The Wild West (Toro, Spain)

Only 30 minutes away from Valladolid is the town of Toro, but the difference is so apparent you would almost guess it was 3 hours away. Driving around the villages in this area almost feels like driving through an old west town from the movies, as it feels the landscape and lifestyle feels very familiar. It actually reminds me of being back in the Salta region of Argentina, albeit on much smaller scale. Life is a bit simpler and tougher here, and it is a common site to find Toro bulls destined for the bullfighting ring grazing in paddocks by the road. In this area the valley opens up and is significantly flatter as the Duero River approaches Portugal to become the Douro and flows out into the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape is significantly drier ad tougher for the cultivation of vines, which is part of the reason viticulture was almost entirely abandoned many years ago. Fortunately many vineyards were not removed and there are some seriously old vines growing close to the ground in very sandy and sometimes alluvial soils. The rediscovery of this region came during the boom of Spanish wine, when wines like the Ermita and Pingus were gaining attention for their immense power and structure, unlike any other wine made in Europe. All of a sudden the region exploded, and the number of wineries went from six in 1998, to over 50 today. The first winery I visited on my only day in Toro brought attention to the region, and the second confirmed its status as the next big thing. The third winery shows how good and affordable wine can be made even in such a harsh climate.

The biggest church in Toro

Even before Numanthia was purchased by the French luxury goods company LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) in 2008, it had captured the imagination of consumers and wine critics around the world. It was originally founded in 1998 with the express purpose of making small batch wines from very old vineyards, and extracting the most out of this unique terroir and climate.. The winemaker appointed to Numanthia when it became part of the Estates & Wines division of LVMH was Manuel Louzada, originally from Portugal who had spent many years spearheading the continued improvement of Bodegas Chandon and Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza, Argentina. I (vaguely) remember tasting the Numanthia wines at the time of his appointment when I was still working for the group, but they were of course made by someone else. It was plain to see why they were so important, particularly in the United States where people like Robert Parker were giving them 98+ scores. The wines whilst impressing me really didn’t appeal to me, as they were incredibly dense, tannic, oaky and hot, requiring many years of cellaring rather than deserving it. Thus I was so happy to have the chance to visit the estate, although it would have been nice to reconnect with Manuel whilst I was there. As it happened the timing coincided with an annual grand meeting in the region for the group, and I found some interesting things down in the cellars left from a presentation the day before, which I’m not sure I can talk about.

These vats hold the 10 tonnes of Termanthia fruit each year

I was met by the technical manager Ruben who has been with the business since before the acquisition. Numanthia (formerly Numanthia Termes) only makes three wines; the Termes, the Numanthia and the Termanthia. The Termanthia is the top wine, coming from a single 4.5 hectare vineyard with vines over 90 years of age, where they are naturally producing about two tonnes of fruit per hectare. This puts the total yield at about 10 tonnes, giving them all but 5,000 bottles of a wine consistently rated as one of the best in the world. Hardly seems fair, but it is certainly priced accordingly. Fruit for this wine is hand de-stemmed (only the second winery I have visited who do this), and then fermented in old French oak vats with regular plunging of the cap. The Termanthia then spends six months in new barrels going through malolactic fermentation before being racked and returned to brand new barrels for another 12 months. You might think this is a little too much oak, but the structure and concentration of the fruit works perfectly with the vinification and ageing. The Numanthia wine is similar albeit on a larger volume, but has a machine de-stemming, a combination of pigeage and pump-overs, and is racked and returned to the same barrels. The Termes is fermented in stainless steel tanks only with remontage, and sees more second use barrels for the ageing. Compared to the other brands in the Estates & Wines group (I’ve visited five of the nine) this is purely about making iconic wine in small volumes, and sparing no expense to do so. With the praise the wines have received from Parker and Wine Spectator, understandably 50% of the entire production is sold in the United States. Having tasted some of the 2010 and 2011 wines with Ruben I was thrilled to see Manuel imparting his influence on the wines, attempting to retain some freshness and life in the wines rather than just extracting and oaking the hell out of them. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The Numanthia logo on the gates

For those who read it, my previous day was spent in the Ribera del Duero where I was lucky enough to get a visit to Vega Sicilia. Whilst there I mentioned that I would be in Toro the following day, and was invited to join a group who would be having a rare visit to Pintia, the Toro estate of the Alvarez family. The winery was built in the late ‘90s to capitalise on the increasing attention this region was receiving. The family wanted to retain the principles of the Vega Sicilia and Alion wineries in terms of best practices and world-class wine, but wanted the new Pintia brand to have its own unique identity and not simply be considered a second tier wine to Vega Sicilia. Part of this was to design and decorate the winery in a modern yet rustic way that captured the landscape and history of the region, whereas the Vega Sicilia and Alion wineries are traditional and modern/traditional respectively. The family was able to acquire some very old vineyards in the region, crucial for making a world-class wine that commands respect and captures the essence of the terroir. Just like at Vega Sicilia the fruit is harvested by hand and chilled down to 4-6 degrees Celsius in large refrigeration rooms. Fruit is very carefully sorted and only the best berries are used each vintage.

Pintia bottles ageing

Fermentations are all carried out in large oak vats for 14 days at cooler temperatures thanks to the chilling down of the fruit. Pump-overs are conducted at least six times per day during this period, but once the fermentation is complete they are then transported to new barrels for the malolactic fermentation. A combination of 100% new American and French oak barriques are used for the maturing, but it is only for one year before it is blended and matured in stainless steel tanks for another year, and then two more in the bottle before release. Over the past 10 vintages since the inception of the winery, the style has evolved as the winemakers have increased their knowledge and experience of this terroir very different to the Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions. This was clearly demonstrated as I tasted three vintages, the 2006, 2007 and 2008. Although there was naturally a lot of vintage variation between the three, the finesse and personality of the 2008 was astonishing, and it will continue to evolve over the next 30 years. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Medieval wheels found in the region

As mentioned in previous posts there is a group known as ARAEX or Spanish Fine Wines who banded together to have more success in export markets. I was put in contact with the Toro winery that is part of the group, originally hailing from Rioja with another winery there. The family is the San Ildefonso, and the winery is Sobreno, and of the three wineries I visited they were the largest. When I contacted the daughter of the owner Paloma, she was delighted to welcome me to the region as she had spent six months travelling and working vintage/pruning in Australia back in 2009. Very kindly Paloma invited me to meet her the evening before in the town to have a bit of a tour of some of the tapas bars, which I was grateful for as the evenings in wine country can get pretty hard by myself all the time. Unfortunately there weren’t many places open late, and so we had to cut the evening a bit short. We did have enough time to share experiences travelling, and I discovered she had spent some time in my home region of the Yarra Valley, working the pruning season with Phil Sexton at Giant Steps. As a former traveller herself Paloma was interested in my own trip, and also sympathetic about the difficulties involved with finances, logistics and isolation.

Sandy pebbly soils in Toro

In the afternoon of my day in Toro I met with Paloma at the winery just outside of the town, and we joined the viticulturalist Raphael for a tour of the different subregions of the DO, something I was grateful for as I hadn’t visited any vineyards with my previous appointments. Toro is pretty flat but it is also dry, two factors that contribute to the prevalence of bush vines and full fruit character. On the northern side of the Duero River the soils are about 25 million years old, and are much tougher with a higher incidence of clay, whereas on the southern side they are younger with more alluvial sand and stones. Sobreno takes fruit from a mixture of estate and contract vineyards, and a mixture of young and old vines. Like most of the region the predominance is bush vines, but they also have vineyards that use either cordon or guyot trellising. The fruit is generally kept separate in the winery where it is processed and allocated based on the quality. The most important and highest volume wine is the Crianza, but they also produce a wine halfway between Joven and Roble, and some reserve wines too. The idea is to produce good quality wine representative of the variety and region for a fair price, and for the most part they are successful. They have produced a new top quality cuvee which will replace the Gran Reserva, and it is a good thing because the former is far superior to the latter. Here are my notes on the tasting.

Paloma San Ildefonso

Click here to see more photos from my day in Toro, Spain.

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