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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Toro: The Black Bull of Spain is Poised to Roar into the International Wine Arena

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 (Photos to follow)

Many wine experts believe that Toro, a relatively little-known denominación de origen (DO), located in Zamora province around the town of Toro some 215 kilometers northwest of Madrid and 75 kilometers east of the Portuguese border, is Spain’s most promising up-and-coming wine region. Once known for black, stout, powerful wines that lived up to their name (toro means fighting bull in Spanish), easily reaching 17 degrees alcohol naturally, Toro is now being touted as the new vini-cultural Eldorado of Spain by top Spanish wine authorities such as Andrés Proensa, author of the annual La Guía de Oro de los Vinos de España and perhaps Spain’s most insightful wine writer.

Toro hopes to follow in the footsteps of a number of other Spanish wine regions, which have recently risen from obscurity to international prominence. Until the 1980s, other than the red wines of La Rioja and Cataluña, Cava (Spain’s sparkling wine equivalent of Champagne) and Sherry, few Spanish wines were well known outside the country. But, in the past decade or so, all that has changed dramatically.

First, the Ribera del Duero area northwest of Madrid proved that, in addition to Vega Sicilia, Spain’s legendary equivalent to Bordeaux’s Chateau Latour, other wineries in Castilla-León were capable of producing world-class red wines. Then Galicia’s Rías Baixas and Castilla-León’s Rueda began making high quality white wines from Albaríno and Verdejo grapes respectively. In the past few years, the northern province of Navarra, just east of La Rioja, has also risen to prominence as a versatile producer of fine Chardonnays, exceptional dry Garnacha rosados (rosés), fine indigenous reds and international varietals as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and even luscious Moscatel dessert wines. Miguel Torres and his flagship Penedès wine Mas de la Plana (Black Label) Cabernet Sauvignon had long represented Cataluña as a star player on the world wine stage, but little else of red wine significance bore the Catalan banner. Then, seemingly overnight, several new producers began shipping the stunningly concentrated Priorato red wines from the beautiful, isolated, primeval hills of the Mediterranean province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Historically, Toro was part of the ancient kingdom of León, but it is now part of the modern Spanish administrative region of Castilla-León, so several Madrid-based Spanish wine writers are already using a little poetic license in calling the region "the Priorato of Castile," because its big, powerful, dark, ripe wines call to mind those of its Catalan counterpart. In this age of power palates, especially in America, with a taste for dark, monster wines with concentrated black fruits, many wine writers see in Toro yet another Spanish wine region poised to gain a substantial international, as well as domestic, following.

Like the Ribera del Duero (and the Port-producing regions of Portugal), Toro straddles the great Duero wine river (known as the Douro in Portugal). The main grape of Toro is called Tinta de Toro, the same great red wine grape known as Tinto del País or Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero and a cousin of the great Tempranillo of La Rioja. Old Tinta de Toro vineyards, planted with only about 1,000 vines per hectare (as opposed to places such as Cataluña, where a hectare supports 2,500 to 3,000 vines per hectare), makes up 65% of the vines in region. The rest is high-quality old vines Garnacha and the white grapes, Malvasía and Verdejo. Most of Toro’s vineyards are planted at 600 to 750 meters above sea level. Toro’s Continental climate is very sunny and dry; the region gets only about half the annual rainfall of Bordeaux, but the vineyards are dry farmed. The soils around Toro are well-drained and often sandy, so, curiously, they are not friendly hosts to the phylloxera bug, so most of the vines in Toro are not grafted onto 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 the alcohol levels and began to win international recognition for the concentration of fruit, balance, and price-to-quality of its red wines. Fariña’s rich, fruity, but well-balanced Colegiata brand, which is named for 12th-Century Colegiate church of Toro and carries the image on the label, was the first to show the true potential of the region. Still somewhat 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 months to two years and there is also a Gran Colegiata "media" crianza, which spends just 4 months in new American oak de reserva. Fariña’s also makes a rich, young Colegiata that is blend of 50% Tinto de Toro and 50% Garnacha, sees no oak, and is a bargain. Manuel Fariña was the driving force behind Toro’s acceptance in 1987 as a full-fledged denominación de origen and he served as the DO’s first president.

During the past few years, major players from other Spanish wine regions such as the Ribera del Duero, La Rioja, and Navarra have moved in to purchase or plant vineyards and produce wines in Toro. A number of them are building new wineries. Alejandro Fernández, owner of Pesquera and Condado de Haza in the Ribera del Duero, has purchased a 600-acre former fighting bull ranch outside the village of Vadillo de la Guareña and has planted new, ungrafted vineyards on 250 hectares of the estate. The first wine to come from this new venture will be the 1998, provisionally to be called Alejandro Tinto. Fernández made 300,000 bottles from old vines Tinto de Toro purchased from growers in the Guareña River valley near the estate. The wine has been aging at Vadillo in 900 all-new American oak barrels in Fernández’s spectacular, hand-hewn, centuries-old deep cellars, which once belonged to the diocese of nearby Salamanca. Although, only a few hectares of the Fernández spread are actually within the DO Toro, the new wine, like many others to come, will carry the designation, Vino de Castilla y León. The cognoscenti will know that it comes from the Toro region and, given the track record of Alejandro Fernández with Pesquera, few will doubt that it will soon rank with the top red wines in Spain.

Mariano García, the former winemaker of Vega Sicilia and a partner and winemaker in the acclaimed Bodegas Mauro in Tudela de Duero, is already making a non-DO San Román from existing old vines Tinto de Toro and Garnacha from his recently-purchased vineyards at San Román de Hornijos, which has the reputation for producing the best wines in the region. At San Román, García has acquired some nine hectares of vines, which are reminiscent of the rock-strewn vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He plans to plant 15 more hectares here.

Although it does not carry the designation Toro on the label, just Vino de Castilla-León (analogous to Italy’s super-Tuscans), the 1997 Bodegas Mauro San Román Tinto that García showed me in April 1999 over lunch at the excellent Chivo restaurant in Morales de Toro, is probably the best wine ever made from the Toro region. 

A subsequent bottle, which I drank in late August of 1999 confirmed my earlier impression. It is a rich, powerful wine (13.8 ) made from 91% Tinta de Toro and 9% Garnacha grapes, both harvested from mature vines and aged for aged for a year in partly new and partly used French oak. This deep, black cherry-colored wine shows toasty French oak and concentrated ripe berry fruits (black currants and black cherries) in the nose. On the palate it is incredibly rich with ripe black currant and black cherry flavors, hints of the "tarry" licorice similar to that found in Vega Sicilia, and a long finish with bittersweet chocolate flavors. A 1998 San Román barrel sample had not yet spent the requisite time in oak, nor had it been clarified, but it showed promise with lots of sweet, ripe fruit and fine, stylish finish. A year later, the wine was still tight, but showed deep black currant fruit under the tannins.

García’s former employers at Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most prestigious winery, are also planning to launch a new wine, made from Tinto de Toro grapes from the Toro region. They have purchased vineyards and are currently aging their first as yet un-named released at a bodega in a village not far from Vega Sicilia. When I tasted it from barrel this spring, I found it rich, though reasonably well-balanced, but still dominated by the new oak in which it was aging.
Antonio Sanz, the Rueda-based winemaker of the peripatetic "have pipette, will travel" school, has been making basic Toro wines in the cooperative bodega at Morales de Toro since 1984, but since 1997, he has been aging his reasonably-priced, full-bodied, but well-balanced, Tinto de Toro-based Bodegas Toresanas Amant in an old convent in the town of Toro. (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, can be counted among the major players in the emergence of Toro as an important wine region.

Several other producers have been making journeyman Toro wines for several years.
Wenceslao Gil, a highly-regarded winemaker who came to Toro in the late 1970s, but has made wine at in Cigales, Burgos, and Salamanca, produces Vega Sauco at an old underground bodega near Morales de Toro. Vega Sauco, which can be overripe, rustic, and tanky, 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% Tinto 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 big producer of commercial table wines, is based in Cigales (Valladolid). Their Muruve Toro wines can be spotty in quality, but in good years, the Muruve crianza, which is made from 100% Tinto de Toro and spends 12 - 14 months in oak can be a good, rich, if somewhat meaty, powerful, and quite ripe wine. The Gran Muruve reserva spends two years in oak. The cooperative at Morales de Toro, where several good winemakers have vinified their wines in the past few years while waiting for their new wineries to be finished, makes the serviceable, sometimes pleasant and quaffable, but quite heady and rustic tasting Viña Bajoz.
But, 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, the people at Vega Sicilia, and others including Rioja’s Eguren family (producers of Señorío de San Vicente) and others join the rush for black gold around the ancient town of Toro.

And, where once Toro wines were black, brusque and as heady as a Spanish fighting bull tearing into the ring, more sophisticated wine making techniques should bring the finesse that these wines have lacked in the past, and these bullish wines may indeed become Spain’s new wine Eldorado.

--Gerry Dawes

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