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Bullish for tinto de Toro

Modernized winemaking propels improvements in robust Spanish red

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Wine drinkers are growing increasingly bullish for Spanish wines of all types, including the distinctive tinto de Toro reds. These wines made from the tempranillo grape are named for a town on the Duero River in the province of Zamora, northwest of Madrid. The appellation is small in size, but the area is standing increasingly tall in the international market.

"There are two main reasons," said Adam Seger, manager and sommelier at Nacional 27 restaurant. "They are a great value but there's been a huge explosion in quality. Toro was making basic table wine for decades and is now focusing on prestige wine. You get good wine for the money.

"From a price and robustness standpoint I'd compare them to Australian shiraz," he added. "Here's an imported wine that's quite big but tends to be different than the big fruit bombs. There's more earth, they're drier."

Seger said winemakers in Toro are planting predominantly tinto de Toro (also known as tempranillo), cabernet sauvignon and garnacha (also known as grenache). Yields are being cut back to emphasize quality over quantity, he said.

"There's much better vineyard management and they're growing better grapes," Seger said.

Tinto de Toro translates into English roughly as "bull's wine." It's an apt metaphor for a wine known for its power and deep color since the Middle Ages. The region went into a slump in the 19th Century but rebounded in the late 20th Century as Spain's wine industry revitalized. Toro wines remain big with lots of muscle and a dark, almost inky color but they've changed, too.

"Today's wine is tamed down, it's a silkier version," said Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales for Binny's Beverage Depot stores. He said winemakers in Toro are using modern techniques on the fruit of these old world vines, some of which date back 80 years.

"Modern techniques take off the rough edges, smooth them out," he said. "The wines don't need the aging required in the past."

Wine expert Doug Frost describes the "massive character" of Toro's wines in "Far from Ordinary," a guide to Spanish wines issued by Wines of Spain. He credits that to "the warm conditions, ideal exposures, and very friable soils." But the elevation gives the wine "structure, relative elegance and, it is hoped, ageability."

Efrain Madrigal, wine director at Sam's Wines & Spirits, believes Toro will rival Priorat as the next. "it region" of Spain in the years to come.

"I visited there last year," he said. "It's quite rural, with a very warm, dry climate. If a winery can keep yields down and keep things clean and cool in the winery, the wines can be really stunning. "If not they end up coarse and baked."

What to serve with tinto de Toro? Seger recommends grilled or heartier foods. Jeffirs goes for steaks or game. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink with What You Eat," also suggest duck, lamb chops and roast chicken.

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Strong as a bull

Expect a muscular personality with a little trace of jammy fruit if you purchase one of these six tinto de Toro wines. The grape, more widely known as tempranillo, is native to northern Spain and these wines naturally pair with many Spanish foods or with grilled meats, especially beef, and hearty stews.

2005 Numanthia Termes Termes

Fragrantly spiced on the nose, with notes ranging from cinnamon to licorice to cherry, this wine is well-balanced, deeply flavored, and sports a snappy astringent finish. Serve with beef stew, roast chicken with fennel, duck legs with green olives.

(3 corkscrews) $25

2003 Telmo Rodriguez Gago

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