Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Matadors of Toro

The Spanish idolise the bull, the Toro is hewn into their collective subconscious like no other nation.

1942 when Miguel Fariña started making wines might as well be in the era of the Aurochs for all the wines resemble those of modern Toro.

Harvest was on the 12th of October every year, no one stopped to question why, it always was. The wines from the partially raisined berries frequently reached 17% alcohol, indigenous yeasts had evolved that coped with the high alcohol, the locals isolated from most of the rest of Spain on the high and arid plateau of the lower Douro drank what they’d always drank. The Galician cod fishermen were regular customers, the high alcohol meant that it survived the lengthy journeys, but beyond that it wasn’t a wine for the modern world.

Like the Marquis’ de Riscal and Murrieta before him, Miguel saw the light in Bordeaux, and came back preaching the new gods, stainless steel tanks, new French oak and most importantly bringing the harvest date forward by about 3 weeks.

Fast forward to the 00’s and the name Fariña isn’t that well know in the UK, why, well as international demand rose along with the bodegas standing in the domestic market, well there simply wasn’t enough wine to go around, and someone had to be left out.

Returning to the UK market now that newer plantings have reached sufficient maturity, we look at Toro in a different light. Robert Parker has been effusive in his praise with the 04 Numanthia Termanthia gaining the elusive 100 points (admittedly not from Parker himself) and many others scoring extremely highly. One is brought to mind of Robert Bakewell the 18th century British cattle breeder who pioneered cross breeding and intensive fattening and brought the world its first overly muscled engineered cattle finding fame through out the land. There’s a reason his name has been relegated to the foot notes of history.

Fariña has always endeavoured to plough a more elegant path, avoiding excess hand time and extraction in favour of freshness balance and sensibly applied oak, and this really showed when we tasted the wines over dinner.

The fame of Toro has been built on the Tinto de Toro, a regional variant of the Tempranillo grape, albeit one that is noticeably different with much smaller berries, a higher skin to pulp ratio and a much deeper colour, and one that makes wines that sing of violets and dark fruits rather than the bramble and red berries of it’s Riojano cousins. However there are still plantations of old vine Malvasia lurking about, tucked into corners where people haven’t got around to top grafting them to more profitable uses, so fittingly for a bodega used to swimming against the stream we started with a very small production methode champenoise Malvasia, lean, mineral and with a satisfying leesy finish it certainly brought to mind dusty Spanish plains.

The Collegiate Malvasia 08 brought for me a step up in complexity, showing an almost Chablis like minerality on the nose, pebbles and a hint of stone fruits, on the palette the salty minerality was swaddled in a ripe stone and tropical fruit cloth. My only complaint was that for me the alcohol seemed to manifest a touch on the finish, though others at the table compared it favourably with the Viognier style (with which I often have the same problem).

To the reds, the Collegiate (named after the village’s church) 09 was revelatory, at the £6ish price point I was stunned, great balance, lovely dark red fruit, very aromatic, just a touch savoury, vinified with no oak it was both refreshing and very satisfying. It’s elder brother the Gran Collegiate Crianza 06 had spent 9 months in new French oak, and initially wore it’s breeding somewhat heavily. Though time in the glass brought out more of the aromatic florality and suave dark fruits that lay at its heart, my feeling was that another 9 months or so would be enough for it to really start to sing.

At this point we were served the Tinto de Toro 1973, the year of Miguel’s son’s birth, what with all the general bustle of a new born, a business and an estate to be run, some of the wine was forgotten about. Thank god for over stretched parents.

The wine had been made using a vertical destemmer which tends to damage the skins of the berries, this brings much higher oxidation risks, but enables quite heavy extraction. The 3 weeks or so of maceration probably didn’t do anything to affect this either. The wine was bottled with no oak contact, and I should imagine was close to undrinkable on release..

Christmas pudding, opulent spicing, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, caramelised raisins, autumnal forest undergrowth, mature red fruit. It reminded me of solera aged Banyuls, but with enough of a mature wine character to drag it back into the realms of normal drinking. A delight, and when I spoke of my sadness that a wine like this would probably never be made in the modern world I was surprised to hear Miguel say that his son was planning a micro cuvee copy, something he could serve to his son in 39 years time..

Traditionally in Toro, each grower had a favoured site, and each year he’d leave the grapes on the vine until they were shrivelled and rainsined, once the wine had slowly fermented the precious juice would be added to the barrel that sat in the back corner of the bodega. Weddings, christenings, funerals and last rights would all call for a small measure of this most precious of wines to be drawn off. A unique and noble wine style.

The Dulce de Lece is Fariña’s version of this, raisined grapes, 120g per l residual sugar and aged in a solera for 4 years, it finished the dinner with a swarthy panache of salty acetyl earth, rancio caramelised raisins a rough hewn and defiantly unshaved sneer at modernity and its limits.

I left the evening impressed at what for me was another facet to a region that I already held in high regard.

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