Madrid — For three days, Spain's capital bubbled, gurgled and, yes, foamed during the third annual Madrid-Fusion conference two weeks ago. Enjoying its exalted position at the pinnacle of cutting-edge gastronomy, Spain put its most renowned chefs on the kitchen stage, culminating in Ferran Adria of El Bulli using liquid nitrogen to make pea soup balls (they were frozen outside, with a warm liquid center) and showcasing ingredients like the bone-marrow-ish spinal fluid of tuna.
But for the first time in its three years Madrid-Fusion also featured wine. A high-profile tasting of the "100 definitive wines from Spain" demonstrated unequivocally that, as extreme as the revolution in Spanish cooking may be, the revolution in Spanish wine is no less dramatic.
Selected by the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade and the Union of Spanish Wine Tasters, the lineup featured plenty of stalwarts from the likes of Jerez (sherry), Rioja and the Ribera del Duero. But what really caught the eye was the presence of regions that, until a few years ago, no one had ever heard of: Jumilla. Bierzo. Toro. Rueda.
Welcome to the new Spain. Sparked by the rejuvenation of ancient vineyards and fueled by plenty of European Union investment, new must-try wines are being released faster than Apple geeks can come up with snazzy new I-gadgets. Remember, it was only in the last seven or eight years that people started raving about bright, racy Albarino whites and indelible Priorat reds. Hardly seeming new anymore, both wines are now part of the canon.
Spain's revolution has been an effort to hit the top end of the market rather than produce a lot of inexpensive, uninspiring wine, as Chile did in the late '80s and early '90s. Happily, that doesn't mean there aren't terrific bargains -- there are plenty. But the quality is high. These new regions caught many tasters by surprise at Madrid-Fusion, generating lots of buzz.
As Spanish winemakers from more established regions scoured the countryside for new regions to develop, they discovered neglected old vineyards that California winemakers would kill to have. Properly tended, the low-yielding old vines are capable of producing blockbuster wines from the get-go. So although some of these new wines may be only a few vintages old, they have instant cachet, based on the age of the vineyards and the pedigrees of their winemakers.
Take Toro. Though only a handful of its wines have reached the market, investment there has been energetic for several years. With land prices in the more established regions such as Ribera del Duero and Priorat skyrocketing, Spain's heavyweights have come here to buy up large swaths of cheap real estate. Eager producers include the country's greatest house, Vega Sicilia (with its first project outside Ribera del Duero); Vega's former winemaker Mariano Garcia (a legend); and Rioja's Eguren family, which produces the highly successful Sierra Cantabria wines.
The wines of Toro, which is a sere land of barren plateaus and rolling hills northwest of Madrid, were among Spain's most famous during the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, the region fell into obscurity, and by the 1970s only about 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of vineyards existed. When Toro received official status as a winemaking region in 1987, there were just seven commercial wineries. Today there are some 38, total vineyard land is closer to 60,000 hectares (much of that planted in the last decade), and the bleak landscape is dotted with shiny new winemaking facilities.
Toro's grape variety is called Tinta de Toro, a local clone of Spain's ubiquitous Tempranillo. Until the mid-'80s, Toro wines had a reputation for being clunky, poorly made and overalcoholic, often exceeding 17% alcohol. They were hardly consumed outside the region. As a new generation took over from the old, though, changes made in both vineyard and winery allowed the wines to become what they are today: Spain's biggest, boldest reds.
Emblematic of the new Toro (and indeed the new Spain) is Bodega Numanthia Termes. Founded by the Eguren family of Rioja, the soul of Numanthia is a vineyard in the middle of nowhere called Teso los Carriles, which Marcos Eguren found while searching Toro for old vines. "The first time I laid eyes on that vineyard," Eguren said on a visit to California in November, "I went looking for the owner."