Bull rush

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  • Monday 1 January 2001

Some of Spain's finest winemakers are piling into Toro. GERRY DAWES explains why this relatively new DO is being touted as the next big thing

Many Spanish wine writers believe that Toro, a relatively little-known denominación de origen (DO), located in Zamora province around the town of Toro, is Spain's most promising wine region. Once known for black, stout, powerful wines that lived up to their name (toro means fighting bull in Spanish), and easily reached 17 degrees alcohol naturally, Toro is now being touted as the new vini-cultural Eldorado of Spain.

Historically, Toro was part of the ancient kingdom of León, but now belongs to the region of Castilla-León, so several Madrid-based wine writers are using poetic licence in calling the area 'the Priorato of Castille'. The wines are big, powerful, dark, and ripe, and call to mind those of its once obscure counterpart in Cataluña. Until the 1980s, apart from La Rioja and Cataluña, Cava and Sherry, few Spanish wines were well known outside the country. But in the past decade, all that has changed. Wine growers have shown that they, like Vega Sicilia before them, can produce world-class wines.

Like the Ribera del Duero, Toro straddles the great Duero wine river. The main grape of Toro is called Tinta de Toro, a synonym of Tempranillo, which produces some of Spain's finest red wines. Old Tinta de Toro vineyards, planted with only about 1,000 vines per hectare (ha) account for 65% of the region's vines. The rest is high- quality old vine Garnacha and the white grapes, Malvasía and Verdejo. Most of Toro's vineyards are planted at 600 to 750 metres above sea level. The climate is sunny and dry – the region gets only about half the annual rainfall of Bordeaux, but the vineyards are dry farmed, not irrigated. The soils around Toro are well-drained and often sandy, an environment not hospitable to the phylloxera bug – as a result, most vines are not grafted on to American rootstocks.

In recent years, the long-time Toro producer Manuel Fariña, whose Bodegas Fariña is still the major bodega exporting from the region, tamed alcohol levels and began to win international recognition for the concentration of fruit, balance, and price-to-quality of his red wines. Manuel Fariña was the driving force behind Toro's acceptance in 1987 as a fully fledged denominación de origen and served as the DO's first president. Fariña's rich, fruity, but well- balanced Colegiata brands, which are named after the 12th-Century Colegiate church of Toro, were the first wines to show the true potential of the region. Still rustic and sturdy in style, these well-priced wines taste of black cherries, currants, coffee and bittersweet chocolate. Gran Colegiata tintos de reserva are aged in American oak for 18 to 24 months. There is also a Gran Colegiata 'media' crianza, which spends four months in new American oak, and a rich, young Colegiata blend of 50% Tinto de Toro and 50% Garnacha, that sees no oak and is an excellent bargain.

During the past few years, major players from other regions such as the Ribera del Duero, La Rioja and Navarra have moved into the area to purchase or plant vineyards, or build wineries. Alejandro Fernández, owner of Pesquera and Condado de Haza in the Ribera del Duero, has bought a 250ha former fighting bull ranch outside the village of Vadillo de la Guareña and has planted 100 hectares (ha) of ungrafted vineyards. The first wine to come from this new venture will be the 1998, provisionally to be called Alejandro Tinto.

Although only 18ha of the Fernández spread are actually within the DO Toro, the new wine will carry the designation Vino de Castilla y León. The cognoscenti know that the Vadillo wine comes from the Toro region and, given the track record of Alejandro Fernández with Pesquera, few doubt that it will rank with the top red wines in Spain. Fernández has also made 300,000 bottles from old vine Tinta de Toro grapes bought from growers in the Guareña River valley near the estate. The wine has been ageing at Vadillo in American oak barrels in Fernández's centuries-old, spectacular, hand-hewn cellars.

Mariano García, the former winemaker of Vega Sicilia and partner in the acclaimed Bodegas Mauro in Tudela de Duero (Valladolid), is already making a non-DO San Román from existing old vines Tinta de Toro and Garnacha from his vineyards at San Román de Hornijos. In April 1999, García introduced me to his Bodegas Mauro San Román Tinto 1997. The wine is labelled Vino de Castilla-León, and although it does not carry the designation Toro, it is probably the best wine ever made in the region. It is a rich, powerful wine (13.8%abv) made from 91% Tinta de Toro and nine percent Garnacha grapes, harvested from mature vines and aged for a year in new and used French oak. This deep, black cherry-coloured wine shows toasty French oak, concentrated ripe blackcurrants and black cherries in the nose. On the palate it is rich with ripe blackcurrant and black cherry flavours, hints of the 'tarry' liquorice similar to that in Vega Sicilia, and a long finish with bittersweet chocolate flavours.

A 1998 San Román barrel sample had not yet spent the requisite time in oak, nor had it been clarified, but showed promise with lots of sweet, ripe fruit and a fine, stylish finish. A year later, the wine was still tight, but showed deep blackcurrant fruit under the tannins. The Alvarez family, García's former employers at Vega Sicilia, are also planning to launch a new wine made from Tinta de Toro grapes. They have purchased vineyards and are currently ageing their first, as yet, unnamed. Tasted from the barrel this spring, I found it rich, though well-balanced, but still dominated by the new oak in which it was ageing.

Antonio Sanz, the peripatetic Rueda-based winemaker, has been making basic Toro wines in the cooperative bodega at Morales de Toro since 1984, but in 1997 he began ageing his reasonably-priced, full-bodied, but well-balanced, Tinta de Toro-based Bodegas Toresanas Amant in an old convent in Toro town. (Some markets may see this wine under the name Dehesa Gago Chamerlot.) Sanz, who also produces the excellent Palacio de Bornos Rueda whites and Dehesa de Cañonigos Ribera del Duero reds, is a major player in the emergence of Toro as an important wine region.

Wenceslao Gil, who came to Toro in the late 1970s, and has made wine at Cigales, Burgos and Salamanca, produces Vega Sauco at an old underground bodega near Morales de Toro. Vega Sauco, which can be overripe, rustic, and at times awkward, is well regarded by some in Spain, but I have never found it much more than quaffable. The wines generally contain at least 90% and usually 100% Tinta de Toro. The crianza is aged for one year in American (80%) and French oak; the reserva gets the same treatment for 18 months.

Frutos Villar, a major producer of commercial table wines, is based in Cigales (Valladolid). Its Maruve Toro wines can be patchy in quality, but in good years are rich (if somewhat meaty), powerful, and quite ripe. At the cooperative at Morales de Toro, several winemakers have vinified their wines for the past few years while waiting for their new wineries to be finished. It also makes one million bottles of the inexpensive, sometimes pleasant and quaffable, yet heady and rustic, Viña Bajoz, plus another 250,000 bottles of Viña Bajoz crianzas and reservas.

Other wines from the Toro DO are the Cermeño and Marqués de la Vila line from the Bodega Cooperativa Vinos de Toro; Bodegas Francisco Casas Camparrón; and Grandes Vinos Envero Reserva. Toro wines have long been as big, black, brusque and heady as a Spanish fighting bull, but more sophisticated wine making techniques should tame these tendencies, producing a finesse the wines have lacked in the past. Even the minor players in Toro will soon feel the pressure to upgrade the quality of their wines as Alejandro Fernández, Mariano García, Antonio Sanz, and the Alvarez, including Rioja's Eguren family (producers of Señorío de San Vicente), join the rush for black gold.

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