Toro's best exports are blockbusters on a budget
- Wednesday 1 April 2009
Idly browsing a wine shop in the small Spanish hilltop town of Toro, I spotted a bottle of the cult wine Termanthia. Then I saw the price: €500 (£450). Every region likes a trophy wine to give it international kudos, but €500 seemed to be pushing it.
Later I visited the Numanthia winery, where Termanthia is made. Recently it had been bought for €25 million (£22.5m) by French luxury goods group LVMH, which owns Yquem and Krug. LVMH installed veteran winemaker Hervé Birnie-Scott at Numanthia, though he says he has changed little.
The basic Numanthia is made from eight parcels of old vines, aged in new oak for 20 months. Termanthia is a super-cru, from vines aged 120–140 years old. The grapes are destemmed by hand and fermented in wooden vats, but otherwise the winemaking is the same as for the basic Numanthia.
Tasted side by side, the 2006s were both splendid, and Termanthia did have slightly more depth of flavour and length. Its €500 price is in keeping with Toro’s status as one of the most ‘in’ regions of Spain, Europe’s ‘in’ wine country. But are Toro’s wines worthy of their standing or prices?
And amid the status symbols, are there any value wines? I had returned to Toro because almost two decades had passed since my previous visit. Back then, in the late 1980s, there were few wineries. One of them, Fariña, is still going strong.
It had great success in Britain with a wine called Gran Colegiata, which boasted 14.5% alcohol, which was unusual for a dry red in those days, and its raw power and rich fruitiness – and bargain price – dazzled a number of us wine writers. The wine is still being made today, though I now find it rather rustic.
Fariña was then the smartest act in town, but has since been surpassed by other wineries. Toro’s 6,000ha (hectares) of vineyards, 100km west from its illustrious neighbour Ribera del Duero, flow across a gently undulating plateau around the town, straddling the Duero river. Height gives Toro cool nights, but the summer days can be blistering.
Topsoils vary, but a clay subsoil retains water and helps the vines stay green through the hot summers. The area also resists frost better than Ribera. The two regions share the same main grape: Tinta de Toro, also known as Tinto Fino, or Tempranillo. Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon are planted too, but Tinta de Toro is what gives these wines character.
It seems odd that the same grape can give such different results in the three regions it
dominates, even though vine scientists might argue that there are slight variations between them. In Rioja, Tempranillo gives elegance (or should do), in Ribera del Duero it gives power and rugged tanninswhile in Toro it offers power allied to opulence.
Toro also benefits from the fact that a third of its vines are more than 80 years old. None of this potential for quality – not to mention the relative cheapness of the land – has escaped the notice of outsiders. Companies from Rioja and Ribera, not to mention the Lurtons from France and a British family or two, have established outposts in Toro.
But local growers are still in the majority. I went to see one of them, Luis Remesal, at Rejadorada. His vineyards are between 15 and 100 years old, and he supplements them with grapes bought from contracted growers. The winemaking is scrupulous: careful grape sorting before destemming, a six-day cold soak to extract colour (scarcely a problem in Toro) and fermentation with the aid of micro-oxygenation to calm any green tannins.
The wines are aged in Romanian and French oak, and Remesal is also experimenting with Spanish oak. He makes three wines. The basic wine, Rejadorada, spends six months in oak. It’s rich and juicy, and doesn’t lack concentration, but doesn’t have much personality either. Yet for €6 this is anadmirable mouthful of plummy fruit.
The mid-range Novellum comes from older vines and spends a year in oak. It’s pricier, at €8, but has gorgeous aromas of plums, mint and violets, plus grip and spice on the palate. The top wine, Sango, comes from 80-year-old vines, and spends 18 months in new French oak. It resembles Novellum, but with more intensity. That said, at €18, it doesn’t quite deliver twice the pleasure.
Remesal is also working on a new wine, Bravo, from 100-year-old vines and handdestemmed grapes. That smacks of garagisme. I’ve outlined this hierarchy of wines
because it is quite common in Toro. Just as Rioja has its crianza, reserva, and gran reserva system, Toro producers have their own less formal, unregulated hierarchy.
Very often I found myself preferring the mid-tier wine – more complex and intense than the entry-level one, but less wilful and dense than the top wine. Moreover, the price always seemed just right, especially since the best wines in this category tend to over-deliver on fruit and complexity.
If some of the wines are still rustic or overworked, the best have finesse, as well as power and opulence. These often come from the master winemakers who have recognised Toro’s potential. In 2001 the Lurton brothers, Jacques and François, created a joint venture with Michel Rolland called Campo Eliseo.
The wine packs too much of a punch, and I prefer the Lurtons’ El Albar bottling, which is voluptuous, structured and long, with no heat on the finish. These Lurton wines have power but, as yet, little sense of place.
Mariano Garcia was the winemaker at Vega Sicilia until his spectacular falling out with the owners, the Alvarez family, a few years ago. Now he has his own wineries: Aalto in Ribera del Duero, and Maurodos in Toro. He became intrigued by Toro in 1995 and made a careful study of its soils and microclimates before buying 30ha of vineyards.
His top wine here, San Román, is superb: opaque and immensely concentrated yet with an alluring texture and purity of fruit. It comes from vines more than 45-yearsold, and spends 12 months in new oak before being transferred to older barrels for a second year.
Garcia’s former employer, Vega Sicilia, has a presence in Toro, too. Its Bodegas Alquiriz estate is large, at 100ha, but all wine from young vines is sold off to other producers, so that the estate wine, Pintia, is made from old vines only. The first vintage was 2001. The
winemaker, Xavier Ausàs, says he watches the vines like a hawk to avoid the slightest sign of raisining.
‘It’s essential to conserve the aromas of fresh fruit. We’re looking for elegance, not rusticity, and that means we want to conserve vibrancy and freshness,’ he says. ‘Some people compare Pintia with our Ribera del Duero wine, Alion, but Pintia is more monolithic.
They are both modern in style, but grown on different soils – Alion is grown in soils with limestone, which we don’t have here.’
Pintia certainly lives up to expectations: it has a lighter touch than El Albar or San Román, and there’s no hint of alcohol. Of course Vega Sicilia has the means to aim high, and any lots Ausàs finds unsatisfactory are sold to wholesalers. He also makes no second wine. Most growers can’t afford to be so high-minded.
These are expensive wines, though less stratospheric than Termanthia. But the joy of Toro is that you can find delicious wines at very modest prices. Take Finca Sobreno, owned by the San Ildefonso family from Rioja. It uses the Rioja hierarchy, with a crianza as well as reservas, and I usually prefer the vigour and upfront fruit of the former to the more extracted reservas.
At Matarredonda, winemaker Rosa Zarza likes a high portion of new oak for all her wines. Libranza is her most serious bottling, but I like the less effortful Juan Rojo almost as much. British-owned Piedra produces many wines, but I find its lively, unoaked Azul irresistible, especially at €6. And how can one fail to be beguiled by Covitoro’s Cañus Verus, from 80-yearold vines, aged in sweet US oak for 10 months?
It has balance and freshness and delivers far more than its modest price tag would lead one to expect. Similarly, the most basic bottling from Quinta de la Quietud, Corral de Campanas, is a lovely mouthful of spice, liquorice and chocolate,whereas winemaker Jean-François Hébrard’s garagiste wine, La Mula, is too extracted for my tastes. Sitting nicely in the middle is the Quietud wine, from vines up to 90 years old, massively fruity yet structured and long.
I don’t deny that wines such as Numanthia, San Román, Campo Eliseo, and Victoria Benavides’ Gran Elias Mora are of exceptional quality. It’s just refreshing to find, alongside them, many modestly priced wines that deliver so much in terms of fruit and pleasure.
The old notion of ‘a country wine’ has gone out of fashion, but that’s how Toro strikes me. Not that it is incapable of producing world-class wines – it’s just that its more slender efforts are very rewarding too. Pricing, as we know to our cost, often has more to do with marketing than with quality; many a wine critic can’t help being warmly disposed towards a £100 bottle – so it’s a pleasure to be able to recommend delicious wines that don’t break the bank.