The term “international varietal” is batted around quite a bit in the wine world. It’s used both favorably to describe grapes whose combination of hardiness, quality and market-friendliness has given them cosmopolitan reach, being planted in virtually every wine growing corner of the world and disfavorably when used in the context of these grapes displacing local varietals. The common list of these international grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir on the red side and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling (and to a much lesser extent, Semillon and Chenin Blanc) on the white side.
(The most important thing to know about international varietals is that they, by definition, replace indigenous varietals. This is either a great good or a profound evil, depending on who you ask. I lean toward profound evil.)
International varietal is, clearly, a misnomer. The correct term would be “French varietals,” as every grape on that list with the semi-exception of Riesling is widely regarded to find its best and clearest expression in its respective French homelands. That’s why I prefer the older term “Noble Grape” to describe these varietals which.
And when you push aside that Gallish bias you’ll find a grape that forms the backbone of more of the world’s great red wines than any other except Cabernet Sauvignon: Tempranillo.
Indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula, it’s the most important red grape in Spain and a major one in Portugal. While both countries claim it as their own, it is in Spain where Tempranillo achieves its clearest expression as either the sole varietal or the primary grape in blends from Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
Most American drinkers think of Tempranillo as a fairly full-bodied grape that is often heavily aged in oak. But this is only one specific style of Tempranillo wine championed largely by importer Jorge Ordonez who is both lauded for his efforts to bring Spanish wine to America and reviled in some circles for “internationalizing” indigenous Spanish wines, rendering them unrecognizable.
When it’s not overly manipulated, Tempranillo is rather similar to Pinot Noir in its range of expression and, in fact, those two grapes were thought to be related for a very long time. While the Tempranillos of Jorge Ordonez and the New World producers that ape that style are big, bold and brash wines, other producers coax more nuance from the grape.
In Rioja, Tempranillo’s spiritual if not literal homeland, wines range from the light, fruity Tinto Joven (Young Red) which are aged without oak, sometimes undergo a partial carbonic maceration are should often be served lightly chilled to the regal Gran Reserva wines, which are often aged for 10 or more years before release and can last for even longer. I’ve personally tasted Gran Reservas from 1968 and 1964 and they are the best old red wines I’ve had, better than any Bordeaux or Napa Cab and, it should be noted, for significantly less money. For instance, a 2001 Rioja Gran Reserva from a top producer will cost about $35 retail. Compare that to a top Bordeaux, Burgundy or Super Tuscan.
In between those two extremes are many other styles of Tempranillo ranging from light and acidic to big and robust. If you prefer a more modern style than Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero or Valdepenas in Spain might be more to your tastes and the Alentejo region of Southern Portugal is producing many Tempranillo-based blends, although in south-central Porugal the grape is called Aragones. In the New World, Tempranillo is widely grown in California, Arizona, Argentina and Chile, though at this moment most of it is made into ersatz-Cabernet Sauvignon. There are, however, a few producers in Paso Robles and Lake County in California making excellent, unique Tempranillo and some wineries at the highest elevations of Argentina doing the same.
So tilt the axis of your wine consciousness a little south-southwest and discover the diverse world of Tempranillo and add it to your own list of Noble Grapes.