’ Tempranillo, Beechworth RRP $38

Andrew placed this as her top wine of the tasting. “Lifted new oak spice upfront is accompanied by youthful blue fruits of blackcurrants on the nose,” she wrote. “These aromas transfer to the palate with additional secondary characters of oak spice – think cedar and vanilla. A lovely interplay of chalky tannins and vibrant acid carries the palate from sweet fruit to a savoury mouthfeel. A warming hue on the back palate is supported by fruit intensity to deliver a wine with poise, line and length. Can drink now or cellar mid-term.”

 

2019 Signature Wines ‘The Coordinates’ Tempranillo, Adelaide Hills $35 RRP

This was Bicknell’s top pick of the line-up. “This wine has a great nose,” she wrote. “It takes me to the mountains and beautiful alpine spices – pine needles, fresh, deep earthy smells. The wine is round and deep with fine tannin and lots of detail – LOVE! This wine is so cool and calm and powerful. Possibly from a cooler place, because the wine is perfectly ripe, but not big in body or alcohol. The detail reminds me of those rare Gran Reservas that still have so much fruit, but there’s a savoury herbaceousness that is compelling and morphs as the wine sees air. It’s a great example of a medium-bodied, textured wine.”

 

2020 Main & Cherry Tempranillo, McLaren Vale $26 RRP

From a sandy, dry-grown site in Blewitt Springs, Walpole picked this as his top wine of the tasting. “With a youthful purple colour,” he wrote,” the wine exudes fragrant aromatics of purple-berry fruits, yet with an underlying savouriness of chinotto. On the palate, the wine is bright and light, with very fine and supple tannins. It’s a wine of elegance.”

 

2019 Brown Brothers ‘Origins Series’ Tempranillo, Heathcote/King Valley $18 RRP

Jones gave this second place on her tasting sheet. “This younger, fresher style of tempranillo was a pleasure to taste,” she wrote. “Its vibrant, ruby red colour welcomingly set the stage. Distinctly varietal, the wine has red cherry on the nose, but it also reminds me of sarsaparilla with its mixture of dried herbs, vanilla and licorice. There were even fleeting wisps of aniseed intermingled with tobacco leaf, reminding me of childhood smells working alongside dad. There is a lot on offer with this wine for its age. On the palate, the wine is beautifully balanced with acid, fruit and tannins all seeming to come together in harmony. A wonderful wine.”

 

2019 Running with Bulls Tempranillo, Barossa Valley $24 RRP

This came second on Walpole’s list of the top wines from the tasting. “A deep purple-plum colour,” he wrote. “Cherry cola aromatics, with sweet ripe fruits and some brambly overtones. This has a very flavoursome palate of dark fruits, with nice weight and great persistence and length of flavour, assisted by fine, firm tannins on the finish.”

 

2018 Henschke ‘Stone Jar’ Tempranillo, Eden Valley $50 RRP

Coming from Henschke’s Eden Valley vineyard, which was planted in 2002, Walpole had this towards the top of his six selections. “Mid-deep plum colour,” he wrote, “with very attractive spicy and sweet red fruits on the nose, with some whole bunch characters apparent. Red ink and beetroot. The palate is savoury with soft, fine tannins, finishing with a firmer tannin grip.”

 

2018 Matriarch & Rogue ‘Mary’ Tempranillo, Clare Valley $28 RRP

“Quite layered,” wrote Infimo in rating this in the top half of his selections. “Still a lot of primary fruit (red/black plum and cherry) and well-integrated oak spices (cedar and nutmeg), but what makes this wine quite interesting are the very pleasant bottle-age-derived aromas: dried rose petals, dried sage, red thyme and plenty of paprika-spiced charcuterie. Good acidity keeps the palate fresh. Good amount of tannins but mostly polished and resolved. The flavour profile mirrors the nose with plum and tar on the finish. Perhaps the most Old World in style.

 

2019 Nick O’Leary ‘Seven Gates’ Tempranillo, Canberra District $32 RRP

Vercoe placed this in the top half of his six selections. “While there are notes of red apple and violet that appear, I feel like this wine could be summarised simply as ’ash and lavender’,” he wrote. “With a nicely open mouthfeel and balanced glycerol, the wine moves through the palate with consummate ease. The tannins are hiding, but definitely present, helping shape and unveil the wine which is defined by an acidity as refreshingly tart as dried barberry. Velvet disguised as tempranillo.”

 

2019 Ella Semmler’s Orchard Riverland $22 RRP

“The pale bright ruby colour stands out in a sea of purple-edged wines,” wrote Vercoe, placing this towards the middle of his top six. “The fruit is proudly bright; red berries, cherry and cranberry all flirt with being considered confectionary, but there is tartness and vibrancy which stops them crossing that line. Savoury, green-edged blackcurrant leaf acts as the foil to the brightness and diverts you from the fruit and into the trees. The wine is nimble and zippy and could certainly handle a hard chill to have alongside a pork terrine or other such picnic fancies. This wine is youthful, wiry and alive.”

 

2020 Artwine ‘Hola’ Tempranillo, Clare Valley $32 RRP

“Vibrant colour and nose with a lovely core of dark fruits (cherries and plums),” wrote Andrew in including this in her top six. “Dry herbs such as oregano and Italian herbs combine with mocha notes as the wine opens in the glass. Dry savoury tannins are wrapped in the core of fruit, with oak spice (cedar) contributing to the complexity of flavours on the palate. The mouthfeel integrates structure and fruit intensity well and the finish is long and savoury. A more youthful style of tempranillo, with enough acidity to support further bottle maturation.”

 

2019 Mount Majura Tempranillo, Canberra District $54 RRP

“A bigger more robust style,” wrote Walpole as he added this to his top-six list. “Initially a little closed, the wine opened to show earthy dark fruits, black truffle and nicely balanced oak. The palate showed soft, juicy fruit through the core, and very supple ripe tannins. A wine of interest and attractive aromatics.” Wren also notched this up as a top-six wine. “Slightly confectionary nose mixed with some attractive spice and cloves,” he wrote. “Riper fruit spectrum with dark, ripe plum and Christmas cake fruit and spice. Cedary, leathery spice notes run through, and the finish is marked by fine tannin.”

 

2018 The Pawn Tempranillo, Adelaide Hills $25 RRP

“It started with some reduction, which blew off quite quickly making all the classic tempranillo fruit descriptors come up,” wrote Infimo in allocating this a top-six berth. “After some time in the glass, the meaty and balsamic notes were the most prominent. Lovely density on the palate with a sweet-and-sour element (think plum sauce) barbecued meat and pleasantly chewy tannins that slowly release fresh fruit flavours on the long finish.”

 

2019 Signature Wines ‘The Sector’ Tempranillo, Adelaide Hills $45 RRP

Forbes included this amongst her top wines of the tasting. “This wine doesn’t take much encouragement,” she wrote, “rather aromas of cloves, nutmeg, white pepper and cherry cola naturally make their way out of the glass. There is a lovely sense of energy in this wine, and it has a vibrancy yet possesses an assertiveness that makes you sit back and enjoy the ride.”

 

2020 Paxton Tempranillo, McLaren Vale $25 RRP

“This one tastes young and I like it!” declared Bicknell, as she added it to her top-six list. “There’s a greenness, but it’s balanced by fruit. It’s a super-approachable wine, juicy, possibly from some carbonic maceration. It says temp in the fruit profile of cherry and cranberries, and there is a bit of tannin, but it’s a young wine designed to be chilled and smashed.”

 

2020 Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards Tempranillo, McLaren Vale $32 RRP

“There is a purity on the nose here,” wrote Vercoe, giving this a top-six finish. “Blue and black fruits come directly with a briar savouriness. The glycerol mouthfeel gives you comfort while being held to account by a blackcurrant and quandong tart acidity. There are wild thyme, anise and clove spice notes and a green leaf – almost rocket – bite that adds complexity and interest. On the finish, the ashen tannin appears and sings harmoniously with the dark fruits and wild herbs, showing a mastery in balance.”

Tempranillo – The Backstory

Tempranillo’s homeland

Tempranillo literally translates as “little early one” (temprano means early), with the vines budding late and the grapes often ripening two weeks earlier than other Spanish red grapes. This early ripening (something generally associated with cool climate grapes) sits at odds with the casual view of Spain being hot – and by default Spanish wine regions – that seems to be forged by an image of a sun beating down on cracked red earth, a matador death-dancing in the dust with a bull. It’s a cliché, for sure, but it seems pervasive for many.

But Spain is far from homogenous, with a great variety of climatic conditions, and the same can be said for its wine regions, from coastal to continental to distinctly mountainous, and from baking hot to distinctly cool.

Tempranillo is grown throughout the country, being the most planted and most cherished red grape, but it is in Rioja and Ribera del Duero in the north that it reaches its greatest heights. And while those regions certainly have some quite hot conditions, especially Ribera, with Rioja relatively mild, there are also meaningful high-altitude plantings in both over 700 metres, and even over 900 metres in Ribera, translating to cooler days and often chilly nights.

“Tempranillo has been planted in Australia at a really fast rate,” said Infimo. “I think it’s a variety that we’re still trying to understand how it works. I assume we’ve got clones from Rioja, but there were two or three examples I came across that were showing the black olive tapenade that I have encountered in Ribera del Duero and Toro.”

Additionally, Ribera has a combination of a Mediterranean and continental climate, with hot days in the less-lofty sites moderated by quite cool nights, which helps to retain fresh flavours and acidity in the grapes. Tempranillo’s acid can drop off substantially in the heat, but it generally tolerates warmer conditions reasonably well, building flavour and thickening skins to provide colour and tannic structure to the finished wines.

It’s also important to note that tempranillo is used in both Rioja and Ribera del Duero as a blending grape, though largely as the majority partner. That was not always the case, with Rioja having more garnacha (grenache) than tempranillo planted in the 1970s (39 to 31 per cent), though the tables have well and truly turned, with a current dominance at about 80 per cent. Graciano also plays a small but important role there, with the high-acid variety bolstering tempranillo’s typical deficit, while garnacha adds fruit weight and richness.

Ribera’s fortunes have been a much more modern affair with much of the vineyard expansion happening relatively recently. In fact, there were only nine wineries in 1982 when DO (the legal appellation control) status was accorded. Today there are over 300 wineries under that DO, with some 22,500 hectares planted, which is still dwarfed by Rioja’s 64,000 hectares. Ribera has also long had a foundation of blending with Bordeaux varieties, though today in increasingly smaller amounts, with varietal tempranillo increasingly common.

It is hard to generalise about the style of the wines from the two regions, such is the variety of localised climate and conditions. But in broad brushstrokes, the wines of Ribera tend to more fruit density and concentration, while the wines of Rioja tend more to red-fruited midweight styles, with notable savoury detail. Historically, wines for Rioja were aged in American oak for lengthy periods (3 years for Reserva and 5 for Gran Reserva) producing wines that were marked by both sweet fruit and spice along with earthy, leathery tones, but there is more of a middle ground with modern Ribera and Rioja, leaning on fruit purity, and often as straight tempranillo, with soils and climatic nuances speaking most loudly.

Tempranillo is also an important, though less prevalent variety in Portugal, under the main synonyms tinta roriz and aragonez. It is one of the five key varieties in Port, while it also contributes to table wine blends in the Douro and Dāo Valleys, Alentejo and other regions. It is well represented in South America, particularly Argentina, and has been in the USA since the start of the 20th century, though quality production is a relatively recent thing.

Globally, tempranillo has had the biggest growth of any variety since 2000 – more than shiraz/syrah, more than cabernet sauvignon. But unlike those grapes, tempranillo’s rise has been almost solely in its homeland, with Spain’s plantings increasing by almost 115,000 hectares to 2016, while only another 10,000 hectares are claimed by the rest of the world combined, with Australia accounting for a relatively modest but nonetheless meaningful portion of that growth.

Tempranillo in Australia

In Australia, with nearly 750 hectares of tempranillo planted up to the 2019 vintage, the grape has more than a decent foothold (that’s some 300 hectares more than sangiovese, which presents as a more established alternative variety in this country). Ten years earlier, that figure was 350 hectares, so it’s more than doubled in just a decade, and it is planted across many regions, from the arid to the notably chilly. But it’s fair to say that the grape’s rise here has not been a quick one, with its presence first documented over 100 years ago.

“There’s a real opportunity to raise the bar as the new clones start to come out, to make some really serious styles.”

When François de Castella was appointed Victorian State Viticulturist in 1907, one of his main tasks was to revitalise an industry that had been crippled by phylloxera. And perhaps no more impactfully than in Rutherglen, where very successful commercial vineyards had been all but wiped out by that time.

De Castella, who had trained in Switzerland, toured Europe in search of suitable vines for the often-harsh Australian climate – a project that is being mirrored today, with climate-apt varieties a strong focus for growers, especially in warmer zones where traditional varieties can now struggle. Those propagated cuttings were then grafted onto American rootstocks, which are resistant to the vine louse.

That collection of vine material, brought home to the Rutherglen College in 1908, famously brought durif to the region, but De Castella also imported tempranillo. While durif became synonymous with Rutherglen, tempranillo never got a notable foothold, or at least a documented one, and the economic slide that quickened into the Great Depression and two world wars, coupled with a declining interest in table wines, seemed to erase what tempranillo there was.

Mark Walpole is one of the modern champions of the grape, as well as being one of the country’s most respected viticulturists. When he took an interest in tempranillo it was as a young viticulturist at Brown Brothers in the 1980s. With Graciano well established in the Brown Brothers vineyards (another legacy of De Castella’s collection), Walpole thought it logical to source some tempranillo to blend with. That search took him to the Hunter Valley, where he was just in time to rescue material from what may have been the last established planting in the country.

“We got the cuttings from a vineyard in the Hunter that was ripping it out because they said it didn’t work there, and we grafted up enough to plant about an acre,” he says. That vineyard was planted with the help of Walpole’s brothers in Victoria’s Alpine Valleys, part of a 16-hectare planting focused on alternative grapes, including a nursery block of some 60 varieties.

Mark Walpole is one of the modern champions of tempranillo in Australia, as well as being one of the country’s most respected viticulturists. “There’s quite a remarkable difference [between clones],” he says. “We’ve only had our first crop off the ones through the Yalumba Nursery this year, but they are very, very different from the old, original Davis clone… far more structure, much more tannin… and even visually as a vine. We’ve found a massive difference with lower pH and much better acidity, and retaining it as well. With one particular batch, we didn’t add any acid to it at all.”

The vineyard in the Hunter, Denman Estate, had the only registered plantings of tempranillo at the time, which Walpole believes would have been based on vine material from California’s Davis University, rather than De Castella’s much earlier importation. There was some material imported to Merbein, Victoria, in 1964, then two clones from UC Davis in 1966 and ’71, and while the single clone at Denman has not been verified, Walpole circumstantially believes that it is most likely one of the two US-propagated clones.

Walpole’s first viable crop was in 1991, with the fruit contracted to Brown Brothers. Catching the eye of the fortified maker at the time, the grapes ended up in ‘port’ bottlings, with it not being made into a table wine until 1996 with a small cellar door release – this country’s first acknowledged varietal bottling. That first tentative step was enthusiastically received, with Brown Brothers encouraged to commit to a vineyard in Heathcote, as well as Walpole extending his family holdings.

Attack of the Clones

Erl and Ros Happ also planted the grape in Margaret River in 1994 – along with 27 other less-familiar French, Italian and Spanish varieties. That material was obtained from the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, which is the same clone imported in 1964, otherwise known as the Requena clone, as it was sourced from Requena in Valencia, where tempranillo is a minor grape.

Lee Haselgrove, viticulturist at Frankland River’s Swinney, works with that same clone, as, until recently, it was the only one available locally. “It’s a bit like the upright clone of pinot noir,” he says. “You think it’s okay until you taste 115 or 777 [pinot noir clones]. You’ve got to work really hard to get tannin and character into it. If you haven’t got great genetics, you’ve got to work really hard to get a good result.”

Swinney’s 2.5 hectares are trained as bush vines, an uncommon site for tempranillo in this country, but it’s yielded striking results. “It’s really hard to grow when young,” Haselgrove says. “But they’re about 12 years old now, and they’ve got really good shape. It’s hard work as a bush vine, but it’s the best tempranillo fruit I’ve grown.”

Opposite: Bush vine tempranillo at Swinney vineyard in Frankland River. Above: Viticulturist Lee Haselgrove (R) with vineyard owner Matt Swinney (L). Talking about their bush vines, Haselgrove says, “It’s really hard to grow when young. But they’re about 12 years old now, and they’ve got really good shape. It’s hard work as a bush vine, but it’s the best tempranillo fruit I’ve grown.”

For Prue Henschke, the material they planted from UC Davis in their Eden Valley vineyard in 2003 was originally intended as a pivot away from the full and rich red styles of the day to more savoury wines, but a deepened familial interest in the grape (one of Prue and Stephen Henschke’s daughters-in-law is Spanish, with a family connection to a Ribera producer) saw her dig deeper. A dissatisfaction with the high-yielding vines led Henschke to investigate importing their own material. Along with a couple of Adelaide Hills growers, they sourced new material, with it cleared from quarantine in 2012.

That importation consisted of three clones – selected with the help of a Spanish winemaker and researcher who had worked with the Henschkes in 2008 – and the results are looking promising, though Henschke stresses that the vines are still very young, with only a small portion of fruit making it into the wines over the last handful of vintages.

“We’re seeing a much better bunch structure,” she says, “without the huge yields, or rather the huge variations in yields, we see with the Davis clones. The old clones are very vigorous, huge leaves the size of dinner plates, there’s such a difference. And the flavours are really good, with that lovely, savoury prune character. It’s more tempranillo-like, where one of the old clones has an incredibly floral overtone – it’s really interesting to see the difference.”

Above: young vines in the nursery. Opposite: Prue Henschke.

For Haselgrove, picking decisions are just as important as the viticultural approach. His are dictated by working closely with his contract customers, who all have differing opinions, meaning the harvest occurs over a two-week period, longer even. “My personal preference is for the earlier picks,” he says. “They’re much fresher and brighter. The later picks tend to be more dry-red-like. When it’s just ripe, it’s about 12 and a bit [potential alcohol]. Andries [Mostert, Brave New Wine] and [A.J.] Hoadley [La Violetta], that’s when they pick it, and it’s really delicious. As he won’t add anything later, Andries only picks on acidity, rather than waiting for some point in the future when the tannins are ripe, or something like that.”

An acidity deficit is a perpetual issue when growing and making the early ripening variety. “The variety’s naturally low acidity and high pH make winemaking a challenge even in cooler regions,” says Walpole. “As well as only having three to four grams of acid at harvest, half of this is malic. So, [acid] additions of up to five grams per litre either at the crusher or during fermentation are not uncommon.”

Those additions are to avoid microbial/yeast spoilage and to avoid adding acid to the finished wine, but Walpole notes that much of it precipitates out during fermentation. But the new clones, which Walpole has planted some of at his Fighting Gully Road Vineyard in Beechworth, are proving to be a different proposition.

“There’s quite a remarkable difference,” he says. “We’ve only had our first crop off the ones through the Yalumba Nursery this year, but they are very, very different from the old, original Davis clone… far more structure, much more tannin… and even visually as a vine. We’ve found a massive difference with lower pH and much better acidity, and retaining it as well. With one particular batch, we didn’t add any acid to it at all.”

Walpole sees the newer clones as being more successful in warmer zones, but equally as apt for cooler regions, like his. But he also notes that the old clones already perform well enough when managed properly. “When you think of Spain, while most good examples come from Ribera or Rioja at higher elevation, the variety clearly grows well across a huge range of climates and seems to do well,” he says.

Henschke takes a firmer line. “When you look at where the best tempranillo vineyards are in Spain, they’re in higher rainfall and higher altitude sites,” she says. “It’s not a warm region variety, which was the assumption everyone made in the early 2000s.”

“I think we can definitely say where it doesn’t perform well, and that is anywhere wet or on deep soil; it needs some conditions to temper the growth and berry size,” says Walpole, noting that controlling vigour and yield are key quality drivers, with clone, site and management all key to making high-quality wine.

Above and opposite: Tempranillo clone 261 at Yalumba Nursery is one of their clones imported from Ribera del Duero, Spain, in 2009.

The suitability to site is a critical one, and it’s something that Raquel Jones of Beechworth’s Weathercraft spent much time deliberating over. “I looked at clones from Toro and Rioja, as well as Ribera,” she says. “It came down to our specific site, to our rainfall and daily temperatures. So, we tried to match it as best as possible. I worked with Nick Dry from Yalumba Nursery at the time, and we worked down from about six clones to four, then the three from Ribera that I grafted.”

Jones even travelled to observe the performance of the clones in Ribera de Duero. “I’ve been very fortunate to taste those clones in situ overseas,” she says, “and they are very different here in Australia. And that’s the thing about tempranillo: stylistically it’s very diverse. We have very different soil types across the vineyard, so I chose the clones based on vigour and how well they worked under pressure from the local conditions. It’s been very interesting to see how they have grown and how the express in the winery.”

While tempranillo has established itself already, there is little doubt for Walpole that the future growth of the Australia market and its enhancement as a quality grape is anchored in this experimentation of new vine material in different sites. “There’s a real opportunity to raise the bar as the new clones start to come out, to make some really serious styles,” he says.

“I think it does have a home here in Australia,” agrees Jones. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to grow it, and I know I’m still learning about it. There’s definitely potential for some really high-quality tempranillo here.”

Our panel of experts gathered at MoVida Aqui, Melbourne. Photo by: James Morgan.

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered as many bottlings as we could find and enlisted the help of eight of this country’s finest palates to check in to see just where Australian tempranillo is at.

Our panel: Mark Walpole, vigneron/owner Fighting Gully Road; Sarah Andrew DipWSET; Michael Wren, vigneron/owner Wren Estate and Grande Vindima Wines; Lucy Forbes, owner Pais Imports; Raquel Jones vigneron/owner Weathercraft; Beth Bicknell, Iberian wine buyer Vinomofo; Andrea Infimo, sommelier/wine buyer Movida; James Vercoe DipWSET.

All wines tasted 'blind'. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.

With wines spanning the country from cool regions to those unequivocally hot, the tasting put forth a wealth of styles, from brightly exuberant and immediate to those more brooding and meditative.

“If what we saw today was mainly due to just one or two clones, then the potential is huge,” said Andrew. “And it’s a variety that can transcend cool, moderate and warm climates, and so if we’ve got that genetic profile, that DNA that is diverse, and if there’s a greater understanding of viticulture, and you build and build and build… if we had this tasting in ten years’ time, then we’d probably have 12 wines, not six, that we’d want to include as our favourites.”

“There was a really good cross-section of very distinctive varietal wines, then ones that were more structured,” said Walpole. “There were some dry-reddish wines in there, and that could have been due to the wrong environment for the grape or just commercial winemaking. And realistically, to get the best out of temp, you need to do a bit more than just commercial winemaking.”

Sarah Andrew and Mark Walpole. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.
“I think for a variety to transcend from violets to olive tapenade, with cherries and plums in the middle, and then on the outer you have your blueberries and blackcurrants and damson plums… it’s quite unique in those flavour characteristics,” said Andrew. “And you can have one wine with the whole lot, with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, which is quite crazy.”

“Some were a little forced, and perhaps some were grown in a region that doesn’t particularly handle it,” agreed Wren, “and the wines can look a bit more like shiraz than tempranillo. I’m sure there’s a market out there for that plump dark character, but I don’t think that’s fair to the variety. I think the cooler climates offer better representations, and we should be trying to show tempranillo in that light.”

“In the cooler regions, they had a freshness, had a real phenolic savoury tannin,” said Vercoe, “but they also had that green kelp, nori wrapper, umami character, which added interest. In those cooler regions, or moderate regions, I should say, where tempranillo belongs, is where it’s at its most expressive.”

“It’s an early picked variety because it loses its acidity,” added Wren. “You shouldn’t be growing it in hot climates and have it at 15.5% alcohol. It’s a variety that is very sensitive to place. Shiraz you can kind of put anywhere, and it will look different, but tempranillo does need its proper place to look the way it should.”

“To me the acid was really important,” said Vercoe. “The wines that I really enjoyed had that vibrancy and acid line to them.”

“I always look for freshness in tempranillo,” agreed Bicknell. “And though some of the wines lacked a little acidity, I saw a lot of freshness in the aromas of fresh cut herbs, menthol… almost mountain vibes.”

Above: Andrea Infimo and James Vercoe. Opposite: Michael Wren and Beth Bicknell. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.

“Most of the tempranillo we came across were varietal in the sense they were all showing red-slash-dark cherry and plum,” said Infimo, “and a few were showing that menthol eucalypt character, which to me can be water stress or just an Australian signature.”

“For me, tempranillo is a savoury variety,” added Vercoe. “It’s not a fruit-dominant variety. Sure, there are fruit flavours in there, blueberries, red berries and what have you, but it’s more floral, wild herbs and wildflowers, and it’s that balance between acidity and savouriness together with the fruit that were the highlights for me.”

“Tempranillo has been planted in Australia at a really fast rate,” said Infimo. “I think it’s a variety that we’re still trying to understand how it works. I assume we’ve got clones from Rioja, but there were two or three examples I came across that were showing the black olive tapenade that I have encountered in Ribera del Duero and Toro.”

“What’s important,” said Vercoe, “was as well as the fruit there was that crushed rock, humus/turned earth character in a lot of them. The fruit’s super important, and there was so much plum in a lot of them, but what was also interesting to me was that wild herb, wildflower character, which brings a bit of interest and makes this variety that bit different from others.”

Andrea Infimo and James Vercoe. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.

“I think for a variety to transcend from violets to olive tapenade, with cherries and plums in the middle, and then on the outer you have your blueberries and blackcurrants and damson plums… it’s quite unique in those flavour characteristics,” said Andrew. “And you can have one wine with the whole lot, with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, which is quite crazy.”

“It’s a relatively thin-skinned grape,” added Vercoe, “and there were some deep, dark and brooding wines, so there’s a lot of play with the maceration. Grenache is a thin-skinned grape, and the people who are doing amazing things with it in Australia are doing super-long macerations, sometimes over 100 days, and you get a different texture and acidic feel to it.”

“One thing that’s starting to be used now is far more whole bunch,” said Walpole. “It has surprised me, as I always thought a variety that’s self-shading with a slightly green potential with green seeds, as they never fully ripen, wouldn’t suit whole bunch. But when you do it, there’s absolutely no pyrazine at all. You can do 100 per cent whole bunch very easily and you get these beautiful, fragrant aromatic wines. And I have no idea why. It adds fragrance and a secondary layer of tannin, like you get in syrah.”

“You expect that chalky tannin in your cheeks with tempranillo,” added Andrew, reflecting on oak use, “and then when you get a blocky and astringent coarseness that sits outside the fruit… For me, I’m expecting it to be integrated, and for the fruit to be wrapped around the structure, with that lovely chalkiness, and it’s a feature that holds the wine up and helps it age. And when it sticks out, it’s got to be coming from the oak or extended maceration where it’s been drawn out and the fruit can’t hold it.”

“It’s definitely a work in progress,” concluded Infimo on the breadth of offerings, “but there are wines that are showing all the characters that we see from the different regions in Spain. They’re all there. They’re all showing.”

“For the Australian consumer,” said Andrew, “it’s not too far removed. Nebbiolo is still a challenge to the Australian palate, whereas tempranillo has this juiciness, this plushness, this roundness on the palate. The tannins aren’t too intrusive if there’s ripeness and not too much extraction, so it’s an easy step, even for a mature palate that has been brought up on shiraz.”

Mark Walpole and Raquel Jones. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.

The Panel

Sarah Andrew is the WSET Business Development Manager for Australia and New Zealand and is the Co-President of Sommeliers Australia. She is on the Global External Diversity & Inclusivity Working Group for WSET and the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) Diversity & Inclusion project group. Andrew holds the WSET Diploma with Honours, is a WSET Certified Educator, an A+ Wine School Educator for Wine Australia, a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Master of Wine.

Michael Wren is the owner/vigneron of Heathcote’s Wren Estate. After completing his oenology degree at the University of Adelaide, he spent the next 10 years working vintages around the world, including as a flying winemaker for Esporao, one of Portugal’s best producers. He has also done vintages in the Napa Valley in the US, the Yarra Valley, Nagambie and Mudgee as well as spending time researching syrah in the Rhône Valley. For over a decade, Michael has also imported Portuguese wines under the Grande Vindima Wines banner.

Michael Wren and Lucy Forbes. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: MoVida Aqui, Melbourne.

Lucy Forbes runs her own wine import business, specialising in the wines of South America. She worked for four years with Spanish expert Scott Wasley at The Spanish Acquisition, then followed up with two years at Alimentaria, the wine and food importing arm of Movida. Forbes currently works for leading Sydney-based importer Vinous.

Raquel Jones is the owner/vigneron of Weathercraft in Beechworth, launching the label with her husband Hugh in 2016. Jones has studied nutritional bioscience and chemistry, as well as viticulture and oenology, adding to her lifelong experience of growing fruit and vegetables alongside her father in Gippsland. Influenced by her Spanish heritage, Jones has a particular interest in Iberian varieties, notably albariño and tempranillo, which she has planted multiple clones of in their organic vineyard.

Beth Bicknell has had a career in wine for over a decade. She has worked with key niche wholesaler Imbibo, and is currently the Iberian wine buyer for Vinomofo, a position she has held for three years. Bicknell is a Spanish Wine Scholar accredited by the Wine Scholar Guild and has contributed articles on Spanish grape varieties for Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.

James Vercoe started his career in wine working in fine-dining restaurants in the UK. Back home, he ran the beverage programs at Port Phillip Estate and Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula. After working for over a decade as a sommelier/beverage manager, Vercoe managed leading wine importer The Spanish Acquisition for three years, before going to work for Coles Liquor Group. Vercoe completed his WSET Diploma in 2018 and has just sat the entrance exams to the MW program. Vercoe also judges at domestic wine shows.

Andrea Infimo grew up on Naples, coming to Australia in 2013 as an environmental science graduate in 2013. He began working at Movida Sydney on what was meant to be a sabbatical year, but there he fell in love with wine. After Movida, he worked at Sydney’s iconic 121 BC wine bar, then under Annette Lacey MW for the Lotus Group. A move to Melbourne saw Infimo reconnect with Movida, working as the sommelier and wine buyer for the original restaurant since 2018. He has been studying for the WSET Diploma, which he is due to complete in October 2021.

Mark Walpole is one of Australia’s most respected viticulturists. Starting his career at Brown Brothers, he was the Chief Viticulturist for the company for a decade, while also planting a ground-breaking vineyard in the Alpine Valleys focused on alternative varieties, including tempranillo. He planted his Fighting Gully Road Vineyard in Beechworth in 1997, which is his main focus today. Walpole also founded Heathcote’s Greenstone with David Gleave MW and Alberto Antonini, which changed the way sangiovese was seen in this country, and shiraz in the region. Walpole has been a committee member of the Alternative Varieties Wine Show since its inception 20 years ago.