On a cold rainy night last week I was introduced to the wines of Toro – incidentally, a very dry and warm winemaking region of Spain. Not only had the day’s rain dissipated into the kind of steady mist that makes you feel silly for hiding under an umbrella yet leaves you annoyingly wet without one – to make matters always worse, I had to navigate Times Square.
Eager for a drink after my damp and frenzied rush through the worst four blocks of Manhattan, I was none too happy to find myself settled into the corner of a retro-chic red leather booth at The Lambs Club. It was my first time attending a winemaker’s dinner, and this was a much more intimate affair that the one I’d imagined. There were only seven of us seated around the table: the winemaker, Manuel Louzada of Numanthia, the lovely publicist who had arranged the dinner, an executive from Moet Hennessy (the company that owns Numanthia), three other journalists, and little old me.
It’s no wonder that we were introduced to Numanthia by way of its charming winemaker, Louzada. Born and raised in Portugal to a family that had been making wine for generations, Louzada likes to tell people that winemaking is in his blood. His is an interesting career path for a wine maker – he started off making Port, which in Louzada’s own words is all about the sheer power of nature, before moving to Argentina to work in sparkling wines – which, he said, are all about delicacy and detail.
When Moet Hennessy purchased the Numanthia label in 2006, the company invited Louzada to Spain to be the winemaker for their newest property and he fell instantly in love with the small region of Toro. The Estates & Wines division of MH is interesting all on its own; a collection of small wineries that span four continents from Napa to New Zealand. Because all of the wineries in the division are located in “New World” locations (also in Australia and Argentina), I had to ask – why Numanthia? Why Toro, Spain?
The answer was that MH snapped up properties in burgeoning wine regions – places they believed would yield unexpectedly great wines and were on their way to becoming the “next big wine region.” Also interesting, I thought, coming from such a large and globally recognized company, was the focus on smaller-scale production and the attention to detail that Louzada expressed. Several times the words artisinal and hand crafted popped up when Louzada discussed his wines.
At the time of his move to Toro, Louzada said he had little idea of the region’s potential or history. In fact, Toro is an ancient wine making region located in the northeast near the Castille-Leon region of Spain, just across the Douro River from the Portuguese border. In an interesting turn of fate, Louzada said that the Portuguese had a habit of looking out towards the sea rather than in towards their own country and that in a way, moving to Toro was bringing Louzada full-circle and back to his roots.
Toro is a region with a fascinating history; it is said that Columbus took Toro wine with him on his journey to America in 1492 because its immense structure and body made it suitable to survive long journeys. Though the vineyards of Numanthia don’t yield vines quite that old, there are 150-200 year old vines still growing in the area. These Toro vines are a rare and direct link to the wines of Europe before the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century destroyed about two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. The region is largely made up of a sandy soil that kept the Phylloxera at bay and protected the vines from the devastating plague.
The only red grape grown and used to make wine in Toro is called Tinta de Toro. The wines of the region are known as massive and powerful red wines and Louzada regailed us with stories of painfully losing his sense of taste for weeks after he had conducted barrel tastings of his first vintage –the tannins of the wine were so powerful. Louzada, with his background in sparkling wines and his penchant for detail set out to create wines that maintained the freshness of the fruit while using the tannins inherent to the grapes to sustain them and give body and structure.
Louzada said time and again throughout the dinner that his goal was to balance the concentration and intensity of the wines with elegance. He was inspired, he said, by the tastes he found in the vineyards themselves and aimed to give an impression of each vintage. The terroir of the region, Louzada said, was so massive and so concentrated that it had to be reigned in.
The first wine we tasted was the yet-to-be-released 2009 Termes. According to Louzada that year was riper, slightly warmer, and made a lighter and fruitier wine that was suitable for drinking now. This was not the first time I’d heard this from winemakers (remember the 2009 Bordeaux that could have been a fruit-bomb California Cab?). In the glass, the wine was gorgeous and dark, the nose had the slightly sweet smell of toasted oak, liquourice and a whiff of eucalyptus. The wine was paired with a beef carpaccio drizzled with a fruity olive oil that had an amazing conversation with the wine – the olive oil’s musky and melony flavors brought out the fruit in the wine and the wine spoke back with echos of olives and dust.
It was really amazing, and when we all nodded in pleasure, proclaiming that we liked the wine, Louzada gave a shy boy “aw shucks” shrug that couldn’t have been more endearing.
Next up, we drank the 2007 Numanthia, which smelled like wet dirt, earth and cherries. This wine had big tannins and tasted of leather, coffee, and toasted oak. Paired with succulent medallions of veal, the wine’s unctuous flavors spoke to the sweet gaminess of the meat.
Last on our tour of Numanthia was the 2008 Teremanthia with a nose of baked blackberries that made it seem heavy and dark until it arrived on the palate where it was plush with dark fruit but supported by lots of tannin. That was the wine, Louzada claimed, the stars had aligned to make.
While we drank each of these wines, Louzada emphasized that he was driven by his desire to achieve balance. Louzada wanted his wines to, he said, seduce in the nose and pleasure on the palate – making him a sort of oenophile’s Casanova. By the end of the dinner we’d all fallen in love with Louzada’s wines – rich, complex, powerful and elegant.
After last week’s tasting, I can see why all eyes are on Toro as Spain’s next big region – though I’m wary that just anyone should try to coax a wine with mass appeal from the region’s sandy soils. Indeed, this must be a region that is as challenging for the vines as it is for the winemaker who tries to tame them. A winemaker looking to conquer the wines of Toro must have just the right blend of pioneer and perfectionist – such as can be found in Numathia’s Louzada.