Strength and high alcohol levels aren’t valued features in wine nowadays. However, both of them emerge in a perfectly natural way in Toro. This appellation covers over 5,000 hectares spreading across southern areas of Valladolid (less than 1,000 ha.) and Zamora (4,600 ha.) provinces following the course of the Duero river in Castilla y Léon. Do not expect smooth wines from this red winemaking region almost neighbouring Ribera del Duero. On the contrary, the area displays a unique and distinctive character based on a perfectly adapted Tempranillo clone known locally as Tinta de Toro.
Climate is as harsh as in the rest of Spain’s northern plateau, perhaps a bit tougher. Vines grow vigorously making a 10-year old vine look older than its real age. Summers are hotter than in Ribera del Duero and vines can suffer from extreme drought, but it’s much easier to obtain perfectly ripe grapes. With few exceptions, vintage variations are less pronounced and quality is far more regular than in Ribera.
Internationally acclaimed reds like Numanthia and Termanthia, currently owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and the arrival in the late 1990s of well-known producers like the Eguren family from Rioja (former owners of Numanthia, now in charge of Teso La Monja), Vega Sicilia (Pintia) and Mauro greatly helped to put the area on the map. The pilgrimage continued in the 2000s: Grupo Artevino, which includes Izadi in Rioja and Finca Villacreces in Ribera, launched Vetus in 2003; Alonso del Yerro from Ribera released Paydós and even a big player like Félix Solís settled in Toro with the purchase of Viña Bajoz Co-op. In 2014 exports accounted for 30% of the 11.5 million bottles sold.
Producers rave about the unique pre-phylloxera and ungrafted vineyards found in the area. This heritage has been preserved thanks to the abundance of phylloxera-resistant sandy soils. However, there are no reliable records of these ancient vineyards. Data provided by the Consejo Regulador shows that 56% of the nearly 4,000 hectares of Tinta de Toro’s bush wines are over 35 years, of which those aged 90 or more years are thought to be ungrafted. For his part, Numanthia’s manager Manuel Louzada says unofficial estimates point to some 1,800 hectares of 60+-year-old vines which are ungrafted, pre-phylloxera or planted with pre-phylloxera cuttings.
Some of the leading producers dream about being able to plant without grafting, so that they can preserve ancient vineyard bio-types. Frenchman Antony Terryn from Dominio del Bendito, who is a strong advocate of this idea, is convinced that the area offers "exceptional" conditions for organic farming.
Louzada reveals that discussions with the Consejo Regulador are underway in order to declare Toro a phylloxera-free area, a necessary step in order to plant ungrafted rootstock. “Toro’s greatest treasure is the genetic wealth found in its oldest vineyards and the best way to preserve it involves planting ungrafted vines”, he says.
Numanthia produces the legendary Termanthia, which retails around 135 € in Spain, from a pre-phylloxera vineyard called Los Carriles. It’s one of the top reds in the region and the very first from the appellation with a price tag over 100 €.
Most wineries in the area own ungrafted plots or source grapes from them, some of which can be even pre-phylloxera. Low yields are common in these vineyards not only due to the age of the vines but also to the low density of plants per hectare, thus reinforcing concentration and natural strength in the wines. Moreover, the ubiquitous Tinta de Toro, which accounts for 90% of the region’s surface under vine, has a distinctively small grape and thick skin that makes for a higher percentage of skin in relation to the grape juice.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that the biggest challenge in the area is to manage the high levels of alcohol naturally produced in the vineyard. Pioneer Manuel Fariña led the change in the 1980 by picking grapes earlier thus managing to reduce alcohol levels from up to 17% to a more restrained 13%. Today, most Toro wines range between 14-15%, sometimes even slightly above.
The final stages of ripening can occur really fast so deciding the right moment to pick is crucial in the area. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, technology comes into action, specially in terms of temperature. While Pintia boasts spectacular cold storage facilities, Numanthia employs dry ice. Both wineries use selected yeasts to make sure fermentation comes to a complete end. Cold-maceration prior to fermentation is widely used by most producers as it allows to preserve aromas and soft skin extractions; once fermentation is underway, things must be handled very carefully. Vega Sicilia’s winemaker Xavier Ausàs usually allows his Riberas to reach 32ºC degrees during fermentation but makes sure temperature never exceeds 28ºC at Pintia. “The goal is not to volatilize the aromas and to maintain as much fresh fruit as we can”, Ausàs says.
Stainless steel is widely used in the area, although it’s not unusual for wineries to combine different options. Pintia for instance favours oak tanks; Numanthia prefers stainless steel vats but Termanthia ferments in small oak vats; Antony Terryn from Dominio del Bendito is happy with the thermal stability provided by cement tanks. In a more sophisticated approach, the Eguren family has designed five different types of vats in their new Teso La Monja facilities (conventional sealed tanks, sealed tanks with pigeage, truncated cone-shaped open vats, open vats with pigeage and open oak vats) not to mention the egg-shaped wooden vat exclusively intended for the malolactic fermentation of Teso La Monja, an exclusive red with less than 1,000 bottles in the market and sold at stratospheric prices.
Compared with Ribera del Duero, Toro reds usually show a rustic edge and earthy background notes which reflect terroir and manage to add a distinctive character. When handled well, alcohol can nicely wrap-up tannins adding volume and glycerin, so the wines can be very drinkable regardless of its strength and high levels of concentration. A good Toro can be especially comforting despite its strength, capable to enliven the soul and body in the same way Port would.
When does Toro fail to show at its best? Mainly when grapes are overripe, alcohol is not balanced, tannins are harsh or wines feel too rustic. An excess of oak can also be relatively frequent, since barrel aging seems particularly necessary to tame these powerful reds. Both French and American oak are used in the region, the former more common in top of the range wines. Taking into account that many wines are literally loaded with fruit, there’s a chance that oak can be integrated after some cellaring time.
Since the first premium pre-phylloxera wines were released —first Termanthia and later Alabaster and Teso La Monja— the range of prices in the area has notably expanded. Most of the better quality reds retail between €20 and €35 in Spain, but there are some entry-level options to get an idea of the region’s personality.
Aside for the best known wineries, it seems clear that Toro is not in high demand right now. We have had trouble to find online retail prices for some brands or current vintages. In the recommendations below, I have tried to include all the styles produced in the region, from the heavy hitters to refined or even lighter examples. The list starts with affordable wines to have a first contact with the appellation and goes onto characterful wines made from old vines.
Under €10. A long established firm in the appellation, founded in 1942, Bodegas Fariña, continues with its ritual of being the first in the market with its carbonic maceration Primero de Fariña (€6.20, 2014 vintage via Enterwine). Although it is light, somewhat atypical red for what is standard in the region, it might serve to palates in search of an easy first contact with Toro. A better representative of the region is Románico 2012 from Teso La Monja (€7.5 in Tomevinos; from €12 in US retailers via Wine Searcher) bursting with black fruit (prunes, blackberry jam, blueberries) and spending six months in oak.
Between €11-€15. Over the €10 mark, the 2009 vintage of Gran Colegiata Roble Francés (around €11) shows a rather complex nose (black fruit, pencil lead, roasted aromas, rockrose shrubs) followed by all the power expected from a Toro wine. A fresher style option is Vetus 2009 (€11.40 via Ideavinos, from €12.50 in other EU countries via Wine Searcher), offering red fruit and spicy notes with good tension on the palate.
One of the best and more authentic introductions to the region is El Primer Paso from Dominio del Bendito. This powerful red shows its rustic origins but does not feel heavy at all; the 2013 vintage shows plumy, earthy notes whereas the 2012 version (€12.25 in Vinissimus; €22 via Wine Searcher) feels more ample and glyceric. Sofros 2011 (€14.8 via Vinealia), made by the small winery Bodegueros Quintaesencia founded in 2006, is a modern style red with plenty of toasted and herbal notes (aniseed, bay leaves), fruit and wood, ample on mid-palate and great value for money.
Between €18 and €35. If I had to choose a single wine from Toro featuring all the region’s virtues at a reasonable price, I would likely go for a red wine made by the García family (Mauro) since the end of the 1990s from vines planted in San Román de Hornija and Villaester, in Valladolid province. San Román shows an impeccable record with a notable bottle evolution over a six-seven year period after the vintage date. I get the feeling that the 2011 vintage (€20.95 via Enterwine, from €21 via Wine Searcher) is more restrained in its usually robust expression, but it still maintains that pleasant enveloping sensation from the alcohol. The soils’ minerality and aromatic complexity is remarkable with notes of blueberries, kirsch, candied orange, cardamom and nuts.
With a spectacular 2011 vintage round the corner, Las Sabias 2008 (€20 in Spain; €27 via Wine Searcher) by Dominio del Bendito was my favourite year in the mini vertical tasting that Antony Terryn organized for me. Consistent, broad and comforting —a character that defines the area well— with abundant notes of candied fruit, cedar and black chocolate. Other similarly priced prominent reds are Abdón Segovia Crianza 2011 (12,000 bottles, €19.27 via Aporvino) from Vocarraje, a little bit more rustic and earthy but showing minerality and enveloping warmth; and Campo Alegre 2012 (around €20, from €24 in US retailers via Winesearcher) from Bodega Burdigala, a joint project between Michel Rolland and François Lurton focused on firm and well-ripened reds with generally well-integrated tannins.
The 2011 harvest is particularly interesting in Toro as it adds a fine and complex aromatic character to the power usually found in the area. In any case, all of these wines will benefit from some extra time in the bottle. This character is more obvious in Celsus 2011 (€25.50 via Vila Viniteca), from Bodegas Vetus (Grupo Artevino) which comes from pre-phylloxera vines in Morales de Toro: there is minerality, fine spices, red fruit and broom shrub notes. Slightly warmer and chocolatey is Paydos 2011 (€26.55 via Gourmet Hunters), the project led by Viñedos Alonso del Yerro in Toro, as it combines a nutty character with lively violet notes. Numanthia 2011 (€34.95 via Decántalo and Wine Searcher) needs time to free itself from its marked black expression (shoe polish, tea leaves, roasted notes) and develop all the concentration offered on the palate. Victorino 2011 from Teso La Monja (€31.41 via Vinissimus and Wine Searcher) is a fruit bomb which seems to carry the very essence of Tinta de Toro. The 2012 vintage is already on sale, with haunting aromas of violet, broom shrub and ripe fruit along with controlled firmness that will benefit from some extra time in bottle.
Pintia 2010 (€32 at Decántalo and via Wine Searcher) offers lovely hints of blackberry and blueberries jam and fine spicy notes together with great intensity and depth on the palate. The winery will soon release the fresher 2011 (more red fruit here like strawberry and redcurrant) showing a fleshy and seductive palate that finishes with remarkable persistence. It’s interesting to note that the winery has a strong preference for clay-based soils with plenty of boulders on the surface.
Over €36. On the other hand, French producer Antony Terryn seems to be obsessed by sand (“the more the better”, he says). He has completely fallen in love with Pago La Jara vineyard, south of Toro. His oldest plots here go to the top-of-the-range Titán del Bendito (€39.75 at El Sumiller). The 2011 vintage is a big, massive and complex red with liquor and cedar notes that will also need some extra time in bottle.
Pre-philloxera vineyards show at its best in Teso La Monja’s Alabaster and LVMH’s legendary Termanthia. Both of them are destemmed manually and retail well over €100. Alabaster 2012 (€137.60 at Decántalo and via Wine Searcher) offers lovely blueberries, spicy and broom shrub aromas and manages to combine concentration, finesse and elegance. Termanthia 2010 (€129 via Enterwine and from €117 via Wine Searcher) feels as deep and vigorous as expected. It’s a complex, multilayered red with black fruit, pine nuts, roasted coffee and aniseed aromas and shows remarkable persistence. Both of these reds, like others mentioned above, will benefit from some extra cellaring time. Even wine lovers averse to big reds will discover a far gentler palate provided they are patient enough to wait.