For lots of wine lovers, “Spanish red” immediately equates to Rioja. And in the past, if they had any impression at all of wines from Toro it was as Rioja’s brawnier, brasher, bolder cousin. That’s accurate to a point. But things are changing.
Let’s start with Toro’s climate, which is decidedly harsher than that of Rioja. Ricardo Arambarri, co-founder and CEO of Vintae which oversees production of wine in nine different Spanish regions, says farmers refer to it having “nine months of winter and three months of hell.” Winemaking may be tricky, but the long, cold winters and short, hot summers translate to ripe grapes with higher concentrations of sugar, he says. Soil is mainly well-draining sand and heat retaining (admittedly unnecessary attributes in a hot area with a pitifully low annual rainfall.) But the flip side is that Toro has one of the lowest number of vines per hectare in Spain, allowing it to retain much of the gorgeous landscape. “This combination of soils and climate makes the wines rustic and powerful, but respectfully elaborate, resulting in a beautiful and magical balance.”
When Kevin Martin traveled to Toro last year, he admits there were times he wondered how they could even grow anything there. The wine director for the Spanish small plates restaurant Estadio in Washington, D.C. noticed much of the landscape was high desert and very arid, with daytime temperatures in summer often surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But those are offset by nighttime temps that can dip into the 50s, providing the diurnal swing so enviable for wine. “The hot day allows for peak ripening [while] the cool night slows ripening back down and makes sure the grapes have the high acidity they need,” he explains. “This helps ensure good balance.”
The result of all this, Arambarri points out, are reds that are naturally more structured and higher in alcohol than those in Rioja, where the cooler climate renders wines that are lighter in body and higher in acidity. While Rioja can turn to a slew of varietals from tempranillo and garnacha to graciano and mazuelo though, in Toro there is one main red grape, tinto de toro, a clone of tempranillo that’s been modified to perform better in the climate. Stylistically, tempranillo-heavy Riojas and Toro reds can show some of the red cherry and raspberry notes; but he admits that Rioja’s varied terroir means that you can’t fairly pigeonhole all of them.
American oak is generally used in Rioja, adding a savory element, while French oak is the preference in Toro. And while both regions can crank out staggeringly age-worthy wines, Martin thinks Toro may have an advantage here. “Judicious use of new oak, coupled with the wonderful acidity [of] some of the higher elevation vineyard sites… make for some very long aging wines.”
While these tannic, powerful bottles are still the norm, some Toro producers have switched to a more restrained approach. “There [are other] winemakers who are making more delicate, terroir-indicative reds that still showcase the history of Toro, but do so without being dense, high ABV, jambombs,” Martin notes. Higher vineyard sites, earlier harvesting and controlled fermentation are all ways that winemakers can vinify a more subtle style.
When Arambarri and his team arrived in the region, they decided to produce wines that sought that tricky balance of power and elegance; their Bodega Matsu wines (whose labels show photos of the viticulturists) are designed to show the sophistication of the winemaking. Whereas consumers used to only consider steak as Toro’s only pairing, this new breed is much more versatile at the table. “A decade later, and several other wineries are playing with a different style,” he explains. “Consumers are now realizing that wines from Toro can be much more than the oaky and high alcohol wine.”
Bottles to try:
2010 Bodega Numanthia Toro ($54): Martin calls this one of the iconic Toro wines. “The palate is rich, decadent, full with bright, ripe, dark cherries, dark chocolate, vanilla. [There are] fresh violets on the nose with hints of dark berries. I would pair this with hanger steak–this wine is hungry for red meat, and anything grilled. The herbaceous, peppery sauce and the earthy squash on the plate is going to play very well with this wine.”
2016 Bodegas Volvoreta Flores de Cerezo ($23): One of the new school Toros, Martin says. “Medium bodied with intense, yet smooth tannins. On the palate there’s notes of bing cherry, ripe plums, wild strawberries and cracked black pepper, and a little bit of vanilla and baking spice come through from the oak. On the nose, prickly berry fruit, subtle lilac and lavender, with a hint of the same spice from the palate. I’ve paired this before with roasted chorizo, grilled pork loin, and even grilled octopus.”
Bodega Matsu El Picaro ($13.99): Made from ninety year-old vineyards, it has intense aromas of blueberries and blackberries, minerality, freshness and complexity. The palate has fruitiness and a pleasing finish.
Bodega El Recio ($21.99): “Matsu wines present themselves with charming mature fruit aroma, absolutely distinctive and reminds one of harvest time when grapes arrive to the winery,” Arambarri muses. “On the palate, you find a characteristic meaty body that fulfills your mouth and follows a punch of red fruits, dark chocolate and toasted coffee flavor. After you drink it, the acidity makes a refreshing sensation and the wanting of another glass.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website www.kellymagyarics.com or follow her @kmagyiarics.