Tempranillo’s heretofore unknown parents are the humble white albillo mayor, a variety grown in north-central Spain, known in Rioja as turruntés and benedicto, a red variety no longer grown anywhere in Spain except in sporadically in Aragón.
Turruntés (a white variety not to be confused with the torrontés found in Galicia and Argentina) was recently approved for use in Rioja. It is a variety ‘rescued’ from extinction thanks to the work of local researchers Fernando Martínez de Toda and Juan Carlos Sancha.
The genetic analysis was carried out over a period of eight years by a team from La Rioja and Madrid. Among its conclusions was that tempranillo was the result of a spontaneous crossing in the Middle Ages, possibly in La Rioja.
Two thoughts crossed my mind when I read the news. First, that humble ancestors could engender such mighty offspring, and second, the possibility that the discovery offers for improving tempranillo in the face of global warming. Tempranillo thrives in cool climates like that in the Rioja DOCa but tends to lose acidity in warmer regions. Since Rioja is bound to get warmer in the future, genetic modification can create strains that will maintain their best characteristics in spite of an increase in temperature.
This process, however, is likely to take up to thirty years because it involves not only creating new strains of tempranillo but also how well they develop as young and aged wines.