Tempranillo eludes me. I can’t get a grip on it, I mean. “Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon,” says The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson, “the vine variety that puts the spine into a high proportion of Spain’s most respected red wines.” The name itself comes, Robinson says, from the Spanish word temprano, which means early; Tempranillo is an early ripener, ready to harvest as much as two weeks before neighboring Garnacha, a.k.a. Grenache, a.k.a. the mouth-clutching beauty used in a lot of Rhône wines but also in the Rioja blends that are mostly built around Tempranillo. But the flavor, the flavor … “Wine made from Tempranillo,” Robinson continues, “does not have a particularly strong flavor identity. Some find strawberries, others spice, leather, and tobacco leaves.”

I was first made aware of Tempranillo by Markus and Liz Bokisch, of Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi, California. I was up there writing a story about Lodi wines, and I was out to dinner with a number of local winemakers. Markus was seated beside me, and I was smitten by him. Raised in California by his Spanish mother, Markus spent many childhood summers in Spain. When he set out to become an independent winemaker, he naturally gravitated to Spanish varietals. In Lodi, he told me that night, he’d found both relatively cheap vineyard land and a perfect climate for his purposes. He and his wife now grow Albariño, Graciano, Garnacha, Rosado, and Tempranillo.

But here’s the thing. Having enjoyed those wines a great deal, and having seen more and more Tempranillos in wine shops, I went on a Tempranillo kick. At first, it was a little haphazard—a bottle here, a bottle there. But soon, after lots of heres and even more theres, I realized I still wasn’t getting a strong sense of the grape. So I took three bottles with me last night, for dinner with my parents in Berkeley. Not a definitive test, admittedly—certainly not one of those tests you read about in the Wall Street Journal, usually beginning with a line about “we tasted 30 Tempranillos, and here are the numerical tasting scores.”

Still, three bottles isn’t a bad way to move a little closer to understanding the grape. The bottles themselves, bought from a local wine store with the express request that I needed Tempranillos: Bokisch 2005 Tempranillo; 2003 Priorat DOQ Mas Perinet; Bodegas Valsacro Cosecha 2001 Rioja. Do we care which one I liked best? Perhaps: The Valsacro seemed the most balanced of the wines, with a nice hit of wood and soft, integrated fruit; the Bokisch was probably the best introduction to the varietal, given that it wasn’t a Rioja blend, and that it had a kind of pure, uncluttered flavor, but it was also a very ripe-tasting wine, which is not surprising in view of Lodi’s warm climate (my mother preferred this one, and I think my wife would’ve, too); and the Perinet was too sharply acidic for my taste. But the Perinet was also, finally, the best example of the Tempranillo challenge right now: It was such a curious outlier, in terms of flavor, that I went online to sort out its blend and discovered that it doesn’t have a drop of Tempranillo in it. I’d bought the wine from a smart guy at a good shop—no dummies in the picture—and I’m convinced that the gaffe expresses the slightly hard-to-grasp nature of Tempranillo itself.

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