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Bodegas San Román: Improving Upon Excellence
By Michael Franz
Nov 16, 2021
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A recent tasting of the wines from Bodegas y Vinedos San Roman provided an object lesson in the fact that even the world's best wineries can still get better, offering improved value at every price level.  I was fortunate to visit this winery shortly after it was established in the late 1990s by Mariano Garcia, then best known for a long and spectacularly distinguished winemaking career at Vega Sicilia.  The wines were extremely impressive from the outset, but also very powerful and oaky, and really made for the cellar rather than current consumption, with the result that relatively few tasters could fully appreciate them and buy with a view to the future.  After all, the percentage of consumers who have cellars in their dwellings -- or who rent space in commercial wine storage facilites -- is tiny in relation to the entirety of the wine loving public.

Today, however, the bodega's two most important wines have been transformed from collector's items to marvelous wines for consumers, as the following reviews will indicate.  When the first wine below ("Cartago" for short) made its debut in the 2013 vintage, it took on all the characteristics of a "collector's item," by which I mean a lot of the newest barrels, a price tag of $170, and the potential to improve for 25 years--but also the need for a decade of cellaring to really show its stuff.  Its introduction coincided roughly with a fresher, more approachable style for the San Román bottling, which still shows impressive power and longevity, but a much broader window of drink-ability and superb value for $65.  To be sure, it is a wine for special occasions for most consumers, but it doesn't require cellaring to be enjoyed (just decanting and appropriate food), nor an occasion like a birthday or anniversary ending with a "0" or a "5".

The "Prima" bottling is consistently terrific and a steal at $25, and unusually for Toro, includes 15% Garnacha, which definitely makes it more attractive upon release than the initial releases of the wine.  Like San Román, it remains a serious wine, but it wears its seriousness with a wink now, rather than a tannic scowl.  It can easily hold its own (and then some) with a grilled steak, but would also work beautifully with a quick-fried pork chop on a relaxed Tuesday night. 

Finally, at bottom in what follows you'll see that the bodega turns out a small quantity of a remarkable bottling of a white wine made from very old vines of Malvasía--60 years old, to be precise, from the single El Pinar vineyard.  It is quite expensive at $95, but that isn't likely to prove a problem for you--as only about 1,000 bottles are made in each vintage, and naturally not many of those make it to the USA.  Still, the wine helps to underline the fact that San Román is ardently pursuing excellence relentlessly and also broadly.  The wines continue to seem better almost every year, even when the particular growing seasons are less than optimal.  Savvy consumers will exert whatever effort is necessary to try these wines...and will be rewarded richly by learning to return to them as they improve into the future.

Bodegas San Román, Toro DO (Castilla y León, Spain) “Cartago Paraje del Pozo” 2016 ($170, Grapes of Spain / Aurelio Cabestrero):  This is probably the best newly released wine I’ve tasted in 2021, and we’re into late October as I’m writing this, so that’s saying something.  Only time will tell how great this wine will become as it approaches maturity, but time is very much on the side of this gorgeous, superbly balanced, remarkably intricate wine.  So deeply pigmented that there’s almost no “edge” to the wine even when tipped in a big glass under bright light, the impressiveness begins optically even before sniffing or tasting.  That initial impression is only corroborated on the nose and palate, as the wine shows excellent aromatic expressiveness and very deep flavors, but without the barest hint of excessive oak scents, or any overt heaviness in the mid-palate or finish, which is the magic of this 2016 vintage in several important appellations in Europe, ranging from Bordeaux to Barolo and beyond.  The fruit is especially pure in this vintage, showing dark cherry notes at its core but also other shadings of fresh berries, and though “purity” is the prime impression, the wine isn’t pure in an un-complex sense.  On the contrary, the different “shadings” I just referred to are evident to differing degrees from when the wine first touches one’s palate through the finish, and they also show themselves differently as the wine warms and breathes in the glass over time.  Oak spice is beautifully interwoven with the fruit flavors, and though wood impressions are somewhat assertive in this new release, they certainly don’t overwhelm the fruit at any point the sensory experience that the wine provides even now.  Still, there’s no doubt this will be significantly better in another 5 years, and better still in 10.  Beyond that, I’d be engaging in guesswork, but there’s no doubt this has a full decade of positive development ahead of it.  Truly a spectacular rendition of Tempranillo.  98

Bodegas San Román, Toro DO (Castilla y León, Spain) “San Román” 2018 ($65, Grapes of Spain / Aurelio Cabestrero):  This is – and has been for two decades – one of Spain’s finest bodegas, and yet all the wines continue to show improvement, even accounting for the different character imparted by different growing seasons.  2018 was a cooler year, more along the lines of 2016 than either 2015 or 2017, and though this shows wonderful freshness as a result, it is definitely not short on the muscle suggested by this DO’s (i.e., appellation’s) name.  This is a highly expressive wine in the vintage, showing excellent detail in both aromatic and flavor terms already, though the track record of this wine assures a full decade of positive development.  Oak spice is evident on the nose but certainly not overbearing, and though wood tannins add a bit more grip than is optimal for current consumption, the wine isn’t overly rough for those who wish to try this now to determine whether to buy more for future consumption.  The fruit profile isn’t as ripe as in 2017, and the wine isn’t as soft and rounded as a result, but the inner energy is actually superior, and the aromas more intricate.  The crucial indication that this will develop from something extremely promising into something truly terrific shows up in the finish: the pure midpalate fruit notes initially give way to tannin and wood-derived astringency, but then the fruit re-asserts itself and smooths out the long finish, leaving ripe fruit flavors rather than wood or tannins as the last sensory impression.  Very impressive.  95

Bodegas San Román, Toro DO (Castilla y León, Spain) "Prima" 2018 ($25, Grapes of Spain / Aurelio Cabestrero):  Although this is the entry-level wine from Bodegas San Román, it would be a bad mistake to underestimate it, as it is exceptionally well made and among the very best wines made anywhere in the world at its price level.  Although recent vintages are easier to enjoy when young, as they are less oaky (this is true also for the “San Román” bottling, due to the introduction of a high-end “Cartago” bottling in 2013 that has garnered more of the newly purchased barrels), this is still a sturdy and serious wine that manifestly merits either cellaring or consumption upon release, and rewards either of these choices handsomely.  Restaurant buyers should be particularly attentive to this, as the wine can be a hit on the floor as soon as it is delivered, but also improve almost however long it sits in inventory.  My bottle was actually better 24 hours after being tasted initially, which is very impressive for a wine in this price category; the fruit was still fresh, the integration of fruit, wood, acidity and tannin was even more impressive, and the wine had picked up savory undertones that didn’t show as expressively immediately after opening.  In sensory terms, this is really a medium-bodied wine that offers the aromatic and flavor impact of a full-bodied one, making for great versatility with food: it won’t overwhelm a dish based on pork or even chicken, but can pair beautifully with lamb or beef without being remotely washed out.  Almost every $25 wine should run and hide if threatened with a head-to-head comparison with this wine.  92

Although all three wines are entirely true to their region of origin and grape variety, they are absolutely not limited in their appeal to lovers of Tempranillo or Spanish wines.  Their quality and character place them near the top of any set of comparable wines made anywhere in the world.  This great bodega will only become more widely known for its excellence, and we know what that does to prices over time, so buying now is highly advisable.  Oh, and just in case you hit the lottery and find a bottle of the Malvasía, let's consider that as well:

Bodegas San Román (Toro DO, Castilla y León) Malvasía 2018 ($95, Grapes of Spain / Aurelio Cabestrero):  The 60-year-old vines show their merit in this wine's concentration and depth of flavor, which is impressive without trying to hard or coming off as heavy, just as the judicious use of 500-liter oak casks lends spice and grip without intruding on the midpalate fruit or shortening the finish with excessive wood tannins.  The fruit flavors recall poached pears and ripe figs, with vibrant acidty that never turns too tart and minerality that works in concert with the fruit and oak very harmoniously.  The wine's richness benefits from just a bit of tannic grip in the finish, just as the fruit's opulence is nicely balanced by a touch of pleasant bitterness recalling citrus zest.  Already delicious, but clearly built for another 5 years of improvement with aging--at a minimum.  93 

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