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A grape by any other name: Tempranillo 

Supply and demand is a beautiful thing. Guarding the secret of a juicy wine discovery allows you to skip to the store and snatch it up for practically nothing. It worked this way pre-Sideways, when you could practically steal domestic pinot noir, but then people, mesmerized by the wine movie's romance, flocked to the wine and moved it promptly to the overpriced shelf. But, shhhh ... like an underground indie flick, there's a little-known, up-and-coming grape star that probably won't stay long on the downlow: Tempranillo [TEM-pra-NEE-yo}.

It's certainly not a new grape, but it's been veiled by Spanish regional names like Rioja and Ribera del Duero since, well, a long time ago. And, like a Spanish James Bond, it assumes numerous grape aliases: Cencibel, Ojo, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Torro, Ull de Llebre, and Tinta Roriz... not sure why there are as many personalities as Sybil but the name I'm sticking with (since I can pronounce it) is tempranillo. This indigenous grape has 4.5 million acres devoted to it in Spain, and I think a New World unearthing is upon us. In California and Australia, growers planted these dogged, time-tested vines a few years ago that are now bearing fruit. Really frickin' good fruit, too.

Within the last 15 years, blindly old-fashioned Spanish wineries have thankfully transitioned from third-world to first-world winemaking, finally recognizing that when a little care goes into the bottle, it turns out better than typical village plonk. The style you'll see in many traditional (yet upgraded) Spanish Riojas and Ribera del Dueros yields flavors of roasted cherries, strong brewed tea and vanilla. In the modern style -- used in lesser-known, non-branded Spanish regions and most New World wineries -- you'll find the brighter fruit structure of ripe plums, red cherries and red currants. Often, especially in years when the weather sucks, Spanish winemakers throw in a splash of grenache/garnacha (another sleeper grape with a great future) or obscure mazuelo to liven up an otherwise one-sided or taut tempranillo. But bottled alone in good vintages, tempranillo can taste magical, produced either in the traditional or modern way. Tannins are mostly understated, and the wine leans towards higher acidity, making it quite tasty with food like sheep's milk cheeses (especially Spanish ones), brined olives, salty sausages and roasted or grilled meats.

If the last time you tried Rioja or Ribera del Duero, it tasted like dirt scraped from your shoe, give it another chance 'cause things have changed. And if you're lucky enough to stumble across an Australian or Californian tempranillo, grab it.

Recommended Wines

Matchbook 2004 Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills (California) Grown in the relatively unknown Dunnigan Hills AVA east of Napa Valley, Matchbook capitalizes on the quality and value of its obscurity with this delicious, toe-curling wine. Soft, elegant tannins, gushing blackberry, generous, ripe plum, with an edge of smokiness. It's flirty and muscular but with no hair on its chest. Very impressive for the money. SW, HS, S. $16. *****.

Tinto Figuero 2006 Ribera del Duero (Spain) Family-owned winery that has farmed tempranillo vines in Ribera del Duero for generations. In 2001, they began making their own wines. Very well, I might add. This meaty wine has roasted cherries, blackberry, spicy vanilla, sturdy leather with firm acidity and supple, sweet tannins. S, T. $20. ****.

Museum Crianza 2003 Cigales (Spain) The Cigales region is better known for its rosé wines, also made primarily from tempranillo, but the climate and soil are apparently perfectly suited for robust reds like this one. Made from old vines, its aromas of sweet, smoky cherry follow on to the tongue that adds in toasted vanilla, subtle tobacco, soft couch leather, mild tannins and, oddly enough, ripe strawberries. S, T. $18. *** 1/2.

Sweet (SW), Hypersensitive (HS), Sensitive (S) and Tolerant (T). Find out your tasting profile at budometer.com.

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