Last week I was able to take a one day trip up to the DO Toro located 2 hours North of Madrid. I met with two bodegas, one of which I’ll tell you about in a later article. This particular article is based on my short visit to Bodegas Liberalia.
Founded in 2000 by Juan Antonia Fernandez Martin and his wife, Bodega Liberalia is a family based winery whose soul intention is to produce the finest wines in Toro. Fluent in English, German, Spanish and Portuguese, Juan is not only highly cultured, but has a welcoming smile and a demeanor that would put anyone at ease. In fact, upon my arrival in the late afternoon, he welcomed me in by putting his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close towards him, all while talking a mile a minute about how happy he was to see me. His eyes twinkled as he gave me a running dialogue of our surroundings. It wasn’t more than a few minutes after our meeting each other before we set off on a tour of his Bodega as if he were showing his own son what he might inherit one day.
At first glance as you head outside, the bodega appears to be nothing more than a pole barn with a fancy label stuck to the side. Signs of construction are evident everywhere you look as Juan explained to me how within a year, he hopes to have added a tasting annex, a gourmet food shop, a small museum and more. As he showed me the locations of his future additions, the strong wind that is a regular visitor to this region whipped at our faces, numbing us, and reminding us of how tough the vines of this region must be to survive. Walking back to the warmth of the bodega, I noticed that one side the bodega faces rows of vines that looked rather young. Juan explained that they were about five years old and whose grapes are mainly sold off or blended into their lesser wines. For his better wines, and those that have won awards, he stated that he uses nothing but the best grapes. For these he has selected small groups of vines from the highest quality areas in Toro, all of which fall between 25-100 years of age. According to Juan, “My wife takes care of the vines and I take care of the wines”, and with that we escaped back into the interior of the bodega leaving the wind behind.
Once inside, you really have to question how a winery can be making 5 different labels with so little space. Small fermenters run around the perimeter, and in the middle is a sorting table recently covered from this years harvest. “Hand sorting is a necessity” Juan explained to me as we walked around. “You need to be picky to make good wine”. A few workers milled about, all of which acknowledged us with smiles. I really felt like everyone here was proud to be doing what they were doing. It turns out that the last batch of wine was finishing up Malolactic fermentation and was almost ready to be put into the barrels. It was at this point I realized that to this point I had not seen any barrels. Asking Juan about this he smiled at me and said to follow him. Squeezing around a large steel tank I wondered what he was thinking, until I noticed a hole in the cement floor with a series of narrow cement stairs leading directly into a vast spacious underground aging room containing oak barrels stacked two stories high. Where did this come from? Juan quickly whisked me forward to inspect the towering barrels aging wines from past vintages. At one point I got the feeling that these barrels were like toy blocks for children, as he explained to me where he thought he should move this stack or that one.
I couldn’t help but feel the passion that he exuded. In fact when we first entered the barrel room, we came to a small stereo. He asked me if I liked music and if classical was ok. Being a fan of classical, I said yes, yet I did not understand why he had asked until I saw him reach for small stereo. Puttting on what he explained was the greatest Spanish violin player ever, soft music flowed forth into the room. The curious part was that instead of echoing as one might expect, it seemed to be absorbed by the barrels that were stacked all around. Looking at me, he smiled and said, “it helps the wine relax”. Who was I to argue, as we climbed back up away from the barrels he made sure to leave the music playing.
Sadly, it was late in the day and we both needed to get going, so I left with 2 bottles to try at my leisure and promised to return when the additions were done. He quickly asked a worker to give me a ride back to the bus station, shaking my hand tightly and thanked me for my visit with a sincerity rarely seen.
It was at this point I was once again reinforced with the magic and romance of Bodega Liberelia. The harvest leader who gave me a ride back possesed a knowledge and passion for Toro and it’s wines. Eyes furrowed from years of battling the harsh winds of Toro, he proceeded to regale me with the approximate age of every group of vines we passed, which is no small task considering that Toro is literally covered in vines everywhere you look. All the while, throwing in random bits of information, like the fact that this region is mentioned in historic ledgers from the time of Colombus. Right before I was about to step out of his truck and walk towards the bus station, he grabbed my shoulder and asked me to wait. With a deep sincerity he said to me, “Please speak well of these wines and this region, making sure to let people know how special of a place it is”.
The passion and dedication I saw today was an eye opener to everything Spain has yet to show to the world. In truth, it would be difficult not to write well of these wines or this region, but to further exemplify my sentiments, allow me to share a story by the Harvest Leader. I had asked him how it was feasible that there could be 100 year old vines everywhere I looked. I was under the impression that during Franco’s dictatorship, many of these low yielding vines were torn up around Spain to make room for other more cost-effective crops. “In reality” he said, “this might have happened if it weren’t for the lack of fertility. Toro is a harsh and brutal climate with high temperature summers fraught with drought along with bitter cold winters. Additionally, the soil is so unforgiving that it doesn’t possess the nutrients to produce most vegetables or grains. So unforgiving is the soil that even the notorious pest of phyloxera cannot survive here, meaning that many of the the vines remain ungrafted. In this way, Toro and it’s vines were written off as a loss. Fortunately, the vines stayed and developed into gnarled masses with every passing day reaching deeper into the earth for it’s nutrients.”
In many ways, the culture is exactly the same. Simple foods, wonderful sheep cheese, and intense wines are trademarks of the people who live here. Strolling into the bars near the main plaza you see the pride they have in their wines splashed proudly across the walls. Unlike most small towns in Spain that have one or two wines from the region as their “house” wine, here you find a small representation of every wine produced in Toro. From Numanthia to the local Co-ops wines they are all represented, showing how proud and how important the wine is to this region. Stay with us at Catavino as we investigate and explore other regions and share stories from around Spain and Portugal!
Till soon, Ryan