If you had only an hour to live and could choose any wine to drink, what would it be? An informal survey of wine-drinking friends and colleagues saw red wine-lovers head straight for pinot noir, and white wine drinkers rush to ice-cold sauvignon blanc. Pinot gris, champagne and high-octane shiraz also featured high on wish lists, but nobody mentioned tempranillo. Why not?
The answer is probably because less than one in 100 bottles of wine sold in New Zealand is made from tempranillo (pronounced temp-ran-ee-oh), so not many people have heard of it or tried it.
If price and availability were no object, tempranillo would be on my short-list of three because it tastes great and is becoming cheaper by the month. If you haven’t tried tempranillo, check out your local wine store or the wine list at your local bar or restaurant, because it’s coming your way. See the Wines of the Month (opposite) as evidence.
“Temprano” means “early” in Spanish, which is apt because the tempranillo grape ripens two weeks earlier than the garnacha (grenache) with which it is blended to make Spain’s famous rioja. Despite Spain’s close proximity to Portugal, the countries share few grapes, with the exception of tempranillo, which has spread west to Portugal, where it is known as tinta roriz.
In 1992 tempranillo’s tendrils reached New Zealand. Or, to be more specific, a few tempranillo vines reached a shed at the back of Morton Estate Wines in the Bay of Plenty, where winemaker John Hancock planned to plant it. When he left Morton Estate Wines to set up his Trinity Hill winery, Hancock took those vines with him. He now makes New Zealand’s only tempranillo. His 2007 Trinity Hill Tempranillo won a gold medal and a trophy at the 2008 Air New Zealand Wine Awards and a trophy at the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards 2009.
However, not everybody places stock in wine awards; nor does everyone love Trinity Hill Tempranillo. Some criticise its “funky” flavours while others celebrate the sheer beauty of its diversity. This is not another cabernet sauvignon, merlot or malbec. It is a symbol of the anti-globalisation of flavour, which forces ostrich-like wine drinkers out of their comfortable “head in the cabernet trough” drinking habits and onto new things. It is exactly what Hancock is aiming for. It’s also why he has replanted land once dedicated to cabernet sauvignon in favour of tempranillo.
“The Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay is so new as a grape-growing area that it seems far too limiting to plant only merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec,” Hancock says. “We need to try different things to see what works, otherwise we’ll never know.”
Touché. A world full of only cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec – with the odd pinot noir thrown in for good measure – sounds dull, indeed. If you had only an hour left to live, though, you’d probably opt for the devil you know.