With 11 acres of knee-high, muscular old vines that look like bonsai trees on steroids, the vineyard is estimated to be 140 years old. Eguren uses the grapes to produce a wine called Termanthia, which exhibits the raw, animal power of which Toro is capable. With only 4,000 bottles produced annually, this profoundly concentrated wine sees 200% new oak, meaning that after fermentation it goes straight into new French oak barrels, then after some months it is transferred to brand-new barrels again. An expensive proposition? The 2001 sells for about $200. Though its first vintage was only 2000, it is clearly positioning itself as Toro's iconic wine. While the unofficial consensus in Madrid was that it's nowhere near ready to drink, Robert Parker gave the 2000 Termanthia a score of 98.
Declassified wine from this vineyard joins wines from other vineyards (averaging 70 years of age) to make the less expensive Numanthia, a wine slightly less massive but more agile and early-drinking. Termes, the third wine from the Bodega, is made from vines averaging 30 years of age. "These wines," said Eguren, "show the great potential of this region. Older vineyards with modern techniques are making wines never before seen in Spain."
With wines like that being produced right off the bat, it's hard to fathom how new this region is. For instance, the first vintage (2001) of Pintia, Vega Sicilia's Toro wine, has just been released. A baby, Pintia is made from vines that only average 30 years of age. While not as powerful as the Numanthia wines, it's beautifully balanced, with terrific fruit and good structure.
Finca Sobreno, a project of yet more roving Riojans, makes a powerful, dense Toro that can be had for less than $20. And the ambitious little cooperative Vina Bajoz makes a gently smoky, leathery crianza (young wine) that's as appealing as an old Bordeaux, but ready for early drinking. All that for about $15.
The whites of Rueda
Just to the southeast of Toro is Rueda, which, though adjacent, has a different enough climate to be able to produce terrific whites from a grape unfamiliar to most Americans: Verdejo.
Like Toro, Rueda's winemaking history goes back centuries, during which its white grapes were used to make oxidized, fortified, sherry-style wines. It wasn't until 1970 that Marques de Riscal, looking for a place to make better dry whites than it could in its home of Rioja, had the vision to turn Verdejo into a dry table wine. "At the time, people were trying to pull up the old Verdejo vines in favor of Viura, a higher-yielding grape," says Riscal's head of winemaking, Pedro Aznar Escudero. Verdejo, he says, may be the better wine grape: low-yielding and small-berried. "But the most important thing is that it's grown in Rueda, where the former river terrace of gravelly stones and soils is its perfect home."
Riscal's first vintage of Verdejo was 1972, but Rueda didn't become an official wine region until 1981. Similar to Sauvignon Blanc (with which they are sometimes blended), modern Verdejos have grassy, citrus and tropical fruit characteristics but tend to be softer, exchanging tang and raciness for a lovely roundness and weight in the mouth. They're straightforward, easy-drinking, inexpensive wines that pair wonderfully with grilled or even raw seafood.
Today there are several attractive Ruedas on the market. Dos Victorias, made by two women winemakers, combines gorgeous floral notes with a tropical fruit character (especially in the hot 2003 vintage) to make an easy-drinking white perfect with grilled fish or chicken. Naia, with its flashy orange-and-white label, is a delicious quaffer. The MartinSancho Verdejo from Bodegas Angel Rodriguez, made from old, ungrafted vines grown in 30 feet of gravel, is one of the best.
Bierzo breaks the mold
With mountains on three sides and a temperate maritime climate, Bierzo, in the northwest corner of Spain just above Portugal, is greener than most of the country, with an almost alpine feel. Because of that, its wines break the mold for Spanish reds, tending toward finesse over power and acidity over tannin. They're terrific food wines, great with charcuterie, olives, hard cheese.
The predominant grape here is the mysterious Mencia, which some theorize is a relative of Cabernet Franc but to this taster is more of a cross between Pinot Noir and Syrah, with the soft ripe berry character of the former and the subtle, intriguing gamey note of the latter.
Bierzo began to garner attention when Alvaro Palacios, the young wine superstar and media darling from Rioja (whose wine L'Ermita put Priorat on the map), ambitiously set up shop here.