Spain's most prestigious regionS for red and white wine

Close this search box.

Fire, Coal & Epic Wines

Grilling Guide to Tempranillo

A pocket guide for your next Tempranillo grill-fest.


Where there’s a grill, there’s a way

– Maude Frédérique Lavoie/Unsplash

Fire, Coal & Epic Wines

Article by James Beard Award-winning author Laura Werlin @cheezelady

Where there’s a grill, there’s a way – Maude Frédérique Lavoie/Unsplash

Grilling is the bridge between get-togethers and conversation. It is a spectator sport thrilling us with its sizzle, its transformation of food from light to dark, soft to crisp. Sweet vegetables become sweeter, and raw proteins explode with flavor after the kiss of a fire. Like the fire starter itself, grilling kicks off a good natured if sometimes heated conversation not just because of the heat coming off the grill but also because no two grilling opinions are ever alike, and no two grilling outcomes are ever the same.

This conversation is temporarily halted when the black-edged fatty steak and intensely seasoned vegetables are lifted off the grill and transferred to platters. Anticipation sets in but not for long as the rallying cry of any such gathering is, “Let’s open some wine!” For a repast edged with char, heavy on proteins, and laced with spice, the wine to open unquestionably comes from Spain. The grape is Tempranillo, and the place is Ribera del Duero.

Translating to the riverbanks of the Duero, Ribera del Duero in Castilla y León is home to Spain’s king of grapes, Tempranillo. This mighty grape is also king when it comes to pairing it with anything charred, crisped, caramelized, spicy, fruity, and savory. Simply put, anything that comes off the grill is Ribera Tempranillo’s best friend.

Given the long grilling history in Spain and the fact the Tempranillo grape grows in the shadow of historic castles throughout the region, it stands to reason that outdoor cooking and Tempranillo would pair together. The fact Ribera Tempranillo is grown at various altitudes, in different soils, and made in several styles assures its compatibility with everything from heavily spiced butterflied spring lamb to crackling crisp suckling pig to highly seasoned well-marbled beef to herby, edgy veggies – and much more. That just-right line between char and burn together with the orange glow of the fiery coals is as seductive as the wines themselves. Matching grill food and Tempranillo is a delicious pursuit that gets even better with a little know-how. 

The Tempranillo lowdown

Despite the many geographical, winemaking, and aging styles that ultimately shape what’s in the bottle, Ribera Tempranillo is a red wine with medium to high acidity and flavors and aromas of red and dark fruit including raspberry, blackberry, plum, black currant, blueberry, red and black cherry, and cranberry. Dried fruit aromas like figs and prunes might make an entrance too. Spices and herbs like mint and black pepper can also be hallmarks of this grape while oak aging brings out chocolate, tobacco, and cinnamon notes.  

Possibly the most distinctive characteristic of Ribera Tempranillo is its range of tannins from soft to bold with most being somewhere in the middle. Its texture has an equal range, spanning from light to full-bodied. 

Younger and lighter Tempranillos, usually categorized as Crianzas because of their relative youth (Crianzas are defined as wines aged at least one year in oak), sport bright red fruits and light tannins and take to simple starters like jamón, dried sausage, medium-aged cheeses including Manchego, cheddar, and goat cheese among others, chicken satay, beef sliders, pepperoni pizza, dry-cured black olives with red pepper flakes, and stuffed mushrooms. Crianzas take to herbs like Thai basil, dill, and oregano while baking spices include cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. The savory spice box for young Tempranillos includes pimentón, cayenne, black pepper, cumin, juniper berries, Chinese five-spice powder, Thai red curry (medium heat), garlic, harissa paste, and Hungarian sweet or spicy paprika.

The longer-aged Reservas – wine that is aged at least three years including at least one year in barrel – are wines with greater depth, usually more pronounced tannins, and darker fruit. For a grill fest, this means pretty much anything you want to cook on the grill – lamb, beef, pork, chicken, meaty fish like swordfish and ahi tuna, portobello mushrooms, soy-brushed squash, spiced eggplant, and even a slow-cooked pot of beans. Herbs like mint, rosemary, thyme, and sage will do well here.

The “gran-daddy” of Ribera Tempranillos – Gran Reserva – is a wine that is aged five years with at least two in a barrel. Taking this wine outdoors means firing up the big guns – the slow-smoked meats, the well-marbled rare-cooked steaks, the dry-rubbed ribs, the five-spice chicken, and of course, the unofficial dish of the Ribera region, baby lamb chops grilled over vines. In the United States, grilled and fire-roasted lamb of any kind will love a Gran Reserva.

The fourth category of Ribera Tempranillo is a bit of a catch-all. Called Cosecha, these are wines that fall outside the other three categories but meet or exceed the specifications of those other categories. They may be younger than a Crianza, in which case they’re called joven (young), or they could be older than a Gran Reserva. Or, they might fall somewhere in the middle. Cosechas are an expression of the winemaker who allows the wine to decide when it is ready for consumption. Some of Ribera del Duero’s most prized winemakers are making bottles that fall into the Cosecha category, which means that when the coals are just heating up, bring out the Cosecha. When the coals are white-hot, bring out the Cosecha. Where there’s smoke, there should be Cosecha. 

Fire up the grill, bring out the Tempranillo

The Tempranillo table is set. Now it’s time to put it all together. Start with this pocket guide to your Tempranillo grill-fest and be inspired by the dish suggestions that follow. 

Tempranillo and grilling pocket guide

The spice box: Anise, black pepper, Cajun spice, cayenne, cumin, Chinese five-spice powder, curry powder, garlic powder, harissa paste, Hungarian sweet or spicy paprika, onion powder, pimentón, Thai red curry (medium heat), red pepper flakes 

Baking spices: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg

All together: Think assertive, medium to hot, sweet-savory, and multicultural.

The herb garden: Bay leaf, caraway, lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary

All together: Think herbaceous, earthy, menthol, aromatic.

The proteins: Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, meaty fish such as swordfish, ahi tuna, and mahi mahi, veal chops, sausages, quail, squab

All together: Think rubs and intense flavorings.

The vegetables: Eggplant, legumes such as broad beans, chickpeas, lentils, navy, and soybeans; cauliflower, mushrooms, red bell pepper, chiles (chipotle, jalapeño, poblano, padrón, and shishito), parsnips, plantain, potatoes, shallots, summer and winter squash

All together: Think savory, spicy, or chameleon-like (read: ready to take on the heat of the flame and the flavors of the spices).

The fruits: Black cherries, black olives (oil-cured), blueberries, figs, plums, plantain (green only), grilled tomatoes

All together: Think dark-skinned, charred, and savory.

The cheeses: Semi-soft, medium-strong cheeses such as French-made Brie and Camembert; semi-hard savory sheep’s milk cheeses such as medium- to long-aged Manchego (9 – 12 months), Zamorano or Pecorino Toscano; bandage-wrapped English-style cheddars, medium-aged goudas, Asiago Fresco (fresh), Asiago Vecchio or Stagionato (aged), Piave and Piave Vecchio, parmesan-style cheeses, Los Cameros (Spanish mixed-milk cheese)., and cotija. Creamy but not pungent blue cheeses can also work well.

All together: Think meaty, savory, mushroomy, brothy, grassy, and nutty. Some will have hints of butterscotch or brown butter. This is good!

The condiments and sauces: Chimichurrichili crisp, red chile-based hot sauce, harissa, chipotle salsa, salsa macha, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, black olive tapenade, molé, oyster sauce, peanut sauce, romesco sauce, soy sauce, tamari, red or yellow Thai curry paste, Worcestershire sauce, cocoa powder

All together: Think medium to hot spice, umami, not too sweet, rich, and savory.

Dishing it out

Proteins – Medium- to full-intensity grilled meats with black fruit (including olives), medium to hot spices, and earthy, minty herbs

  • Five-spice chicken with grilled soy-brushed eggplant and green onion
  • Skin-on chicken thighs with grilled sweet potatoes and molé negro 
  • Chicken satay with peanut sauce 
  • Oyster sauce, garlic, and oil-brushed skewers with swordfish, red bell peppers, and mushrooms
  • Grilled ahi tuna with crushed coriander, black pepper, and Maldon salt with a romesco drizzle
  • Cumin and cayenne-spiced grilled mahi mahi with grilled chile poblano 
  • Smoked pork chops with grilled purple plums, figs, thyme, and rosemary
  • Grilled and spiced pork tenderloin with grilled bacon-wrapped new potatoes
  • Garlic and black pepper-rubbed lamb loin chops with black olive tapenade
  • Grilled garlicky lamb rib chops with rosemary and olive oil grilled potatoes
  • Cocoa, black pepper, salt, and pimentón-rubbed bone-in ribeye 
  • Chipotle chile-rubbed ribs with a dried cherry and black olive salsa
  • Chile cheeseburgers with bacon and blue cheese
  • Wood-fired pizza with sausage, pepperoni, jamón, charred onion, tomatoes, and a mixture of Asiago fresco and Asiago stagionato (aged) cheeses
  • Grilled or wood-fired flatbread with spicy Italian sausage, ripe plums, thyme, blue cheese, and grated parmesan
  • Grilled sausages and potatoes (doesn’t get much simpler than that!)

Vegetables – Hearty, savory, and sweet – all will do

  • Grilled cauliflower steaks with curry tahini sauce
  • Grilled cumin-spiced cauliflower steaks with molé poblano
  • Grilled herb-y portobello mushroom, grilled chile, and cheese “burgers”
  • Grilled mushroom, sweet potato, and oil-brushed unripe (green) plantain tostadas with salsa macha and crumbled blue cheese 
  • Wood-fired pizza with potato, shallots, rosemary, and pecorino (young, not aged, so it will melt)
  • Grilled red bell peppers brushed with olive oil, thyme, and salt on grilled garlic-rubbed toast (add thin slices of jamón for meat eaters!)
  • Oyster sauce and garlic-marinated Japanese or Italian eggplant with salt and red pepper flakes
  • Garlic and oil-brushed zucchini topped with a mixture of Tempranillo-soaked chopped dried cherries, chopped grilled onion, and thyme or oregano
  • Olive-oil brushed grilled and salted new potatoes with harissa. For non-vegetarians, serve with grilled sausages alongside.

Fruits – Go easy so as not to out-fruit the wine, but savory treatments bring out the best in both

  • Grilled rosemary figs with blue cheese on hearty grilled bread (add spicy chorizo slices for an extra kick)
  • Grilled chicken with grilled plum, black pepper, and grilled shallot salsa 
  • Grilled tomatoes, sausage, red peppers, and mushrooms over grilled polenta topped with grated parmesan. Also good with grilled swordfish.
  • Worcestershire, black pepper, garlic, and thyme-marinated hanger steak with grilled plantains (unripe), grilled red peppers, and crumbled cotija cheese