A week with Torres

I recently spent a week on the Miguel Torres Wine Course in Vilafranca del Penedès and Barcelona, so thought I should pull my thoughts together and tell you about the experience.

One of the highlights was meeting Miguel A Torres, he really is a giant figure in the wine business. Perhaps as my early experiences of wine were all in Spain he looms larger to me than my British counterparts, but I well remember my first taste of Viña Esmerelda and being astonished by how very different it was from anything else in Spain – still broadly true.

It is impossible to exaggerate Torres’s influence on Spanish wine. He helped introduce all sorts of modern techniques that we all now take for granted – stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation and the use of international grapes were all either introduced by him or helped on their way by him. It is impossible to be sure as he is genuinely very modest and  seemed to always deny being the first at anything, saying that someone else did it before him. However, I have noticed that the genuinely successful are often not the first to do something, but are usually the first to perfect it – which would be very Torres.

His influence on Chile has been almost as great. He was the first outsider, in modern times, to go to Chile and buy an estate. Nowadays we all take the fact that Chilean wine is good for granted, but that was in 1979, long before Chile had made any serious inroads into the wine buyers’ consciousness. Again he was one of the very first to introduce modern techniques and set Chile off on the road to international wine recognition.

I knew the history, but it was fascinating hearing him tell it. His family have been selling wine since 1870, but until he came along and studied wine making in France it was basically in bulk, the family was essentially a negociant house. The change to mainly bottled wine began in 1940 when his father, Don Miguel, was in America and keen to build that important market to help the company recover from the Spanish Civil War. Don Miguel heard that with the German occupation of France Americans could not get French wine anymore. It seems that Chablis was hugely popular, so seeing an opportunity he offered them Spanish Chablis and set about creating a light fresh and lively dry white wine, it was made from the local Penedès grape called Parellada and eventually became Viña Sol - it remains a superbly made wine which is impossible to miss on pretty much any trip to Spain.

evolution of Viña Sol – see ‘Spanish Chablis’ on the left

Other than Chile their other far-flung outpost is the Marimar Torres Estate in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Marimar is Miguel’s talented sister who went to California in 1975 to promote the family’s Catalan wines. She created a new estate there in 1992, which is now one of the leading boutique wineries in Sonoma producing elegant hand crafted wines from their organic estate fruit – so now Torres promotes her impressive Californian Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in Spain.

Torres is above all a wine brand and a very successful one – which is pretty rare in Europe.  Looking at their old labels it is very interesting to see how strong the branding has always been, something I for one think of as being a pretty recent concept, but it just goes to show that nothing is really new in wine or marketing – just how well you do it.

The teacher at work

The course consisted of seeing various outposts of the Torres empire in Catalunya, seminars on viticulture – by Miguel himself – marketing and brandy production as well as a lot of tasting and a huge amount of food all accompanied by lots of Torres wines.

It was a fascinating insight into this mighty wine brand and showed that despite the scale they turn out a range of wines that are never less than enjoyable at the same time as climbing greater heights than I expected.

I have known Spain all my life and have seen it change and blossom from a quaint backwater and brutal dictatorship to a rich, confident and vibrant liberal democracy. Certainly it is no longer a cheap destination, but it is a wonderful one and it seems to me that Torres have ridden these changes very efficiently – as Spain has changed, so have they.

Originally their wines were all from the Penedès region and they are still based there, in Vilafranca, and most of their vineyards are there, but they have now spread out all over Catalunya/Catalonia – and beyond.

Wine regions of northern Spain – click for a larger view

Torres have always used local grape varieties, Viña Sol is made from the local Parellada – famous for Cava – and Sangre de Toro from Garnacha and Cariñena – both originally Spanish grapes that have spread around the world under their French names of Grenache and Carignan. However, in the 1960’s the perception of the quality of local varieties led them to a greater reliance on international grape varieties. They planted Cabernet Sauvignon and used it in their Gran Coronas Black Label, now Mas La Plana. Sauvignon Blanc was used in their Gran Viña Sol Green label, now Fransola. They planted Pinot Noir which they used originally in Viña Santa Digna and now in Mas Borràs. Even Riesling was introduced and planted in a cool part of the region, the wine it makes – Waltraud – is very good and named after Miguel’s German wife – who is also a fine painter. Gewürztraminer too is grown and used, along with Muscat, in the famous Viña Esmerelda.

The Jean León winery was at least as instrumental in bringing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to Penedes as Miguel Torres, as he freely admits and that winery is now part of the group and I wrote about my visit to it here.

However, the concept of local has changed in modern democratic Spain and all things Catalan are now enjoying a resurgence and this shows in the wines. Since 1983 long lost Catalan grapes are being coaxed out of near extinction by Torres at their wonderful viticultural research nursery where they grow experimental blocks of vines from all over Europe, not just Spain.

Nursery vines – all labelled

I saw some exciting grapes growing there from Basque Beltza and Greek Assyrtico to a bewildering array of unheard of Catalan vines and even some from the Balearic Islands. For the old Catalan varieties Torres placed ads in local papers asking farmers who were unsure of what their vines were to get in touch. Most turned out to be completely ordinary, but some 80 old varieties have been isolated so far. However, it seems that only about four of those 80 are of interest for making good wines. The Querol, Garró, and Samsó were recovered in this way and the last two are now used in Torres’s flagship red wine Grans Muralles from the D.O. Conca de Barberà.

Regarding Samsó there is an interesting difference of opinion; I had understood it to be Carignan – Cariñena in Spain or Mazuelo in Rioja. So why would that be lost? However Miguel was firm that it is Cinsault, which does sound linguistically correct and seems to have no other major Spanish presence.

The Torres vineyards at Lloar in Priorat

Taking their roots further Torres created a new winery in Catalunya’s most prestigious wine region, the beautiful and rugged Priorat. Priorat and Rioja are so far the only areas to be granted Spain’s highest wine classification; D.O.Ca or D.O.Q. in CatalanDenominación de Origen Calificada. Here Torres produce the delicious Salmos (Psalms – the whole place is named after a Priory after all) made from a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Cariñena while the top wine from their Priorat winery is called Perpetual and is crafted from a parcel of 100 year old Cariñena vines which are blended with a little Garnacha – it is very good and great value for a Priorat.

Also in Catalunya they have a high altitude vineyard in the Costers del Segre region, so far it is only for experimentation, but the Chardonnay I tasted from there was exceptionally well balanced and promises great things for the future.

As if all that is not enough Torres dazzled us with new Spanish wines from regions outside Catalunya. These included an excellent Rioja called Torres Ibericos Crianza – the 2008 is supple, juicy and very attractive – and Torres Verdeo a lovely fresh dry white made from Verdejo grapes in D.O. Rueda. I understand they have vineyards in Toro, Ribera del Duero and Jumilla, so I look forward to trying Torres wines from those places too.

I am not a spirits drinker – just gin and tonic when I am in Spain, they never seem worth having here, not cold enough, not enough gin and not enough tonic – so brandy is not my thing, but Torres are a major producer of brandy in Spain – by far and away the most important outside Jerez. The Torres 5, Torres 10 and their top cuvée Jaime 1 are all excellent brandies full of complex aromas and deep figgy, prune-like characters, richer and a little sweeter than Cognac and all aged in a solera system. The Torres 20 is a little different as it is not aged in a solera and is made in a lighter, more French style with a paler, orangey gold colour. Jaime 1 is named both for the founder of Bodegas Torres, Jaime Torres Vendrell, and Jaime 1 King of Aragón and Count of Barcelona who conquered the Balearic Islands. I was very taken with the ornate bottle of the Jaime 1 and was thrilled when we saw the building that inspired it - Gaudí‘s Casa Mila in Barcelona.

‘Espanta bruixes’ – or ‘witch scarers’ on the roof of Casa Milà – clearly the inspiration for the brandy bottle on the right.

On top of all that they have a fine food division – Torre Real - producing some wonderful traditional food items under the Torres brand, chief amongst them are some stunning varietal and regional olive oils, many from their own estates near Lleida, that gave us a terrific tasting before lunch at the rather beautiful Mas Rabell.

Mas Rabell

If you have never tasted different olive oils side by side, I do recommend it, the variations are every bit as fascinating as with wine, some are intensely fruity, while others have a spicy peppery character that is astonishing.

Olive oil tasting at Mas Rabell

One of the highlights was a most extraordinary dinner that was billed as a blind tasting and it was, but the food was blind as well as the wine, because we were actually blindfold.

That’s me on the right

It was a very enjoyable experience, but just keeping track of glasses when you cannot see is very difficult, let alone eating salad or a soup-like substance. Two things stood out, apart from the difficulty and the danger of falling over the waterfall on the terrace, I appreciated the Torres De Casta Rosado much more when tasting it blindfold – I assume the food was a perfect match – and the dessert, which was a dark chocolate mousse served cold enough to pass for ice cream and served with crunchy toast drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and believe it or not those flavours were superb together. Slightly weird putting my fingers in chocolate mousse to find out what it is, but it’s all in a days work.

The final event of the week was a rather a lovely tapas lunch in the swanky Vinoteca Torres, their modernist wine bar and shop in Barcelona – the food there was very good and you can try all the Torres wines by the glass or bottle.

Vinoteca Torres

All in all it was a great experience and opened my eyes to what this famous producer can do. I got the distinct impression that while they carefully safeguard their reputation and heritage, nothing stands still at Torres for very long. I will leave you with an overview of my top Torres wines:

Torres Spain:
Salmos 2009
DOQ Priorat
40% Garnaxa & Syrah with 20% Cariñena

Bright ruby colour. Big red fruit nose, plums, raspberries, pepper and spice.
Very soft attractive and forward palate, rich fruit like cherry with acidity too.
Supple, smooth tannins together with toasty and charred oak on the finish mingle with freshness and ripeness, herbs and mineral. Attractive and forward 89/100 points.

Perpetual 2007
DOQ Priorat
95% Cariñena from 100 year old vines with Garnacha.

Rich garnet earthy colour. Lovely nose of delicate leathery fruit, cocoa notes and gentle spice.
Supple, plush and flattering, the fruit is quite claret-like with good acidity, fine grain tannins, smoky oak, cocoa notes, coffee and leather. Big, textured mouthfeel, but lovely structure and a finish that sings. Great concentration and balance, powerful, but loads of finesse too and it is biblically long. 92/100 points.

2006 Grans Muralles
D.O. Conca de Barberà
47% Garnaxa, 35% Cariñena, 14% Monastrell, 3% Garró and 1% Samsó

Beautiful colour red and bright, but deep.
A lovely supple texture, rich red fruit with good cherry like acidity backed up by firm but silky tannins and a little touch of spice running through. The oak is quite firm and adds to the spice and structure, but it is delicious and very long indeed. 93/100 points.

2006 Reserva Real
D.O. Penedès
Santa Margarida d’Agulladolç vineyard
85% Cab Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc

Great colour, deep, plummy, cassis black fruit.
Very tight at the moment, but lovely fruit and balance behind the oak and fine grain tannins together with nuances of smoky sandalwood and cedar.
Very fine, but needs time to open up, I was impressed by this Bordeaux blend wine – 91/100 points.

Torres Chile – see my map of Chile here

2007 Manson de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon
Curicó Valley

Intense nose, rich and concentrated, laurel leaves and eucalyptus.
Rich and creamy fruit as well as those herbal notes.
The palate is intensely fruity allowing the sweet ripe cassis to shine, creamy ripe with a lovely attractive quality to it, some fine grain tannins on the finish and lovely oak spice too. 89/100 points.

2007 Cordilera
Maule Valley
66% Carignan/Cariñena, 18% merlot and 16% Syrah

I enjoyed this whilst having the blindfolded meal, so I had mucky hands and no way of writing, so made no notes other than mental, but it really stood out to me. Torres are very Cariñena people, my three favourite Torres wines all contained either a majority of Carignan or a lot of it. I remember that the tannins were pretty smooth, it had black fruit characters, smoky notes and a lovely creamy ripe intensity – 89/100 points.

N.V. Miguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley 

A lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

Marimar Torres Sonoma, California – see my map of Sonoma here

2009 Marimar Torres Acero Don Miguel Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay
Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California

Acero means steel and this lovely Chardonnay is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Lovely nutty, creamy nose with mango & passionfruit nuances.
The palate is creamy with nice acidity just keeping the delicate butterscotch notes at bay. Stylish easy drinking, nicely balanced, very drinkable and high quality – 89/100 points.

2006 Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard Pinot Noir
Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California

Fresh nose, fragrant, cherry, delicate, touch of spice.
Lovely delicate red fruit, wood spice, leathery coffee notes, savoury, red cherry and that dried fruit sweetness typical of good Pinot.
Nice balance and good savoury intensity, nice acidity and weight of fruit. Delicate and very nice with a long finish and silky mouthfeel. I was very impressed by the balance and subtlety of this Pinot – 90/100 points.

Tasting room with a view – Priorat

So in conclusion, not only are the Torres people very nice, but their wines are every bit as good as their reputation would lead you to hope. What is more the Torres family seem determined not to sit on their laurels, but to build a bigger and better portfolio of good and great wines.

Information about stockists of Torres in the UK is available from John E. Fells and Sons Ltd.

12 thoughts on “A week with Torres

  1. Quentin, I particularly enjoyed reading this report. Miguel Torres was the person who encouraged me to take my first step into the world of wine about 30 years ago. I spent a week at the Torres Estates and other Estates in the Penedes region.

    I met him at a wine fair in Bristol and recall the conversation I had at the time. He had recently taken over running the business from his father and I was inspired by his passion and excitement for the future.

    Thank you for this interesting report. I must return to visit the Torres Estates!! :-)

    Regards,

    Chris

  2. Cheers Quentin! I also found it interesting that Fiona and I were both in Barcelona the week before you. I like the Brandy bottle in the shape of the Gaudi item. Very good!

    It was also very pleasant catching up with you after Tapas Fantasticas and our drink. Hope to catch up again soon.
    All the best!

  3. Hi Quentin
    I did not realise (or had forgotten!) how passionate you are about Spanish wines in general and Torres wines in particular. We lived in Catalonia for six months a few years ago and now import direct from a few wineries. We should get together to compare notes and taste a few wines , of course!
    Lindsay

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