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Toro: Spain's Tiny Dynamo
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 21, 2011
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About twenty-five years ago, a second Renaissance took place in Italy, this one of the vinous variety.  Italy for the first time in its long wine history began to rival France as one of the world’s leading high-quality wine producing countries.  Meanwhile, Spain, the third of the big-three European wine giants, seemed to be sleeping, just doing the same old same old.  Rioja, its only region of any wine renown other than Jerez (Sherry), was static, rather boring. 

But since then, Spain has gotten on board, in a big way.  Not only has Rioja transformed itself with new ideas and a general improvement in its wines, but one region after another in Spain has been “re-discovered” by the wine world.  Ribera del Duero, known previously only by connoisseurs for its expensive, hard-to-find Vega Sicilia Unico, a world-class red wine, now has Pesquera and many other top wineries making fine red wine.

Priorat, a really out-of-the-way region in the harsh, inaccessible Sierra de Montsant Mountains about 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, has arrived in a big way, led by the enterprising pioneer winemaker, Alvaro Palacios.  Rías Baixas, an exciting white wine region in cool, damp Galicia (in Spain’s northwest corner, bordering the Atlantic), took the wine world by storm with its Albariño, a lively, inexpensive wine with vivid floral aromas.

The Penedés region in Catalonia, south of Barcelona, long the home of Spain’s cavas (sparkling wines), is coming out with all sorts of exciting white and red wines.  Navarra, Rioja’s neighbor to the north, was once known only for its rosé wines, but is now producing reds that rival Rioja’s.  Jumilla, in southeastern Spain, has become especially known for its great value reds.  

And now we have Toro.  When I first visited the Toro region about ten years ago, I looked around at this hot, arid, desolate area and thought, “Only wine grapes could love such a place.”  With its harsh landscape, poor soil, and sense of desolation, it reminded me of Priorat.  The big difference is its accessibility.  Priorat, high up in mountains and reached by impossibly twisty roads, is a real challenge for the traveler.  Toro, on the other hand, is easy to find.  Just go west on the main highway (A11) following the Duero River, Spain’s and Portugal’s main river, as it cuts through the heart of Toro, 25 miles east of Portugal.  Admittedly, you’re sort of in the middle of nowhere--125 miles northwest of Madrid.  But the town of Toro itself has old charm, with several good hotels and restaurants.  

When the Toro wine region, located in the huge province of Castilla y León, was officially recognized by Spain with its D.O. appellation in 1987, it had only four wineries.  Today, about 50 wineries exist, still a small number compared to other wine regions, with only eight or nine wineries of any size or renown, and only a few of these that export its wines to the U.S.  But that will change rapidly, I’m thinking.  Toro produces bold red wines, based mainly on Spain’s leading red variety, Tempranillo--called  Tinta de Toro locally.

Although wine has been made in Toro since the early Middle Ages, the area was practically abandoned for centuries, due to its hot, arid climate and its poor soil.  But as we all have learned, wine grapes thrive in poor soil, producing smallish berries with thick skin and concentrated juice. 

Just as Priorat had its champion in Alvaro Palacios, Toro has its founding father, Manuel Fariña, owner of Toro’s leading winery, Bodegas Fariña.  The winery was founded by Manuel Fariña’s father at an inauspicious time, 1942, in the middle of World War II.  Manuel was a one-year old baby at the time.  The winery produced jug wine, sold locally, until Manuel took over the family business in 1969.  Manuel Fariña had studied winemaking in Bordeaux, and brought many new ideas to the winery.  His foremost belief was that Tempranillo could succeed as a top-quality wine in the Toro region. 

Fariña was the man behind establishing the D.O.  appellation for Toro, in effect converting the local red from a jug wine to a fine wine.  Among the many changes Fariña made in his wines, he was the first to move up the harvest date in the region for Tempranillo from mid-October to mid-September, which reduced the alcohol levels from 17% (!) to 13/14% where they remain today; his was the first winery in Toro to install de-stemmers and fermentation temperature controls in stainless steel fermentation tanks; Fariña was the first to market Toro wines in modern, Bordeaux-type bottles; he was the first to introduce new barriques for ageing the red wines.  And Bodegas Fariña was the first Toro wine to be exported. 

As a result of Manuel Fariña’s work, other prestigious wine producers began investing, some opening up their own wineries in Toro, including the renowned Pesquera from Ribera del Duero (Dejesa la Granja) and even LVMH (Numanthia).

The Toro wine region is over 2,000 feet in altitude.  Its thin, sandy topsoil provides a flimsy sheet for the voluminous small stones that cover the vineyards.  The poor but well-drained soil plus the dryness and continental heat in growing season provide the ideal environment for the struggling, stressed vines to produce small, concentrated berries.  Cool evening temperatures (as much as 50°F. lower than during daytime) provide relief and prevent the grapes from suffering heat damage. 

Bodegas Fariña is now in the process of converting to certified organic farming.  Because it was the first winery in Toro to focus on quality, Bodegas Fariña was able to select the best vineyard sites in the region.  Fariña owns some vineyards and also has contracts with farmers whose vineyards average 50 years in age, with many vines over 100 years old.

I spoke to Manuel Fariña at a recent tasting of his wines in New York, asking him how the Tempranillo from Toro differed from Tempranillos in other wine regions.  He explained that because of the terroir in the region, Tempranillo in Toro is especially think-skinned and aromatic, making wines with great structure plus intense fruit character.  “Tempranillo in Toro works well with just a short time of aging in barrel (for most of his wines, just four to eight months) and a longer time in bottle,” he replied.  “Our Tempranillo is more intense in color and in flavor than most other Tempranillos from outside our region.” 

The tasting of Bodegas Fariña’s wines confirmed Manuel’s ideas about his Tempranillos.  The other factor that made his wines stand out is that they offer tremendous value (four of the six wines retail for $10 to $12!).  The brand name for many of Bodegas Fariña’s wines is Dama de Toro.  Bodegas Fariña is the only winery in the region permitted to use “Toro” in its brand since the name was registered before the D.O. was founded in 1987.

After a 15-year absence from the U.S. market, Bodegas Fariña is presently importing six wines here, five reds and a white.  Although it produces mainly red wines, I was extremely impressed with the quality of its white, a Malvasia:

Dama de Toro Malvasia, D.O. Toro, 2010 ($11, Specialty Cellars): 100 percent Malvasia from 120-year-old vines!  Fermented in stainless steel tanks, no oak aging.  Modern-style Spanish white, fresh green apple fruit and other white fruit flavors; lively acidity; depth and concentration.  I loved it!  Great value.  12.5° alcohol.  Drink within two years.

Peromato Tempranillo, Viño de la Tierra, 2010 ($10, Specialty Cellars):  100 percent Tempranillo from 20-year-old vines; unoaked; fruit-forward.  Easy-drinking; great apéritif red for warm weather; serve chilled.  Dry, fresh, crisp; wild berry flavors.  12.5° alcohol.  Simple wine; drink soon.

Dama de Toro Tempranillo, D.O. Toro, 2010 ($11, Specialty Cellars):  Mostly Tempranillo, with 4 to 6 percent Garnacha.  Unoaked; vines range from 20 to 40 years in age.  Fabulous blackberry aroma, vibrant berry fruit and minerally flavors; great depth and concentration; rich, velvety texture.  13.5° alcohol.  Difficult to imagine a wine this good for $11.

Dama de Toro Tempranillo, Barrel Aged, D.O. Toro, 2009 ($12, Specialty Cellars): Mostly Tempranillo, with a small percentage of Garnacha.  Vines average 30 years in age.  Aged 4 months in 50 percent American oak and 50 percent French oak.  13.5° alcohol.  I did not taste this wine.

Dama de Toro Crianza, D.O.Toro, 2005 ($17, Specialty Cellars):   
Mostly Tempranillo, with a small percentage of Garnacha.  Vines are 30 to 60 years old.  Barrel-aged for 8 months in American oak.  13.5° alcohol.  This wine, sadly, was corked.

Gran Dama de Toro, D.O.Toro, 2006 ($45, Specialty Cellars): Mostly Tempranillo, with a small percentage of Garnacha.  From 80 to 90-year-old vineyards.  Aged for 15 months in 70 percent American oak, 30 percent French oak.  14° alcohol.  Smooth, ripe, powerful but elegant, with soft tannins.  Silky texture with a long, complex finish.  Will age up to 15 years  from the harvest.  Bodegas Fariña’s premium wine.  For me, well worth the price.

Summing up the tasting, I was stunned by the quality and value of Bodegas Fariña’s 2010 Dama de Toro $11 Malvasia and its 2010 Dama de Toro $11 Tempranillo.  They are outstanding everyday wines.  Its Gran Dama de Toro, of course, is a superb wine, but four times the price.

Other Toro brands to look for include Estancia Piedra, Vega Sauco, Bodegas y Viñas Dos Victorias, Gil Luna, Dejesa la Granja, and Numanthia. 

If the wineries in Toro continue to produce such quality wines at affordable prices, I believe that Toro will become the next big story in Spanish wines.