Jefford on Monday: Torres and the existential struggle

Jefford on Monday: Torres and the existential struggle

Andrew Jefford finds a company in constant reinvention…

A rare moment: Miguel Torres, his son Miguel Junior and his daughter Mireia Torres, sitting together around the lunch table.  The schedules of the three seldom coincide.  We were discussing identity: a hot topic at present for Catalonia.  (The Catalunya DO, for example, is at present subject to informal boycott elsewhere in Spain since the secession crisis of October 2017.)

“We are not very political,” says Miguel Junior, with the calm affability which rarely seems to leave him.  “This is something we keep very private.  We have people on both sides of the Catalan independence debate in our company, but we just concentrate on working hard together.”

“What’s paramount,” adds his father, “is our European identity.  We couldn’t live without Europe.  We have to stay in Europe; we need Europe.  Now we have a more flexible government in Spain, maybe all this can be resolved.”  There is a picture of Barack Obama meeting Raúl Castro on the wall nearby.  “I like to show this picture of Obama and Castro, because it illustrates that you can sit at a table and resolve problems.  We are here to solve things, and to bring people together rather than separate them.”  It must have helped, of course, that the US and Cuban leaders were drinking Milmanda — and there is a historical twist, too: it was Jaime Torres’ Cuba-made fortune which initially built Bodega Torres back in 1870.  Arguments for reason, compromise and joint action are welcome in this summer of unreason and unilateralism.

I cannot think of a major wine company whose identity has changed more over the past three decades than Torres.  Branded wines made at scale from purchased grapes was the foundation laid by the previous generation: Viña Sol, Sangre de Toro, Coronas and Torres brandies.  Miguel Torres added a Chilean dimension, and began the creation of fine single-vineyard wines such as Milmanda and Mas La Plana.

And now?  You don’t shift the fundamentals overnight, of course, and Viña Sol and Sangre de Toro remain vital (and surprisingly subtle) brands.  But Torres is now well on the way to transforming itself into a cluster of individual and clearly differentiated wine estates, aimed squarely at the restaurant trade – as well as turning itself into the wine world’s most environmentally committed large-scale producer.

Climate change is viewed by the Torres family as an existential struggle.  “We would like the next generation to continue producing wines,” says Miguel Junior.  “If we cannot do that, we will have failed.”

The company has already invested 12 million euros in “photovoltaic panels, electric cars, biomass: anything that can reduce emissions.”  The target is a 30 per cent reduction by 2020.  Company thinking, though, goes much further than remedies.  Torres is intensively researching the carbon capture of the vast tonnages of CO2 produced in fermentation every year around the world.  “Nobody has done this yet,” exclaims Miguel with some animation.  “We had a presentation about this last October.  It can be done, and it will be fantastic for the wine industry.”

More than that, though, is the growing realisation that the fundamentals of wine production are changing, and in this respect, too, Torres is in mid-metamorphosis.

Back in the 1980s, advertisements in Catalan appeared in local newspapers.  “Bodegas Miguel Torres is undertaking a project of research and recuperation of ancestral Catalan varieties,” it read.  “If you know of any type of vine not coming from a customary variety and know where it can be found or someone who is growing it, please let us know.”

This began as a cultural project – but has now become a key part of the life-or-death struggle.  “The next wines in which I have all my hopes,” says Miguel Junior, “are the ancestral varieties.  Some of these came into being in the Medieval warm period; they ripen three weeks later than the varieties we are usually working with, and they retain their acidity.”  “There are more than 150 varieties that are approved for winemaking in Spain,” adds Mireia, “but 85% of the vineyards are planted with less than 10 varieties.  Some of the minority varieties are really interesting for the fight against climate change.”

Getting these varieties officially accepted is a long and painstaking process.  “It takes four years to convince the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture,” reports Miguel Junior, “then you need to show it to the Catalan government.  That takes another two years.  The Penedès Denominación needs convincing: another two years.  And of course if you plant in the wrong place, then you lose seven years.”  Even Miguel Junior says that it’s a project “for our children.”

Penedès has now approved two of these varieties, Forcada and Moneu, and Torres has now bottled the first production run of those as well as three other varieties: Pirene, Gonfaus and Querol (see notes below).  Another Torres climate-change initiative is the planting of vineyards at altitude – up to 1,000 m in Penedès and Ribera del Duero, and in Priorat (where Torres is now, with Álvaro Palacios, one of the two largest quality producers) up to 750 m.  Nothing at Torres is going un-thought or unexamined — and the company is large enough to contain multitudes.  The Jean Leon estate and its wines are still predicated on international varieties — since that was what made its original reputation, and that’s what its customers enjoy.

My notes on the Torres range are given below.  The two current generations have created wines of diversity, subtlety and finesse: fine-wine values, rather than the kind of ponderous and pretentious interpretation of terroir which can sometimes result when a producer becomes obsessed with its ‘icons’.  Maybe they can help save humanity, too.

Tasting Torres Past and Future 

Unreleased wines from new varieties: 

Forcada, Torres 2015

The white Forcada is grown in clay soils at around 550 m in the high Penedès; it ripens in October, and retains around 8 g/l of acidity as well as rarely exceeding 13%.  Pale gold in colour, with scents of wild grass meadows and gentle apricot fruit.  On the palate, it is vivid, tangy, bright, almost nutty: a true southerner but with ample aromatic presence.  More articulate than a variety like Bourboulenc, yet more structured than Garnacha Blanca.  The Torres family are considering the release of 100 cases or so at the end of 2018.  91 [90-92] points / 100

Pirene, Torres 2016

The red variety is planted at around 950 m near the Ermita San Miguel on the Tremp estate close to Pillars Jussà in Costers des Segre; it ripens in mid-October.  This barrel sample is deep but not opaque black-red in colour, with wild cherry and sloe fruits and a smooth, intense, vivacious flavour; the prominent acidity gives incision and poise; the fruits are qualified by a ripe leafiness or undergrowth-like freshness.  91 [90-92]

Moneu de la Bleda, Torres, Penedès 2017

From the first harvest for which this variety is approved in Penedès, and grown near the town of Querol itself, Moneu is redder and lighter in colour than Pirene, with sweeter, more fragrant scents.  On the palate, it’s a pungent, fresh, crunchy red wine, seemingly very ‘northern’ in style, with blackcurrant or redcurrant fruits. 90 [89-91] 

Gonfaus, Torres 2016

This red variety may in fact be female rather than hermaphroditic like most; further studies are underway.  It grows at 460 m in Osona in northern Catalonia, where winters are very cold and summers hot; harvest is at the end of September or early October. It’s the darkest of the three red wines, with black fruits infused with menthol, eucalyptus and pine.  On the palate, this is a serious, earthy, dense though not markedly tannic red wine with high acidity and black woodland fruits like damson and sloe.  Torres are contemplating using this as a blending grape for Purgatori once it has been accepted as a Penedès variety.    92 [91-94] 

Torres regional wines:

Purgatori, Torres, Costers del Segre 2014

At present, this is a blend of Carinyena, Garnatxa and Syrah grown in the olive country of Les Garrigues: tiny yields, from deep silty-clay soils.  It’s dark black-red, with less mentholated aromas than those of Gonfaus; there is nonetheless a resinous, almost Napa-like quality to the lush, deep black fruits.  There’s a mass of sweet fruit on the palate at present with much less acidity than Gonfaus, so I can see the logic for considering it as a potential blending addition. The tannins are soft and gentle, and there are some chicory-pine complexities to provide resolution for the sweet fruits; some spiciness, too. 14.5% 90

Mas la Plana, Torres, Penedès 2013

The ‘black label’ vineyards are situated in Pacs del Penedès, close to Vilafranca: 29 ha of unirrigated Cabernet Sauvignon on alluvial soils over sand and clay, generally harvested at the end of September.  It may not be an indigenous variety, and like so much Cabernet the vineyard suffers badly from trunk disease – yet this is still a superb wine: dark in colour, fragrant and enticing on the nose, svelte, poised and finally melting on the palate.  It’s less sweet overall than Purgatori, though the fruits have a rounded unction; it has more texture and structural depth as well as refinement.  It’s very ‘solar’ and Mediterranean, yet there’s a rich fleshiness to this Cabernet that is often missing, for example, in examples from Provence, which tend to hardness and dryness.  Don’t write off Cabernet in Catalonia just yet! 14.5% 94

Riserva Real, Torres, Penedès 2012

This wine comes from a more recently planted estate, les Arnes at Mediona around 25 km north from Pacs, on slaty soils; the Cabernet is blended with 10 per cent Merlot and 5 per cent Cabernet Franc, with a warmer fermentation, more extraction and a longer maceration.  It also has 100 per cent new oak compared to 70 to 80 per cent for Mas La Plana.  It’s saturated deep-red in colour, with remarkable perfumed refinement: dark black fruits with bay leaf, underbrush and cedar.  The palate is deep, sumptuous and long as well as layered and searching, and still seems remarkably youthful for a five-year-old.  It’s more concentrated and more structured than Mas la Plana, if not by the full price differential with that wine. Difficult to see Riserva Real as anything but a triumph, though: a beautiful wine of opulence and generosity, as well as grain and finesse.  14.5% 96

Grans Muralles, Torres, Conca de Barberà 2014

This is the Torres wine with maximum indigenous-grape penetration so far: the blend in 2014 combines 44 per cent Carinyena (for structure) with 31 per cent Garnatxa (perfume) and 17 per cent Querol (colour and acidity), plus five per cent Monastrell and three per cent Garró (to add layers).  It’s grown close to Milmanda but on a very different soil type: slates and granite gravels.  This dark black-red wine is a clear contrast to Mas La Plana: it smells wild and savoury, almost leathery, the fruits perfumed with juniper, cade and cystus.  On the palate, it carries the same print: wild dark fruits like sloe and elder, bittersweet, with monastic apothecary touches.  An exciting success, and it will be fascinating to see how this Catalan thoroughbred evolves in the years to come.  14.5%  95

Milmanda, Torres, Conca de Barberà 2015

Milmanda is grown in calcareous clay soils at 500 m close to the Castle of Milmanda; the 15 ha of vines were planted in 1980, and the wine is both steel- and barrel-fermented in French oak (60% new) with partial malolactic.  The aim is to make a Mediterranean Chardonnay that nonetheless has delicacy and poise.  In this it’s successful: Milmanda is a sweet-scented wine with a soft acid balance and attractive grain and texture; its apricot and peach fruit carries a trace of fennel and anis.  It doesn’t have much vinosity, or the vitality apparent in the reds from indigenous varieties – but it’s unquestionably a graceful and drinkable Chardonnay which remains true to its Catalan origins.  14%  90

Salmos, Torres, Priorat 2015

The first of the three Torres Priorat wines is made from 60 per cent Torres-grown fruit and 40 per cent bought fruit (this purchased percentage will drop); it’s a blend of 55 per cent Carinyena and 35 per cent Garnaxta with some Syrah to add lift and aromatic interest.  “It’s very important not to allow any raisins into the ferment,” says Torres’s Jordi Foraster, and to this end the company has bought one of only two Delta Vistalys optical sorting machines in the region. The resulting emphasis is on purity and freshness of fruit without any extravagance of oak, alcohol or tannin.  Fine value. too: these pure, fresh Priorat flavours cost only just over 20 euros locally.   14.5% 91

Perpetual, Torres, Priorat 2015

There are no more than 1,200 cases of this dramatic Priorat, produced exclusively from vineyards planted prior to 1945.  Until recently, it was made from purchased grapes alone, as Torres didn’t own vines that old – though recent vineyard purchases have changed that.  The blend of 80 per cent Carinyena and 20 per cent Garnatxa “isn’t a blend we have decided,” says Torres’ Jordi Foraster, “but what our forebears decided 80 years ago.  The reality is that Carinyena is the main variety here as it was the more regular producer, but they also wanted some Garnatxa, so they planted it all together.  It gives us a lot of work as we have to pick the Carinyena 10 to 15 days after the Garnatxa, plant by plant.”  It’s a dark though not opaque wine with complex scents of elderberry and damson with further notes of chestnut, black chocolate and fine leather.  On the palate, it is intense, deep, pure and dramatic: a dagger of fruit, honed by acidity, limpid, pure and long, structurally lighter than many of its peers but packed with perfumed refinement.  14.5%  94

 Santuari de la Rosa, Torres, Priorat 2016

This as-yet-unreleased wine comes from a 2.3-ha plot of very old Carinyena and Garnacha bush vines in Porrera; there will be just 170 cases.  The (elderly and heir-less) owner only consented to sell the plot to Torres as long as the family allowed him to continue working the vines.  It’s no deeper in colour than Perpetual, and gives off a cloud of light, fresh fruit perfumes.  There’s a perfection of fresh berry fruit on the palate, an exploding grenade of blackcurrant and damson: intensity and purity, drama and poise.  Structurally, though, this is a Priorat of lacy finesse.  As the acidity settles in the finish, a fruit sweetness returns which owes nothing whatsoever to the oak treatment.  There are fine tannins, too, but the excitement of the fruit throws them into shadow for the time being.  14.5% 94 [93-96]

Celeste, Torres, Ribera del Duero, Crianza 2015

This beautifully labelled wine draws on Torres’ own 35 ha of Ribera del Duero vineyards, sited at 895 m,  complemented by further grape purchases, though the aim is that the wine will eventually be made from Torres-grown fruit alone. It’s still more of an exercise in blackcurrant and black plum purity than the Manso de Velasco (see below): lean, lunging, sculpted, vividly balanced, with prominent acidity but restrained oak.  14.5% 90

Esplendor, Vardon Kennett 2013

There’s nothing on the label of this sparkling wine to say that it is either Cava or from Torres; for all that, it’s crafted from Catalan Pinot Noir (55 per cent) and Chardonnay (40 per cent) grown at 500 m in Penedès with just a dash of Xarello.  A great success: snow-clean, crisp, super-dry, with salty edges: invigorating and delicate.  12% 91

Manso de Velasco, Viñas Viejas, Torres, Chile 2012

This wine comes from ungrafted 120-year-old vines, and is at present bottled in very heavy glass, though the family are aware that such a bottle is off-message; it will be lightened for future vintages.  Even after five years, it’s still dark and deep purple-red, with fresh, leafy-curranty scents and poised, blackcurrant and bramble fruits which combine sweetness, unction and leafy freshness.  It’s been crafted and oaked with laudable restraint. 13% 90

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