According to legend, the medieval clock tower in the town of Toro was built with mortar made from sand, cement and the local red wine. Apparently, as far as the townsfolk were concerned, there was so much Tinta de Toro on hand that they didn’t see the point in trudging a few hundred metres downhill to the banks of the Duero river to collect water to moisten the paste.
Many regions with long and venerable viticultural histories have their own tall stories concerning the importance of wine to local life. Few, however, have the historical record to back up the myths. Toro’s wine, on the other hand, is widely documented as having been a favourite of the Spanish royal family for centuries. It was also, it turns out, the tipple of choice for Christopher Columbus and his crew on their epic journey to the Americas in 1492, largely because the influential confessor to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Columbus’s patrons, was a local boy made good.
The huge concentration and generous alcohol levels of Toro’s wines allowed them to withstand such long journeys with ease. In the aftermath of the successful voyage to the New World, the wines began to travel further afield, not only to the Americas but also to the trading ports of northern Spain and thence to the Low Countries. So entrenched in Spanish culture was the quality of the red wines of Toro that the region was among the first to be awarded DO status in 1933.
Then came the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In the aftermath of the destruction, Toro’s winemakers lost their focus and their DO fell into abeyance.
The area’s renaissance began during the 1980s, when seven local winemakers applied for the creation of a new DO, and this was granted in 1987. Slowly at first, then with increasing speed, new investment arrived. There were a dozen or so producers in the area by the year 2000, and now more than 60. Many of the owners of these new wineries are from outside Toro – from other parts of Spain (most notably Rioja and Ribera del Duero) and from other countries too. The French have invested heavily; Michel Rolland, François Lurton and LVMH have all purchased vineyards and wineries in Toro.
Tinta de Toro
While there’s a scattering of alternative grape varieties in Toro – a newfound interest in Garnacha has seen plantings rise to 127ha, while white grapes account for around 350ha – the draw is Tinta de Toro. Often used as a synonym for Tempranillo, there are actually significant differences between the Tinta de Toro grape and its better-known sibling. As Rubén Gil Alfageme, manager of the Consejo Regulador de la DO Toro, explains: ‘Tempranillo and Tinta de Toro share a genotype [the genetic code], but differ in their phenotype [the way that code is expressed physically].’
Luis Felipe Cuesta de Toro, vineyard manager for the Eguren family, which owns properties in both Toro and Rioja, says: ‘It’s not clear whether Tinta de Toro is descended from the Tempranillo of Rioja or whether it was the other way round, but there are distinct differences between them. Tinta de Toro has a longer vegetative cycle than Tempranillo, allowing for better balance in the wines grown in the prevailing conditions of the Toro DO.
‘Furthermore, in Tinta de Toro, the leaf is more indented than it is in Tempranillo,’ he continues, ‘the skin is thicker, there are more veins in the pulp of the grapes and the level of phenolics is higher.’
In short, Tinta de Toro is usually darker in colour and richer in tannins than its counterparts in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In addition, the long growing cycle and the prevailing climate tends to result in the creation of wines that are high in alcohol. Most DO Toro reds come in at 14.5%-15.5% abv – and even 16% is not unheard of. Some growers do their best to mitigate Tinta de Toro’s tendency to extremes of tannin and alcohol, but there’s little doubt that these are not wines for those in search of delicacy and restraint.
There’s another reason why Toro has attracted the attention of quality-focused growers – the region is a paradise for lovers of old vines. Of the total vineyard area in the DO (5,624ha), around 1,202ha are planted with bush vines that are more than 50 years old.
There is even a small number of vineyards whose vines date back to a pre-phylloxera era, having been planted between 1850 and 1880. In fact, largely thanks to a high proportion of sandy soils in the DO, more than half of Toro’s total vineyard area (3,303ha) is planted with vines on their own roots.
Although sand underpins much of the Toro DO, there’s quite a diversity of soil types in the region. The land in northeast Toro is strewn with large rolled stones, similar in size and heft to those found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These can help ripen the grapes on the low-trained bush vines by reflecting the heat of the summer sunshine back onto the bunches. As a result, the wines from this part of Toro tend to be bigger and heftier than those from other zones, as are those grown on heavy, clay-rich soils. Sandier, free-draining soils and those with some limestone tend to create some of Toro’s lighter, fruitier wines – although this is a relative concept, given Toro’s tendency towards muscularity.
Because this is Spain, Toro’s richness is usually given further weight by the use of oak barriques for ageing. American oak is frequently favoured, particularly for entry-level and mid-range wines – it’s cheap compared to French oak – but top wines often get at least a lick of new French barrel. The most sophisticated winemakers do a great job of marrying wine to wood, but some of the area’s producers are still tied to the notion that the more overt the oak, the better the wine. While this plays well with local consumers, it may be more of a problem elsewhere.
Climate and altitude also have a part to play in the style of the wines made in the DO, of course. The region lies on Spain’s central plateau, so vineyards benefit from the cool nights associated with elevated altitude (most vineyards are situated at 600m-750m above sea level). The flat, relatively featureless landscape means that winds blow fairly constantly across the vineyards. These gusts help to keep the vines free of fungal diseases, but it puts the vines under stress and may be a contributing factor to the production of high levels of anthocyanins in the grapes. It isn’t just the winds that are extreme in Toro – although winters can be cold, summers are extremely hot, and little rain falls in the area during the period of vegetative growth and ripening.
Many of the producers in Toro are rugged individualists, who take the challenges posed by their extreme terroir in their stride. ‘Luckily it’s really tough to make wines here,’ smiles Victoria Benavides, winemaker at Bodegas Elías Mora. ‘It means that the region only attracts people who really love and understand it, rather than people looking to make a quick buck.’
Toro vintage guide
2018 More rainfall than average in winter and spring, followed by a long hot summer, resulting in a large, healthy crop. Suggests a very promising vintage with density and structure.
2017 A tricky year, in which cold, rainy conditions resulted in low yields and the need for careful selection at harvest. Wines are for early drinking rather than the long haul.
2016 A good year, with near-perfect growing conditions. The wines are both concentrated and well balanced.
2015 A hot, dry year. Older vines thrived; younger vines struggled. Watch out for elevated alcohol levels.
2014 Another hot, dry year and high yields. The wines are big and structured, and often high in alcohol.
2013 A wet year with cooler conditions with usual. The wines are relatively high in acidity, while alcohol levels are modest. The best wines are well balanced, if perhaps lacking in concentration.
2012 A very dry, hot year. The wines are dense and concentrated, and suitable for long-term ageing.
2011 A very wet year for the region resulted in wines with less density than usual, but greater freshness.
Natasha Hughes MW is a wine writer and consultant. She has also judged globally at wine competitions, including DWWA