The Art of Tempranillo

Source: Vintae.com

I love Tempranillo wines. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I had a wide range of Tempranillo – with the exception of Australia, I believe I tried most of the major renditions – Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Toro, most everywhere else in Spain, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington (am I missing something? do tell!). With all the love and respect to all the regions, if I have to put an order of priorities in that “list”, I would put Rioja first, Ribera del Duero very close second, but the competition for the 3rd place would be severe – in my world, of course.

I like wines of Toro, the closest sibling to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but it would be hard for me to place them higher than some of the beautiful Tempranillo renditions from Irwin Family Vineyards, Duchman, or Fields – considering the Toro wines I had in the past. Compared to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Toro is … well, maybe I need to explain why I keep mentioning Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro together all the time. These are the only three regions in the world where the absolute majority of the red wines is made out of the Tempranillo grapes. Yes, there are Garnacha and Graciano in Rioja, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Ribera del Duero, but still – most of the red wines in these three regions are made out of the Tempranillo, hence the constant comparison.

Out of the three regions, Toro is south-most one, with an expressly continental climate, low annual rainfall amounts, and significant range of day-night temperatures – which typically translates well into the flavor. Tempranillo is the grape of Toro, but similarly to Tuscany/Brunello, where you have Sangiovese and Sangiovese Grosso, Tempranillo in Toro is known as Tinta de Toro, a.k.a Tempranillo de Castilla, a.k.a. Ink of Toro. The grape is a bit smaller, with thicker skin, which coupled with growing conditions typically results, in massive, concentrated wines requiring extensive aging to become drinkable – I still have a memory of trying Alabaster made by Sierra Cantabria, one of the well-known producers in Toro, which was one of the most massive wines I ever experienced. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, Tempranillo is one of the favorites, so when the opportunity called to try 3 wines from Toro, I was definitely curious – and a bit cautious at the same time.

To ease things up, together with the 3 Toro wines from Bodega Matsu came a bottle of Rioja Reserva from Bodega Classica. While coming from unrelated producers, there is a common link between them – this link is called Vintae – a young company with a serious passion for the Spanish wine for the modern world. Vintae, started in 1999 by the Arambarri family, set on changing world’s perception of the Spanish wine as “boring”. To the date, Vintae unifies a collection of 11 different “projects”, all focused on showcasing the regions and the grapes.

Going back to the wines at hand, let’s talk about Rioja first. The wine comes from Bodega Classica, located in the heart of Rioja Alta. Rioja Alta offers a unique high-altitude setting to produce arguably the best Tempranillo of the whole of Rioja region. Couple that with more than 100 years old vineyards, and you are looking at some tasty opportunities in the bottle, as this Bodega Classica Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Reserva was. Here are my notes:

2013 Bodega Classica Hacienda López de Haro Rioja Reserva DOCa (13.5% ABV, $16.99, 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Graciano, 20 months in French and American oak)
Dark garnet color
Pepper, vanilla, raspberries, mushrooms, nice minerality
Medium body, good acidity, noticeable alcohol burn initially, went away in about 15 minutes, good fruit showed up, characteristic cedar notes, good acidity, round, soft.
8-, nice, just give it a bit of time to soften up at the beginning. The second day continued without changes. Good life expectancy, as expected of Rioja Reserva. And an excellent QPR.

Now, let’s go back to Toro. As I already said, in my prior experience, Toro wines were massive and concentrated, requiring long aging to soften and really show a beautiful expression of Tempranillo. And then there were wines called Matsu.

Bodega Matsu wines

Matsu in means “wait” in Japanese. As we all know, waiting is one of the favorite games of oenophiles. When it comes to the three Matsu wines I had an opportunity to taste, there are many different levels of “waiting”. The wines had been progressively aged for the longer times before the release – 3 months for El Picaro, 14 months for El Recio, 16 months for El Viejo. The grapes were harvested from the vines of different age (again, progressively) – 50-70 years old for El Picaro, 90-100 years old for El Recio, more than 100 years old for El Viejo. See, waiting here is clearly a part of the equation.

And then there are those ultra-creative labels. Not only labels commemorate people who actually worked to create the wines, they clearly identify what you should expect from the wines – in age, in style, and even in price. I conducted a little experiment, first with my kids, and then with the people on Instagram, asking them to identify the most expensive wine – nobody made a mistake, the labels speak very clearly to us.

How were the wines? Surprising. Probably the best Toro wines I ever had – without any regard to the pricing category. Here are my notes, so you can see for yourself:

2016 Bodega Matsu El Picaro Toro DO (14.5% ABV, $13.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 50 – 70 years old vines, 3 months minimum aging on the lees, concrete tanks)
Bright ruby color, noticeable legs, minimal rim variation
Young fresh berries, medium+ intensity, a touch of vanilla
Surprisingly light on the palate, pleasant tannins, fresh berries, very quaffable.
8-, might be the lightest rendition of Toro I ever had. The smell is a bit more complex on the second day. Palate nicely evolved, good balance, raspberries, no more impression of the young wine, lots of minerality.

2015 Bodega Matsu El Recio Toro DO (14.5% ABV, $21.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 90 – 100 years old vines, 14 months aging in second use oak barrels)
Garnet color, noticeable legs, minimal rim variation too
Sage, fresh raspberries, quite fruity, roasted notes, minerality, distant hint of cinnamon
Underripe plums, blueberries, thyme, nice herbal component, surprisingly light, still noticeable alcohol, needs more time
8-, needs time. Second day: 8/8+, velvety texture, well integrated, excellent balance, a touch of tobacco and espresso on the palate and ripe plums. Outstanding.

2015 Bodega Matsu El Viejo Toro DO (15% ABV, $46.99, 100% Tinta de Toro, 100+ years old vines, 16 months in new French oak barrels)
Garnet Color, noticeable legs, rim variation is not extensive, but present
Sweet blueberries and raspberries on the nose, sage, sweet oak
8- first day, waiting for more.
Second day: 8, much evolved, more integrated, velvety texture, dark fruit, round, smooth. Will evolve further.

Here you are, my friends – the Art of Wine, from the label to the glass. Very impressive and thought-provoking wines, definitely worth seeking. Have you had any of these wines? Have you had Toro wines before? Do you have any Tempranillo favorites? Cheers!

  1. May 24, 2018 at 2:00 am

    Such a coincidence Anatoli… I just picked up a case of Pikes ‘Los Companeros’ Shiraz Tempranillo today (one of my favourite wines… and quite reasonable at AUD19.00 per bottle). It’s from the Clare Valley in South Australia. Wish I could send you bottle! 🙂

    • May 24, 2018 at 5:21 am

      This is so cool! Yeah, I would love to try an Australian Tempranillo. Well, one day, one day…

  2. May 24, 2018 at 2:32 am

    I visited the Toro region recently and there are wineries that have adopted a more modern approachable style. So the Roble or Crianza wines are like the first Toro you described and can be enjoyed quite young. The Gran Reserva were however my favorite and have great elegance. What I like about Spain is that, contrary to especially France, wines are often released when they are ready to drink so the ‘waiting’ has already been done at the winery. Thus I purchased Gran Reserva 2005 or 2009 in 2016. Another neat thing about Toro is the sandy soil, so no phylloxera!

    • May 24, 2018 at 5:20 am

      Thanks, Stefan, sounds interesting. I didn’t know that Toro has a classification similar to Rioja – it appears that all those words (Crianza/reserva/etc) can appear only on the back label, so it is not very surprising that I didn’t notice them yet. Yes, they generally need time – but all these wines were surprisingly approachable from the beginning.

  3. May 24, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    Sounds like you have picked the theme for our next dinner in Singapore!

  1. May 28, 2018 at 11:49 am

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