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Toro: A Spanish Wine Region of Guts and Glory

Toro is an exciting wine region nestled in the heart of Castilla y Leon, in the province of Zamora. It is named for its main town, Toro which is a delight to visit. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Duero River, which becomes the Douro in Portugal just 90 kilometres further west, the skyline is dominated by the lovely collegiate church of Santa Maria la Mayo.

This is not a fancy town, the best hotel in town is the modest 3 star Hotel Juan 11 on the ridge next to the collegiate church. The rooms are not fancy, but they are clean and serviceable – 3 euros extra gets you a view of the river and the Roman bridge. If you are lucky, as I was, a stork will fly past your balcony. It is a peaceful place steeped in history giving us a glimpse of the real Spain, rugged Spain, dramatic Spain, a living, breathing museum to cultural Spain. I really enjoyed visiting this town, but then I like all Spanish towns, they seem to get under my skin and make me feel peaceful and happy. Visiting Toro though, really stamped the local wines on my consciousness as they were very impressive.

My first glimpse of the wines was a glass of tinto with some tapas in the town square. It wasn’t fancy, but it was very good and I went in search of more. This was provided by the Co-operativa in Morales de Toro, whose Moralinos de Toro tinto gave me enormous pleasure and whose Vina Bajoz was a more considered and sophisticated wine. It was a tasting to remember, held in the coop’s own cafe that shared a wide dusty forecourt with a petrol station, while the winemaker’s wife kept plying us with wonderful homemade chorizo and empanadas.

You do not have to look very hard to find wine in Toro, it is all around you. Indeed the southern part of the region is contiguous with the historic Tierra del Vino, while north of the Duero river we are in the Tierra del Pan – the two staples of traditional Spanish life within spitting distance.

Toro has been famous as a wine region since the early middle ages, but there is plenty of evidence that the Romans made wine here too. For as long as records exist, this place has been renown for big red wines that deliver rich, concentrated fruit and hefty tannins. It was the very high alcohol of the local wines together with the massive tannins that made their reputation by ensuring they would keep in good condition and not oxidise in more primitive times when wine was kept in skins and wineries were not the scrupulously clean places they are today. Indeed, legend has it that Columbus took red wine from Toro wines with him on his voyages. (Flickr photo by Antramir)

It is perhaps this reason, more than any other, that accounts for the fact that in recent times nearby Ribera del Duero has grabbed Castilla y Leon’s wine crown for itself. Until relatively recently, it has long been thought that only rough and ready everyday wines come from Toro.

However, that ignores what has happened in Toro over the last 15 years or so. Yes, there are still traditional, gutsy red wines made, but the winemaking has become better and better. The introduction of modern techniques, like using stainless steel fermentation vats and low fermentation temperatures, ensures that the wine coming out of the winery can now be as good as the fruit going in. None of this was lost on the wine producers of Ribera del Duero who have long used fruit from Toro to add a bit of depth and gusto to their wines in lean years. Now that modern bureaucracy forbids such cavalier action they are buying up vineyards in Toro instead.

Most Toro is red and the key grape is the Tinta de Toro, which is a local natural clone of Tempranilllo. Evolving over the centuries, it has developed thicker skins – hence the deep colours and the high tannins in the wines. At between 620-750 metres above sea level the vineyards are pretty high, forming a gently undulating plateau that soaks up the blistering sun during the day so creating an incredible build up of ripeness that shows in the finished wine as fruit, alcohol – the minimum allowed is 12.5% – colour and tannins. All of this makes for wines that are richer and fruitier than Rioja with its more savoury character, even though the grapes are very closely related. The D.O. regulations require a minimum of 75% Tinta de Toro for the red wines of the region.

Garnacha/Grenache is also allowed for blending with Tinta de Toro – both for the red wines, to soften those big tannins and the rosados. Just in case the rosados are not refreshing enough, a little white Toro is produced, mainly from the wonderfully fleshy Malvasia grape which is often blended with a some Verdejo for Sauvignon Blanc-like acidity and balance.

For too long Toro has languished in the shadows and I have championed the region as much as I can. I have therefore been thrilled to see a slow emergence of wines from Toro onto the UK market – here are a few that I have managed to try recently:

BLANCO

2009 Marques de la Villa Malvasia
D.O. Toro
Covitoro/Vino de Toro, Toro
Malvasia with 5% Verdejo
An attractive, quite soft and richly textured dry white wine that is just a little too fat to be crisp – an easy drinking and multi-purpose wine of good quality. 5-6 euros in the UK.

ROSADO

2009 Marques de la Villa Rosado
D.O. Toro
Covitoro/Vino de Toro, Toro
Tinta de Toro with 10% Garnacha
Another very easy wine with rich strawberry fruit with a good kick of acidity keeping it fresh – love the outrageous colour. 5- 6 euros in the UK.

TINTO

2008 Cano Tinto Tempranillo-Garnacha
D.O. Toro
Pagos del Rey, Morales de Toro
Tinta de Toro with 25% Garnacha
Richly fruity, gluggable and enjoyable with very soft tannins that are barely noticeable – real happy juice and a wonderful wine for the money, at less than 5 euros in the UK.

2008 Marques de la Villa Tinta de Toro
D.O. Toro
Covitoro/Vino de Toro, Toro
100% Tinta de Toro – 3 months in American oak barrels.
A more rugged, rich and tannic wine with some real depth and concentration and lovely sweetly ripe fruit, not to mention huge tannins for a ?6 bottle – the epitome of Toro! It is softened a little by some oak, but it still needs decanting to get some air in there I think – terrific wine that is full of character. It delivers a lot of wine for the money – 5-6 euros in the UK.

2008 Vega Lizarde Joven
D.O. Toro
Bodegas Torreduero, Toro
100% Tinta de Toro
This producer is an offshoot of Rioja’s Bodegas Riojanas and this medium-bodied wine seems to deliver a little more elegance and finesse, as well as softer, but still pretty hefty, tannins. There is lovely fruit and underlying spice here too. Great value for money – 6-7 euros in the UK.

2008 Quinta El Refugio Tinto
D.O. Toro
Bodegas Torreduero, Toro
100% Tinta de Toro – 3 months in American oak barrels.
Vega Lizarde’s big brother, this is pretty intense and concentrated with a sinewy texture rather than the richly fruity feel of the earlier reds. This together with some oak ageing makes the whole thing more savoury and spicy with touches of vanilla and cocoa and coffee giving the wine a more complex and fine feel. 6-7 euros in the UK.

2005 Canus Verus Vinas Viejas
D.O. Toro
Covitoro/Vino de Toro, Toro
100% Tinta de Toro – 9 months in French and American oak barrels
Vinas Viejas indeed, these are ungrafted bush vines that are are well over 100 years old. A wonderful wine with great depth and concentration, rich fruit and plenty of power too, but it all seems in balance and there is even a freshness and a finesse to the rich, multi-layered finish – 13 euros in the UK.

2006 Maurodos San Roman
Bodegas Maurodos, D.O. Toro,
100% Tinta de Toro , 24 months in French; American oak barrels.
Lush and silky and delicious, with a wonderful creamy ripeness balancing the rich spice and licorice.
Even the big grippy tannins on the finish were fine in context, but time or food will tame those, this is a great wine 35-40 euros in the UK.

2005 Bodegas Pintia, D.O. Toro
100% Tinta de Toro – 23 months in new French (70%); American (30) oak barrels.
This bodega was created by Vega Sicilia and the pedigree shows, yes it is more rustic and earthy than Vega itself, or even Alion, but it is a very fine wine indeed. The nose is quite perfumed while the palate tis quite brooding, very concentrated and offers much to whether you drink it now or age it for quite a few years to soften it out – 40 euros in the UK.

The region makes hugely enjoyable wines wines of great quality that provide rewarding drinking whether you are looking for everyday whites or rosados, bargain red wines that over-deliver quality for the price or truly fine bottles for a dinner party or even your cellar.

Cheers,

Quentin Sadler

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