Numanthia’s New Challenge – Evolution

When it first hit the shelves, Toro Numanthia wine turned heads, but how did it negotiate with changing tastes?

© LVMH | Numanthia is famous for its old bush vines, bearing thick-skinned grapes that yield intense wines.

What do you do if you got high marks from Wine Advocate several times in the 90s during your first decade of existence, but then the world of wine starts to move in a different direction? Are you sitting tight, waving your points at the doubters? No: you evolve. And quick.

The wine in question is Numanthia, and its premium iteration, Termanthia. It’s in Toro, which is an area with a lot of advantages, but also some problems.

In short, it’s a remote part of Spain, hot and dry at best, growing Tinta de Toro with skins that thicken to cope with the climate and yield massive tannins to match its levels of massive sugar. But because Toro is remote, and for years had no fashionable pretensions, there wasn’t much will to replant. So the vines can be very old – 100 years old, and even up to 200 years old, you are told. (Remember that because vines don’t have rings like trees, judging a vine’s age depends mostly on written records or educated guesses.) There’s a lot of genetic variation in this old Tinta de Toro: This is a treasure trove for anyone interested enough and with pockets deep enough to investigate.

Numanthia has deep pockets. It started with a lot of investment, and in 2008, with all those Parker points under its belt, it was bought out by LVMH. The original owners stayed on for a bit, to ensure continuity.

But at that time, the wine world was showing signs of a lack of continuity. When the current domain director, Lucas Löwi, arrived in 2010, he understood that Numanthia was going to have to change. And that’s the case.

Some people will regret the changes. Old Numanthia was 100% new oak and felt like it could hold a spoon in it. It offered a way to take on the challenges of the region and see them as advantages: if you have huge rustic tannins, tame them with huge but expensive and sophisticated oak tannins. He was very influential in the region.

In 2010, however, Löwi knew he needed to find more freshness and “a more transparent expression of terroir”. He had to take risks.

I’ll spare you a step-by-step narrative. So far in 2022 they’ve gotten to 60% new barrels, 40% used, and instead of all barrels being 225 liters there are 400 liter barrels, tuns, amphoras and vats in concrete. When Löwi describes extraction, he uses this magic word “infusion”.

Picking takes place about two weeks earlier than before. And the wines are aged for a few years in the bottle before being marketed; while the change in winemaking has upset some, this latest change has upset others, including perhaps the company’s accountants. The assumption was that the wine was purchased by collectors who would age the wine themselves. When Löwi took a closer look, he realized that 60% of the sales went to the catering industry, which of course didn’t cellar the wine. “Wine was still not palatable enough for consumers,” he says. So he started giving Numanthia three years in bottle before it was released, so it’s five when it comes out. Termanthia is now seven years old upon release.

The latest versions are therefore Numanthia 2017 and Termanthia 2015. Some evolution has occurred since these vintages, but they are much fresher than their predecessors and have gained in definition. They better express their terroir; in the past, we would have been forgiven for wondering if there was a really interesting terroir to express under all the wood and the extraction. But there is, there is.

Numanthia owns 85 hectares in Toro and leases more, with 150 hectares in total. It’s divided into 150 plots, as the vines are scattered and generally small. The vines are about three meters apart in all directions in the old vines; they spread wildly and often needed to be cared for after years of neglect. There are a few newer vineyards on Sons, but bush vines are what everyone associates with Toro. The average density is 1100 vines per hectare and the yields, between 7 hectoliters and 24 hl per hectare, are not sumptuous. For quick comparison, the yields of Château d’Yquem are around 9hl/ha.

© LVMH | Wines have been toned down in recent vintages, with less use of new oak and more emphasis on subtlety.

All soils are mostly sandy, but they vary, as does elevation. Numanthia has identified eight different terroirs. La Manga (these are the names of Numanthia for the districts, they are not official names), in the north of the region, on a high sandy plateau, come structured and generous wines. Well, all Toro has structure, but in Argujillo further south, where there’s more clay and gravel and more rainfall, the wines have a lower pH and more freshness, and in the middle, La Jara , with more clay and large colored alluvial stones, results in grapes that ripen earlier and have more fruit aromas.

And Tinta de Toro?

It is an article of faith of Spanish winemakers that each region that grows Tempranillo has its own variant of the vine, which is different from that of all other regions. They are adamant about it. Ampelographers tend to take a more nuanced view, pointing out that Tempranillo has enormous genetic variation, with at least 552 variations in Spain, and that the differences found in Tempranillo in each region tend to be greater than the differences in Tempranillo between regions.

You’d think that makes Tempranillo more interesting than less, but perhaps in a country where most regions grow the same grape, it’s inevitable that each region will want to lay claim to its uniqueness. And of course, Tempranillo has evolved everywhere to adapt to particular conditions. In Toro, due to the lack of massive replanting with clones from elsewhere, every old vineyard is a genetic museum. Numanthia started a nursery to plant cuttings from its old vines and examine this genetic material: to date, it has identified at least 160 biotypes – variations on a Tempranillo theme. Sorry, I mean Tinta de Toro.

Plus, of course, a few precursors that aren’t Tinta de Toro at all. A bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot was planted in Toro in the 1980s – probably not the best idea, in hindsight, and the growers who have it often graft it in – and Löwi next year will plant 8ha of Gajo Arroba, Bruñal, Mandon, Prieto Picudo and Grenache.

One of the reasons to look at genetic variety at Toro is that particular vines may hold the key to greater freshness and drought resistance, which is the Holy Grail of this century. Numanthia sours when it needs to – like in 2022, when Löwi said “there was no sourness in the grapes”. This year, however, was not a bad harvest. He estimates that his vines have withstood the heat better than those in more clayey regions and that the wines will be closer to 14% alcohol than the usual 15%.

Which of course is high, but normal for Toro. “The challenge is to find the balance, so that you don’t notice the alcohol,” says Löwi. Does he succeed? Well, yes it is. A wine that I thought was undrinkable when I tasted it in the peak years of extraction and oaking, today it shows freshness and transparency; same definition. It is substantial, of course. Toro is substantial; you don’t come here for light wines. Are the wines still where he wants them? “We now have the best momentum since the creation of Numanthia, in terms of understanding the terroir, and a clear vision…. [release of the] 2018 will make you feel like we’re almost there.”

The 2017, creamy and chunky, lush and opulent, comes from a year when yields were reduced by spring frosts; but it is aromatic and balanced. Pair it with a plate of Pata Negra ham and it comes into its own. The 2016 may have a little more finesse, but also fullness, and a bit of a spicy note. But basically you don’t smell the alcohol.

Termanthia? Considering it’s about four times the price, it should be four times better, right? Not that that’s ever how it works. It’s still much lusher, much creamier – the 2010, which I wasn’t a fan of when young, matured into an energetic wine of herbs and sap, and cream-wrapped fruit, with massive tannins in the heart. He’s a bit of a sumo wrestler, with a certain grace. The 2015, however, which was aged in 80% new and 20% used (compared to, remember, 200% new in the past) is gaining definition.

You could deduce that I prefer Numanthia to Termanthia. I look forward to future vintages of both: it’s been quite an evolution.

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Elisha A. Tilghman