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updated: 5/9/2013 2:31 PM

Exploring Spain's Toro region

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Napa made its name on Cabernet Sauvignon, but vineyards along the valley also include grapes Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling and many more.

Mendoza's calling card is Malbec, but Sauvignon Blanc, Bonarda, Torrontes and other wines bear Mendoza labels.

Most New World regions grow many grapes, planted at will to satisfy market demand or the winemaker's whim.

In the Old World however, wine lands are tied -- by necessity, tradition and law -- to one or a small handful of grapes.

Spain's Toro region, for instance, banks its wine industry on one grape, called Tempranillo in the rest of the world, but named Tinta da Toro at the source.

Toro is a farmer's heartbreak. Located in the remote northwestern tip of the Meseta Central, at an elevation averaging 2,500 feet, the sandy soil bakes in blazing sunlight, with Chicago-like swings of temperature from below 0 degrees to above 100 degrees annually.

Histories vary whether Tempranillo was carried to Toro by ancient Greeks, or Celts, or by pilgrims along El Camino de Santiago. Whoever the importer, Tempranillo literally thickened its skin over the centuries to withstand heat, frost, drought and 3,000 hours of annual sunshine.

Modern palates wouldn't appreciate the hard, hot reds of old Toro, produced from tiny, water-starved berries with leathery skin. But in the days before refrigeration and modern transportation, alcohol and tannin meant preservation. Toro's wines sold throughout Medieval Spain, shipped aboard the Spanish Armada and even gained popularity in France when the phylloxera blight decimated French vineyards.

Today, Toro has the benefit of modern wine technology to work with its unique grape and centuries of winegrowing experience, producing concentrated, ripe and firm reds, including "Ross' Choice" and:

Bodegas Farina: The original champion of modern Toro, now in its third generation of winegrowing. "Dama de Toro, Barrel Aged" is softened four months in oak for plush, soft and rustic flavors, $11.99. "Dama de Toro, Crianza Tempranillo" rests eight months in oak for soft, silky and easy-to-enjoy complexity, $14.99. (Note: Farina interchanges labels with the Tempranillo moniker for international marketing.)

Elias Mora: "Vinas Elias Mora", aged six months in American oak, is rich long and elegant, $26.99. "Gran Elias Mora", aged 17 months in French oak, is powerful and complex mingling sweet, well structured tannins, violet, licorice, balsamic and tobacco aromas, $84.99. Toro's rich flavors call for rich cuisine, including chuletilla de cordero (grilled lamb chops), Chicago-style steak, or one of Spain's national dishes, cocido Madrileņo, a one-pot meal of slow cooked ingredients -- chick peas, meats and vegetables -- served in several courses.

Contact Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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