Wine: Unearthing tempranillo’s subtleties

I have a friend who refuses to buy tempranillo wines anymore. No Rioja, no Ribera del Duero, no Toro. “I’ve been burned too many times,” she says. “I never know what I’m getting. Too many times I get something that overpowers my food, or else it tastes like oak juice.”

It pains me to hear that, because I happen to love tempranillo. But when people talk about Spanish wines, especially tempranillo, the conversation almost immediately turns to issues of wood. Of course, saying “I don’t like oak” — just like saying “I don’t like high-alcohol wines” or “I hate Robert Parker” — is a fashionable shortcut to connoisseurship these days. Still, in this case, I can empathize with my friend.

The fact is, Spaniards love oaky wines, as Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl addresses in her excellent book “Drink This: Wine Made Simple” (Ballantine, 2009): “Why? Probably for the same reason that the French love anise, people from New Orleans love the roasted-flour taste of roux, and the Thais love cilantro: They just do. Of all the world’s people, do the Spanish love the taste of oak the most? I’d say yes.”

Unlike my friend, I’m not a knee-jerk anti-oaker, as long as the oak is subtle and balanced. Lately, though, I’ve taken her critical stance on tempranillo as a challenge. Over the past few months, I’ve grown a bit obsessed, for instance, with Toro (where tempranillo is called tinto de Toro) and Ribera del Duero (where it’s called tinto fino), neighboring regions in Castilla y Leon.

The wine that made me think differently about tempranillo was a bottle of Dama de Toro 2009 Tempranillo. There’s an old saying that the wines of Toro are so big, they should be eaten with a knife and fork. This, on the other hand, was the first unoaked Toro I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly intense, almost savage, and full of wild, pure, lively fruit: the complete opposite of oak juice. Oh, and it cost about $15. It was time to further explore what was going on in Castilla y Leon.

Tempranillo wines can be elegant and even fresh. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Dama de Toro I tasted would be classified as “joven,” or “young,” meaning that the wine hasn’t come into contact with oak. Here, we don’t see much joven or even roble (meaning it has spent only a few months in oak). What we mostly see is crianza (aged at least one year in barrel and another year in bottle) or reserva (aged three years, with at least one year in barrel). Often, these longer-aged wines just aren’t ready to drink right away, requiring patience that most wine drinkers do not possess. “They’re so massive when they’re released,” says Ashley Santoro, wine director at Casa Mono and Bar Jamon in New York. “They need time to develop.”

Iconic, coveted brands from Ribera del Duero, such as Vega Sicilia (dating from 1864) and Vina Sastre, command the big bucks. The stunning Vega Sicilia Unico, for instance, sells for about $400 a bottle. I tasted the Vina Sastre 2006 Pesus (one of the finest I’ve tasted in recent memory) and nearly choked when I was told it retails for $750.

Apart from fantasy numbers, there are plenty of excellent Ribera del Duero wines to be had for around $25 or less. If you stick with good-quality producers, such as Montecastro, Alejandro Fernandez (which makes Tinto Pesquera and Condado de Haza) and Emilio Moro, you can’t go wrong. With these producers, oak serves as a frame to showcase the fruit.

While Ribera del Duero is a relatively established region, with more than 250 wineries, Toro is still growing. “Toro has the potential to be one of the top regions in the world,” claims Manuel Farina, the producer of Dama de Toro, which will be available in the District and Maryland in July.

I don’t disagree. Toro has some of the oldest vines anywhere. It’s not uncommon to find 100- to 120-year-old vineyards that survived the 19th-century phylloxera epidemic. Old vines have drawn many new producers into the region. When the Toro D.O. started in 1987, there were only six producers. Fewer than 25 years later, there are nearly 50.

Vega Sicilia has also begun producing wine here, under the Pintia label. But Toro’s iconic brand is Numanthia, the critics’ darling, whose top bottle, Termanthia, fetches $200 and 95-plus scores. But Numanthia’s intense and elegant Termes is an absolute steal at $25.

There is also a crop of newer producers, including Piedra, Dominio del Bendito and Volvoreta. At Volvoreta, 26-year-old Maria Alfonso has won a national biodiversity prize in Spain for her organic practices, which produce wonderfully fresh, juicy, mineral wines that defy our usual conception of what tempranillo can be.

Her wines will be available in the area later this year. If I poured one of them for my friend at home, I know exactly what she would say: This cannot possibly be tempranillo. Well, it is.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist. Wine columnist Dave McIntyre will return next week.

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