Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Spain: hot regions to watch

With more land under vine than any other country, it’s unsurprising that Spain has become a hotbed for viticultural innnovation. It is almost impossible to keep up with the pace of change in the country, whose wine map is frequently revised to accommodate ever-emerging new DOs – five of the 69 only came into being in the last six years.

Spain’s recent domestic and international success lies in championing native grape varieties, often not found outside specific regions. Shunning international varieties in favour of indigenous ones is creating characterful wines full of terroir expression from the incredibly varied terrains across Spain. A lot of the most exciting developments are taking place in the north-west corner of Spain, incorporating Bierzo, Valdeorras and Arribes.

Outside the north-west, the pace of change has also picked up in the south-east, in regions like Manchuela, Yecla and Jumilla. Spain is perhaps the most New World of the Old World countries, and a place where modern attitudes and new technology mixed with centuries of tradition is leading to some seriously exciting wines. Read on for my round-up of the regions creating the biggest buzz in the UK, and the most exciting wines coming out of them.


Situated in the north-west of Castilla y León, Toro has made great strides over the past 20 years due to the success of the powerful and expressive Tinta de Toro grape, a local take on Tempranillo. Winemaking in the region can be traced back to the end of the 1st century BC, although Toro wasn’t made a DO until 1987. The region’s reawakening started in the mid ‘90s, when a number of quality-oriented producers set about making stand-out wines. Today 50 producers are crafting wines from just under 6,000 hectares of vines. Growing conditions are extreme – cold winters and frosts are followed by sizzling summers with over 3,000 hours of sunshine, leading to high alcohol content. But the poor soils create intensely flavoured wines.

Previously known for producing clunky, inelegant styles, winemakers in Toro are now striving for more refined wines. The region is home to large quantities of old vines, including pre-phylloxera examples over 140 years old. “Toro is an incredibly exciting region with tremendous potential. The wines are slightly wild, and have a feral nature, but this is balanced by upfront fruit and pleasing warmth,” says Alex Canneti, sales director at Moreno Wines. Investment in the region from the likes of Vega Sicilia has raised the profile of the DO, and a handful of stand-out bodegas, including Vega Sicilia’s Pintia, and San Román, made by ex-Vega winemaker Mariano García, are leading the charge.

Another winery making waves is the 49ha, LVMH-owned Bodegas Numanthia, whose £120-a-bottle Termanthia 2004 was given a perfect 100-point score by Robert Parker. Portuguese-born winemaker Manuel Louzada believes there has been a recent rebirth of terroir-driven wines in Spain, saying: “Winemakers are being true to terroir and are seeking balance, concentration and elegance in their wines. I think Toro is where Priorat was five years ago. They used to say Toro wines needed to be eaten with a knife and fork because they were so big and tannic, but the region is headed in a new direction.”

Toro’s attention-grabbing wines give immediate pleasure, and so have predictably taken off in the US market, but with producers keen to make more balanced, elegant wines, are they set for UK success? “UK consumers are open-minded and willing to try new things, and Toro’s combination of Old World elegance and New World power is incredibly appealing. The UK is certainly a growing market for us,” says Louzada.

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