Spanish winemakers learn to tame the heat
The intriguing Spanish appellation of Toro, northwest of Madrid, attracts heated debate.
Is it just too hot here to make fine wine? Can its routine 15% alcohol be tamed sufficiently to sooth a large international market?
Toro may have its winemaking struggles, but that has not stopped more than 40 wineries from opening in the past two decades and some of its wines are getting big ratings abroad.
For the record, I didn’t see any bulls in Toro when I visited. (In Spanish, the word “toro” means bull.) But I did find a magnificent old town perched high on a red sandstone bluff overlooking the River Duero. It sits about 60 kilometres from the Portuguese border; Zamora is the nearby larger provincial capital. This is a vast, high plateau with big blue sky, constant sun and a steady thirst, at least in summer. (Winters do see snow.)
Toro, the town, is no sleepy, sun-baked village. With a population of about 10,000, it boasts impressive Romanesque churches and convents. In the 15th century, it was a key headquarters for Queen Isabella who funded Christopher Columbus’s voyages that came to America in 1492. It is said he also brought Toro’s strong red wine aboard the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Indeed, I visited the cellar, now owned by Rejadorada where legend claims that wine was made.
The grape variety that does all the heavy lifting in Toro is tinto de toro, a clone of tempranillo. It has small, thick-skinned berries that ripen relatively early in this hot area. Over-ripening (with raisined fruit and big alcohol) is a threat. But Toro is a desert; the nights are quite cool, the saving grace for winemakers seeking finesse.
And that seems to be the goal of the new breed of small-scale winemakers who see potential in the old bush vines.
One of the first to receive acclaim was Bodega Fariña, established in 1942. Managing director Manuel Fariña did much of the work in the 1970s and ’80s, which put Toro on the map. His work paved the way for many producers who began arriving in the 1990s. Notables include Bodegas Pintia, owned by the legendary Vega Sicila; Antony Terryn, who came from France to put his stamp on the biodynamical wines of Dominio del Bendito; and the folks at Rejadorada who make some of the region’s finest reds.
Location: Toro is in the province of Zamora, within the larger region of Castilla y León, northwest of Madrid. The DO appellation was created in 1987. Nearby appellations include Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Cigales. Portugal’s Douro valley is about 100 kilometres downstream.
Climate: Set at 740 metres above sea level, Toro has a continental climate with hot summers, cool winters and sparse rainfall (It is one of the driest regions in Spain). The arid climate makes organic and biodynamic viticulture easier, and quite common.
Soils: Most vineyards are on a flood plain with a layer of sandy topsoil (which has prevented phylloxera from infesting the area). Some sites on former riverbeds have stones and pebbles. The subsoil is largely calcareous clay, which helps with water retention. Fertility is very poor.
Vines: There are just over 6,000 hectares planted, with tinto de toro accounting for about 85%. Garnacha (grenache) and malvasia are grown and allowed in DO wines. French varieties such as cabernet sauvignon can be grown under the Vino de Tierra de Castilla y León designation. Many vineyards are planted with old bush vines, which have broad canopies that shade the fruit. Yields are low.
Wines: Red wine predominates in Toro and the colour is deep. Aromas of blackberry or black cherry fruit are often accompanied by chocolate, spice and licorice from the barrels. The wines are dense, high in alcohol and can be quite tannic. They are age worthy.
Notable Producers: There are more than 40 wineries, and over 1,000 growers. Notable producers include Fariña, Pintia, Numanthia, Rejadorada, Dominio del Bendito, Viña Bajoz, Maurodos, and Tardencuba.