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Soak up Iberian wine, and a taste of history

Toro vineyard

Toro vineyard

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital ( and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via

Today’s iDeal section focuses on the significance of culinary art in the Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Some of China’s most revered dishes are mentioned in this classic work that elegantly showcases the important cultural aspects of Chinese cuisine.

It just so happens that I’m composing this week’s column nearly half way around the world in another land of great literature, art and gastronomy. Welcome to the enchanted land of Castillo y Leon, home to some of Spain’s greatest wines, foods and art.

Part and parcel of being a professional wine journalist, judge and consultant is traveling to wine regions to experience all facets of winemaking and wine culture. Last week I was in Valladolid, the capital of the region to be a judge in the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.

This annual event is the world’s largest and most prestigious wine competition with 330 judges from all around the world. It’s truly the United Nations of wine. Over three days of judging over 9,000 wines are tasted.

I’ve had the good fortune to have participated in hundreds of wine competitions globally and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles remains my favorite. Chairman Baudouin Havaux, Director Thomas Costenoble and their elite team of professionals expertly manage and guide the huge collection of wines and diverse array of wine experts from all over the world. It’s a promethium task that has been successfully organized every year for two decades.

I’m especially happy to inform readers that next year’s competition will be held in Beijing, the first time the event has been held outside Europe. It will prove challenging to top this year’s event in Castillo y Leon but I have faith that Beijing can pull off the best wine competition ever.

Quality wines are an inseparable part of a region’s history, culture and people. One of best places to experience this synergistic amalgam is Castillo y Leon.

Iberian literary giants Cervantes and Zorrila wrote some of their best works in the region and Alfonso Berruguete, Juan de Juni and Gregorio Fernandez painted masterpieces here. More germane to my particular area of passion, great wines are also made here.

As I’m in Spain it’s only natural that I feature Spanish wines in this week’s column. Castillo y Leon has 13 DO wine regions that produce some of Spain’s and the world’s greatest wines. Most prominent is Ribero del Duero, the home to the celebrated Vega Sicilia, Pesquera and Pingus wines. Other notable Castilla y Leon regions are Rueda, where splendid Verdejo white wines are made, Cigales, home to expressive Tempranillo rose wines and El Bierzo, a region renowned for elegant and balanced red wines made from the Mencia grape.

The aforementioned regions all make excellent and distinctive wines but this week I’ll focus on a rising star: Toro.

Tucked away in the far western reaches of Castilla y León is Toro. A mere 40 kilometers from the Portuguese border, Toro is a historic, overwhelmingly rural region known for its bold red wines.

Its approximately 65,000 hectares extend throughout a floodplain bounded by the Río Guareña and Río Duero, the latter a wide river responsible for nourishing most of the best wine regions in Castilla y Leon. The closest city is Zamora, famous for Romanesque architecture. Toro also has outstanding restaurants serving some of the world’s best pork, ham and lamb dishes.

Tempranillo, locally referred to as Tinto de Toro, has been cultivated since the 11th century the Christian Reconquista, when an influx of bishops, priests, scholars and members of the royal family created a sophisticated market for fine wines.

The Toro DO was created in 1987 with just four wineries, but the rave reviews for region’s wines have led to new investment and explosive grown.

Tinto de Toro is an early-ripening grape known for being thick-skinned and potent, which translates into character-filled wines noted for their color, strength and jammy flavors. Vineyards are mostly at an altitude of 600 to 750 meters and the soils comprise a mix of clay, sand and calcareous soils.

Summer days are long, hot and dry but evenings are cooler and vines are able to tap into the moisture in these clay soils. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most the best wines are made from old vines with deeper roots.

The majority of Toro’s best-known wines are 100 percent Tinto de Toro, although wines with just 75 percent of the variety can still qualify for DO status.

Other varieties grown here include Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon, although only Garnacha is permitted to accompany the Tinto de Toro in DO-certified wines.

A few white wines are made as well, mainly from the varieties Malvasía and Verdejo.

Popular with wine lovers worldwide, Toro wines are still underrepresented in the China market. Some of the top producers with wines available in Shanghai are Pinta, owned by Vega Sicilia, Campo Eliseo, a venture between Michel Rolland and Francois Lurton, and Mauro.

Two additional favorites of mine are Liberalia that makes wines from vines up to 100 years old and Elias Mora that’s run by the multi-talented Victoria Benavides.

Try wines from these two remarkable producers and you’ll truly understand why Toro is one of Spain’s most beloved regions.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: Tempranillo, referred to as Tinto de Toro in the region, is the main variety in Toro with some Garnacha added to the blend.

Key term: Barrel fermented refers to wines that undergo the fermentation process in wooden barrels instead of the more popular modern stainless steel.

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