Spain in the News

From Wine Enthusiast Magazine: June, 2008
By Michael Schachner

"New Wines from Old Vines on the High Plains of Spain"

Rich, rewarding and well-priced wines are emerging from the barren landscape of Castilla y León’s Toro, Rueda and Cigales.

Rolling out of urban Valladolid and onto the truckfilled, two-lane “highways” of Castilla y León, the undulating but largely naked plains that fan off for miles in every direction immediately grab your attention. You can’t help but think, “So much for Don Quixote’s Spain” as another semi whizzes by on its way to or from Portugal. There will be no awards given to the wines of Toro, Rueda and Cigales based on how picturesque these regions are or how popular they’ve become with wine tourists, but consider where each of these regions was just a decade or two ago. Toro, for example: Just ten years ago there were but eight wineries in the entire denominación de origen (D. O.) and none were making wines of international stature. Now there are more than 40 bodegas operating in this extreme-climate region best known for raising fighting bulls. About 15,000 acres are planted to Tinta de Toro, a clone of Spain’s signature Tempranillo. Much of it is young and not ready for prime time, or old, low-yielding and prone to overripeness and high alcohol given that Toro’s summers can be scorching and rainfall is scarce.

Fortunately for fans of big-boned Spanish red wines, there is a group of wineries and winemakers that have spent the past decade figuring out how to tame the beast that is Toro. Starting in the late 1990s, wineries including Numanthia-Termes, Dos Victorias, Maurodos, Pintia (Vega Sicilia) and Vinos de Telmo Rodríguez, among others, began acquiring the region’s best old-vines vineyards with an eye toward making top-quality Toro wines. In fairly short order Toro winemakers have mastered the art of making highly expressive, downright masculine wines that also toe the line of balance. And what’s the key to doing so? Picking at optimum ripeness and then controlling extraction and tannins during the winemaking process.

At the forefront of Toro’s resurgence is Numanthia-Termes, founded by the Eguren family from Rioja in 1998 and recently bought by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy for an undisclosed sum. Its Termes, Numanthia and Termanthia bottlings have for the past seven vintages shown that Toro wines can be both powerful and balanced, even at 15 percent alcohol and higher. Going forward, the Egurens will focus on Toro under their umbrella name, Dominio de Eguren; doubtless there will be a lineup of wines that will uphold the family’s image as quality pioneers in the region.

Others to push the envelope in Toro include Vega Sicilia, Spain’s biggest name in fine wine; Mariano García, one of Spain’s most revered winemakers and the crafter of Vega Sicilia for three decades until he left Vega to pursue other interests in 1998; Victoria Benavides, half of the Dos Victorias team that also makes superb Verdejo in Rueda; roving winemaker and wine marketer Telmo Rodríguez; and big players from France including Jacques and François Lurton, Michel Rolland and Bernard Magrez—proof that savvy wine people are bullish on Toro and the potential of its ancient Tinta de Toro vineyards.

Situated along the banks of the Duero River, about 60 miles to the west of the Ribera del Duero D.O., Toro sits at about 1,800 to 2,200 feet above sea level. Temperatures during the growing season run a full celsius degree warmer on average than in Ribera del Duero, and thus alcohol levels in Toro are usually a full percentage point higher than in Ribera.

“It is a huge challenge in Toro to make wines with elegance,” says Marcos Eguren, winemaker for Numanthia-Termes, who will stay on for at least another two years as LVMH settles into managing the winery and about 100 acres of vineyards, including the prized 140-year-old Termanthia vineyard (12 acres acquired in 2000). In most Toro vineyards, alluvial rocks sit atop the surface while sand accounts for the next four or five feet of soil. Below that it’s all clay. “Very poor sandy soils result in low natural yields,” says Eguren. “Everything we’ve used in Toro is on its own rootstocks and much of it is very old. That’s the key to Toro; old vines give small bunches of powerful but mature fruit.” Conversely, younger vines give more candied, jumpier fruit, something that is immediately evident when you taste a basic wine from Toro.

In Toro, the winters are frigid and windy, but not particularly rainy. Yet once the growing season arrives, it is nothing but sun, sun and more sun. Toro receives about 2,900 hours of sunlight annually, compared to 2,400 in Rioja. As for precipitation, Toro gets about half of the rain that falls in Rioja, which itself gets half the rain of Bordeaux.

With such an extreme, dry climate, it’s no wonder the wines of Toro have always been known more for their fortitude than their finesse. There’s even a legend that says Christopher Columbus carried Toro wine to the new world because it was the only Spanish product with the strength to make the trip.

Strong wines, but ones with balance, structure and backbone: that is what you’ll get from Maurodos, a creation of Mariano García that’s managed by his sons, Eduardo and Alberto. Another Toro winery to watch is Pintia, which started as a Vega Sicilia experiment in 1997 and saw its first release with the 2001 vintage. Vines for Pintia span more than 200 acres and run from 25 years old up to about 45 years of age. These are not the oldest vines in the region, and as a result the wine (91 points for the 2005 vintage; $60) has a little more spunk and vibrancy than, say, Termanthia.

The Great White Way

If Toro has turned the corner over the past 10 years, Rueda began doing so about 30 years ago when the French enologist Emile Peynaud, then consulting for venerable Marqués de Riscal, came upon old-vines Verdejo vineyards in Rueda and quickly determined that this should be the place for Riscal to make its white wine.

At the time, much of Rueda’s old Verdejo vineyards were being converted to Palomino, the base grape for sherry. But with Peynaud’s blessing, a recommitment to Verdejo ensued, and over the past two decades Verdejo has resurfaced as one of Spain’s most crisp, clean and consistent white wines.

Comparatively speaking, Rueda is even higher in elevation than Toro, and thus acidity, the nuts and bolts of good Verdejo, can be preserved. La Seca, Matapozuelos and Rueda proper, all of which sit just south of the Duero River in the northern half of the Rueda D.O., are some of the best subzones for Verdejo. It’s here where old timers like Angel Rodríguez Vidal and younger winemakers including Vicki Pariente of Dos Victorias and Antonio Arévalo of Garciarévalo (maker of Tres Olmos) are using old bush vines, some dating back as far as 200 years but most planted in the early 1970s, to make stunning Verdejo.

Rodríguez’s Martínsancho first appeared in 1981, and while the 2006 wine seems fleshy and affected by the heat of that vintage, it has for many years been a benchmark wine among Verdejo, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the grapes planted in Rueda (Sauvignon Blanc, Viura and some red grapes make up the rest). And looking ahead, 2007 should be an excellent year for razor-clean Verdejo. It was one of the coolest years in two decades, say growers and winemakers.

“Verdejo normally needs to get to about 13 percent to be perfectly balanced. Anything less is too acidic. Fortunately, Verdejo from 80-year- old vines has good natural body to offset the acids,” says Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, technical director at Marqués de Riscal, Rueda’s largest volume producer.

“Last year was a cool year with slow maturation. It should be a very good year for Rueda whites,” adds Victoria “Mariví” Pariente.

While most consumers, especially those who like Sauvignon Blanc, are fond of crisp, unoaked Verdejo, Pariente also makes one of the best barrel-fermented Verdejos going. Her 2005 barrel-fermented José Pariente comes from 30-year-old vines. Fermented in 400-liter as well as 225-liter barrels and aged five months with manual lees stirring, the wine is not too oaky but instead is lengthy and elegant.

As stated, 2006 was a warm year in Spain, and some ’06 Verdejo- based wines were never in good balance and are already fading. An exception is Tres Olmos, a Verdejo project that Antonio Arévalo, son of one of the founders of Bodegas Garciarévalo, is leading. Arévalo, along with winemaker Pedro Martín, is making complex Verdejo from prephylloxera vines in the town of Matapozuelos.

Because these old vines—like many in Rueda as well as Toro and Cigales—sit on sand they were spared by the phylloxera blight of the 19th century. Today, the sandy nature of the vineyards contributes great freshness to the wine, which is aged on its lees for about six months. Only indigenous yeasts are used in order to keep the wine as reflective of the site as possible. At $17 it is one of Spain’s better value whites.

Signs of Life in Cigales

A regulated D.O. only since 1991, Cigales was formerly a third-rate region known for rosé wines made from blending white wines with red ones. Today, Cigales has 38 wineries, about 20 of which export, and around 7,000 acres of vines, mostly planted with Tinto del País, another clone of Tempranillo. It is a region on the rise, but one that has not reached its apex.

Sitting at about 2,000 feet above sea level, Cigales, like Rueda and Toro, is a region fed by the Duero River and its tributaries. It, too, has rock-covered, sandy vineyards and a plethora of old vines. Two producers to look for are César Principe, which put out its first vintage in 2000, and Traslanzas, which was founded in 1998.

While Principe’s wines are rich, round and quite difficult to find in the American marketplace, Traslanzas, which is a joint venture between winemaker Ana Martín and the resident Pinacho family, is finding its way little by little.

Not what you’d call a smooth and voluptuous wine, Traslanzas (89 points for the 2003; $40) is aged in American oak for 14 months, so it carries some dill and vanilla aromas and flavors. Made in a traditional manner, the bouquet may seem rustic and the tannins can come across a bit fierce. But it’s also one of the best structured, ripest wines in Cigales.

Other Cigales labels worth watching include Val de los Frailes and Finca Museum, each of whose wines have not yet achieved vintage-tovintage consistency but are showing signs of getting there.

In fact, across the region, the signs are there: Dedicated winemakers are using the unruly soil and climate to craft wines that they hope will capture the attention of the world—and prove there’s more than meets the eye in Castilla y León.

91 Points
2006 Tres Olmos Verdejo

Tres Olmos is that rare wine that smells great, tastes just right, and lingers for a long time on your palate. Almond, pear and citrus aromas smartly give way to a wave of blended citrus fruits, and the finish is long and confident.