The Hearty Reds Of Toro

26 January 2013
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Toro paired with fusilli BologneseI remember the first time I had a wine from Spain’s small Toro region, which straddles the Duero River not too far from northwestern Portugal. My husband-to-be and I were in New York at a delightful tapas bar in the Village (the name of which is alas lost to history), and at the bottom of the extensive wines-by-the-glass list was a Toro. I asked the bartender about it, and he replied, “Oh, I love that one — if you like big reds, you should give it a try.” We each had a glass, and our memories are so fond of that evening and that wine that we served a Toro at our wedding reception.

This Denominación de Origen (DO) was established only recently, in 1987, and the Toro DO only gained international renown in the last 10 years or so. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “The Alvarez family of Vega-Sicilia fame had been purchasing land [in Toro] since 1997, and after this was announced in 2002, the floodgates opened, so that at last count there were 40 bodegas.” Sotheby’s goes on to say that “the battle for Toro’s true quality has only just begun,” but I say it’s producing some pretty darn tasty stuff already.

Part of the region’s success is no doubt due to what The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “severe” growing conditions, with dry, stony soils and high altitudes. Grapevines need to suffer to produce great wine, the common wisdom goes, and in this “wild and remote zone,” the vines surely suffer indeed. The local specialty, Tinta de Toro (a variant of Tempranillo), has adapted to the Toro terroir, and it produces wines of “exciting quality” according to Sotheby’s, and according to me as well for that matter.

It’s January in Chicago, and I was in the mood, as you might expect, for a big red wine. I browsed the Toro section at Binny’s and discovered that, as usual, most of the Toros were pretty pricey. I picked up a couple of bottles of the least expensive, a 2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago,” recognizable by the big white “g” on its black label. It turned out $15 was quite a bargain for this beauty.

When I opened the bottle, I could immediately detect vanilla aromas, which intensified when I poured the deep-purple wine in a glass. Closer up, the wine smelled more like red fruit, iron and earth than vanilla. It felt focused up front — even a little tight — with flavors of vanilla and dark berries. At the back of the palate, however, it became almost rough, with hearty tannins, rustic power and some rowdy spice. It developed how I imagine a typical date in Las Vegas would. Paired with some Fusilli Bolognese, it became even more powerful and spicy.

This may not necessarily be the best Toro out there, but at $15, the Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago” took me on quite a ride. And if this Toro isn’t available at your local wine shop, try another one. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a wine from this newly discovered region.


2010 Telmo Rodríguez “Dehesa Gago”:This tasty Toro starts smooth and then gets a little rowdy. Big fruit and significant tannins. A fun ride and a fine value. Chill in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes before serving, and pair with red meat or strong cheese.

Grade: B+/A-

Find It: I purchased this wine for $15 at Binny’s on Clark Street.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 3

1 August 2012
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COURSE 5: Tinto Fino

I’d read a few reviews touting the “Pulpo” at Tinto, a tapas restaurant owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces, and I couldn’t resist popping in for a quick snack. Unfortunately, I accidentally popped into Village Whiskey instead. Their doors are right next to each other, and, well, it had been a long day. I didn’t realize my mistake until I checked in with the hostess, sat down at the bar and requested a menu from the bartender.

“Wow, this menu doesn’t look like tapas,” I thought to myself. Finally, finally, my befogged brain apprehended the situation. I decided the most graceful way to make an exit would be to feign an important phone call. “Oh hi, Sweetie. How are you? What? What’s the matter? Oh dear! Oh dear oh dear. Are you serious? No! Now, calm down.” I gestured helplessly to the hostess as I walked past. “Alright, now everything is going to be fine. Just slow down so I can” get myself into the right frickin’ restaurant.

I managed to find my way into Tinto, plunked myself into an equally comfortable bar stool and perused the wine list. I needed something a little hefty with the Pulpo (grilled octopus) that was coming, and I spotted a 2009 Bodegas y Viñedos Valderiz “Valdehermoso” Tinto Fino Joven from Ribera del Duero, Rioja’s lesser-known (but nevertheless formidable) competitor. Not unlike Arizona’s Page Springs, this region stretching along the Duero River north of Madrid regularly brushes almost 100° during the day before plunging into the 50’s at night. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “The light and air here have a high-altitude dryness and brightness about them, as do the wines, which have particularly lively acidity thanks to those cool nights.”

And Tinto Fino? I discovered that this variety, also known as Tinto del País, is simply a local variant of Tempranillo, albeit a variant particularly well-adapted to the rather extreme climate of Ribera del Duero. This Joven (young) Tinto Fino had dark, dark fruit on the nose and palate, expansive spice and attention-grabbing tannins. It really brought out the savory flavors in the snack of Mahon cheese crisps. With the slightly charred, moderately spicy octopus, the spice in the wine became almost too much. But paired with non-spicy red meats or even pork, a Tinto Fino should keep its cool deliciously. I recommend keeping an eye out for them.


The Second-Most Aristocratic Sangria

6 June 2011

Sangria my not be the oddest thing I’ve discussed on this blog, but it’s undeniably unusual to find really high-quality sangria. Indeed, “high-quality sangria” may seem like an oxymoron to those accustomed to flabby, sugared-up red wine swirled with some mealy apples and orange peel. But sangria can be a wonderful and even complex drink, worth making with care.

Vincent Astor made perhaps the most infamously high-quality sangria in history. According to Eric Felten, writing for the Wall Street Journal in 2007, “Astor was known to astonish waiters by asking for a bottle of Dom Perignon, a bottle of 1947 La Tâche (one of the great vintages of that fine Burgundy) and then instructing them to mix the wines together with cucumbers and plenty of fruit to make the most aristocratic of Sangrias.”

Fortunately for those of us without seven-figure salaries, it’s not necessary to purchase a bottle of La Tâche to make delicious sangria. What is necessary is a fruity, robust wine you would enjoy drinking on its own. If it’s not able to stand on its own in a glass, it won’t support the weight of a punch bowl.

I chose a 2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo from the D.O. of La Mancha in Spain. La Mancha, stretching from just south of Madrid to the foothills of the Sierra Morena north of Cordoba, is the world’s largest contiguous wine growing region. Relatively undistinguished white wines dominate La Mancha, with only about 1/5 of its area devoted to reds. The Venta Morales, according to the label, comes from vineyards near the village of Villanueva, “…handcrafted in small batches to insure the highest quality possible.”

On sale at Whole Foods for $6.29 a bottle — and that’s before a 20% case discount was factored in — the Venta Morales seemed worth a risk. With plums on the nose, this deep magenta Tempranillo offered surprising tannins, a medium body and flavors of raspberry jam with a touch of oak. Paired with a hearty Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato/bread soup), the wine developed distinct notes of spicy white pepper. Dry, tannic and fruity, it seemed just right for making sangria.

A Google search yields a multitude of sangria recipes, and there are easily as many non-digitized versions in cocktail books of varying wisdom. My Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s and Party Guide, for example, recommends adding “Other fruits as desired (bananas, strawberries, etc.).” As much as I enjoy an unusual cocktail from time to time, I draw the line at mixing bananas and wine.

I prefer a modification of Eric Felten’s recipe, restrained to citrus fruits and peaches:

2 bottles robust red wine (chilled)

2 white peaches

1 red- or pink-skinned apple

1 green-skinned apple

3 oranges

3 lemons

1/2 cup triple sec or other orange liqueur

1/2 cup brandy

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (to taste)

A few drops of lychee liqueur or rose water (to taste)

Slice one orange and one lemon into rounds, and gently macerate with the sugar in a large bowl, keeping the flesh relatively intact. Squeeze in the juice of the remaining oranges and lemons. Dice the white peaches and the apples and add them to the bowl. Add the triple sec, brandy and a few drops of lychee liquor or rose water (adding a floral touch to the nose), stir, cover, and refrigerate for three or more hours.

Combine all the ingredients in a punch bowl, floating the orange and lemon rounds on top. To keep cool, drop in a single large chunk of ice, rather than many small cubes. One large ice chunk, about the size of a fist, dilutes the sangria more slowly than faster-melting cubes.

A tannic Tempranillo should keep things grounded, the citrus adds sweetness and texture, and the peaches and lychee/rose water provide some floral notes at the top. It’s a delightful drink, and I think Vincent Astor himself might have enjoyed it.


2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo: Fruity, some tannins, a bit spicy and very inexpensive — perfect for sangria.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this wine at Whole Foods Market Evanston South for a little over $5 per bottle, but $7 seems to be a more representative price.

(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).