Antony Terryn seems to know every block of vines around Toro, a small town in north-central Spain about 60 miles from the Portuguese border. He owns a number of small plots, and as he drives among them, often on ground so sandy that his truck has trouble gaining traction, he narrates the stories of parcels we pass - who owns them, what varieties are planted there, how old the vines are and what condition they're in. There is a plentiful supply of decades-old vineyards, many planted on their own roots, which is rare in most parts of the wine world because of the risk of phylloxera but common here because the sandy soil protects the vines against the insects.
Old vineyards often require several years of rehabilitation, especially if they've been abandoned, and many aren't worth the effort, Terryn says. But their profusion and relative affordability here give producers opportunities few other regions afford. That attracts winemakers from elsewhere such as Terryn and Oriol Illa and his wife Susana Pastor and entices natives like Kiko Calvo and Alvar de Dios to return after they've worked elsewhere. They all work with Tinta de Toro, either a clone or a close relative of Tempranillo that smaller bunches and thicker leaves than its more famous cousin, Illa says, but they make very different wines from it.
Toro is hot and dry, a place best known for its big, robust red wines. Terryn works in that idiom under his Dominio del Bendito label. A Frenchman who lived in Washington state before coming to Toro, he and many winemakers here often work with bush vines, which are freestanding rather than trained on stakes and wire and laid out in rows. The leaves on such vines naturally protect the grapes from heat and sun, but even so, they can have enough sugar when ripe to make wines at 16% alcohol. Tinto de Toro is also high in tannin, which makes the wines ageable, and Terryn picks when the grapes still have the acidity to make a balanced wine.
His 2011 Primer Paso, for example, has a leanness that belies its 16.3% alcohol, and the French and American oak that Terryn uses is well integrated into a complex flavor profile. The aptly named Titan, made from vines that are all at least 65 years old and aged in new French oak, is big but balanced. Terryn and I sampled these wines with the beef cheeks at the Restaurante Rejadorada in Toro, a rich, satisfying combination.
Oriol Illa worked in Priorat and Penedes before coming to Toro in 2013, but even in Priorat, known for its sturdy reds, he sought out vineyards on higher sites, a practice he continues in the wines he makes from grapes grown in the Gredos mountains west of Madrid.
He says he's just now coming to understand his sites around Toro, which have 60-year-old ungrafted vines. Tasted from tank in October, a month after the grapes had been pressed, his 2017 Tinto de Toro tasted of blueberry and violets and had relatively light tannins. Illa plans to put it in chestnut wood vats after it finishes fermenting and expects that it will have 13.5% alcohol - significantly lighter than Terryn's wines. His Maquina & Tabla 2015 Toro, comprised of 80% Garnacha and 20% Tinto de Toro, tastes of orange peel, cranberry and licorice; in 2017, he plans to use all Garnacha, which should make for an even softer wine.
Kiko Calvo worked two harvest a year from 2011 to 2015, one in each hemisphere, in a range of regions from Bordeaux to Napa Valley to Barossa Valley in Australia before returning home to Toro, where he makes one wine Bigardo - rebel - which characterizes his approach to the area's traditional style. The 2016 has appealing fruit with touches of violet and smoke and good acidity. Calvo's family owns 50 acres of wines, which will give him a multitude of sites to work with as he develops his project, which he currently houses in the cellar of his parents' house in Toro.
Alvar de Dios has already begun exploring the region's terroir in his winemaking. Born and raised in El Pego, a village 15 miles south of Toro, he worked with Fernando Garcia and Daniel Landi in the Sierra de Gredos, which has a climate similar to Toro's and a surfeit of old vineyards, many at high elevation. De Dios's family tended vineyards in El Pego, and in 2008 he took over a 7.5 acre site named Aciano in honor of Alvar's grandfather. The Tinto de Toro vines are planted on sand, which de Dios says yields a more elegant wine with leaner tannins and more finesse than the vines closer to Toro, where the soil is more clay. Tasted from barrel, the 2016 Aciano is restrained and linear, with notes of cherry and licorice on the finish, while the 2015 Aciano has more cherry fruit and tannin but is still a subtle wine.
de Dios works with several plots in Arribes del Duero just a few miles east of the Portuguese border. His Camino de los Arrieros is a light red field blend reminiscent of a well-made Beaujolais. Closer to home, he sources from three sites in Toro where the vines range from 25 to 82 years old. From these de Dios makes his Tio Uco, an excellent quaffer with notes of dark fruit, cranberry and orange peel, mild tannin, and good acidity - an entry-level wine that shows the range of which Toro is capable.
Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 24.