After spending the day seeing ancient artifacts, cutting edge winery techniques, and tasting the top wines from one of the most prominent and famous wineries in Spain (let alone the world), it seemed that sitting there during our typical Spanish late lunch, letting it all soak in, that it could not get any better… and then the man, the living legend, Miguel A. Torres, walked up to our table. We had been touring just a sliver of the incredible history and operations of Bodegas Torres, in Penedès, Spain, enjoying a lunch with Christoph Kammüller, Torres’ brilliant Director of International Communications, when an elegantly dressed gentleman approached our table – when I looked up and saw that it was Mr. Torres, I instantly felt the wind knocked out of me. I have had the great pleasure to meet many greats of the wine world, but Torres is a man whose family had been able to create an empire under the toughest conditions.
Miguel A. Torres
Torres was a gentle man with an overall graceful quality that seemed to elevate our conversation by his mere presence. He shared his story with us, which started before he was born… when his father was a young man, basically running for his life during the time that Franco ruled Spain, starting in 1936. His father, Miguel Torres senior, was an educated man and was considered a threat to the fascist dictator, so he was eventually captured and sent to one of Franco’s concentration camps. I have to admit that unitl I heard this story, I had no idea that Spain had concentration camps. Later, I looked up reports talking about the crimes against humanity that were committed by Franco against his own people – it is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 were killed, but the number of those who survived their torture while imprisoned cannot even be estimated. The Catalonia region was especially targeted by the Franco regime and was repressed until his rule ended when he died in 1975.
Miguel Torres senior was fortunate to have a friend help get him out of the concentration camp. He returned to Catalonia where his family had a winery in Vilafranca del Penedès – it had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).
Taking advantage of the fact that France was under Nazi control at the time, Torres senior started promoting his wines in America during World War II. His son, Miguel A. Torres, would follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the business in 1962 after studying both oenology and viticulture. He continued helping with his father’s dream to make world class wine, while promoting Spain to the world and specifically promoting the Catalonia region that had been through so much. In 1991, his father passed away and Miguel A. Torres became the President and Managing Director of Bodegas Torres.
We first visited their visitor center, in Pacs del Penedès, to see the glorious legacy of the Bodegas Torres history. Then we took a stop to see all the various experiments that they are conducting, from soil analysis, the recovery of obscure local varieties, to figuring out ways to combat CO2 levels such as using algae – which has not proven useful at this moment, but they are seeking out every possible solution to be kinder to the environment. Bodegas Torres began organic farming back in 1975, an auspicious year since it was the end of Franco’s rule, and they started doing it long before it became fashionable. Torres’ numbers with regards to sustainability are off the charts, as they aim to increase their recycling of treated water to 40%, have 45 hybrid cars (with Tesla charging stations) at their wineries, enough solar panels to produce 50% of the hot water for their bottling plant, and they protect 4571 acres (1,850 hectares) of forests and organically cultivate 4942 acres (2,000 hectares) of their own vineyards.
We then visited their newest winery, La Bodega Waltraud, designed to near perfection with an external shape that harmoniously blends into the surrounding nature and the internal construction that creates an ideal aging environment for their best wines – lacking light and not allowing any type of vibration. The winery is named after Torres’ greatest treasure, his wife, Waltraud Maczassek – originally from Germany. Waltraud is an artist and visitors can see her art displayed around the winery, giving a sense of passion to such a technically precise space. The winery has all the latest goodies for making outstanding, visceral as well as intellectually pleasing wine: optical sorter, amphorae (anfora) vessels, and oak tanks that were designated for specific plots, etc. It was glorious to behold a winery that strived for excellence of function as well as beauty.
Part of the Torres legacy extends beyond their own blood, including close friends such as Jean Leon. Before visiting Torres, we went to the Jean Leon winery, also in Penedès, which was started by a man who overcame many obstacles to ultimately become an important figure in Hollywood, as well as being a great friend to the Torres family.
Jean Leon was originally given the name Ceferino Carrión at birth, in 1928, and was raised dirt poor in a large family in Spain’s north coast. Tragedy hit his family early with the loss of his father and eldest brother, and considering the dangerous times that eventually came with Franco’s rule, Jean Leon decided the only way to make money for himself and his family was to try to make it to America. He eventually took on the name Jean Leon as many Americans could not pronounce his name; plus, it was symbolic that he would leave the degradation of his past behind and open himself to the possibilities of the future.
Jean Leon eventually ended up in Hollywood, California, working in restaurants and befriending many of the top stars during the time. He opened the world famous Hollywood restaurant La Scala and was supposed to originally partner with his friend James Dean, who tragically died before he could see their joint dream come true. He regularly sent lunches to Marilyn Monroe and later had his wines served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony.
Jean Leon started his winery in 1963 because he was not happy with the wine he was serving at La Scala and thought this would be a great way to reconnect to Spain, bring his high standards that he already had for customer service and food to wine, and bring his love of Spain back to his adopted home in Hollywood. Like Torres, he was an innovator who was one of the first to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Spain as well as obtain a single vineyard wine certification, Vi de Finca in Catalan.
Jean Leon was a great patron of the arts and every vintage of his “Vinya La Scala” Gran Reserva is now commemorated with artwork on the label. He was also a man who cherished his friendships, and towards the end of his life was planning a new restaurant on an island in Thailand that he fell in love with… he envisioned he and his long time friends making more fantastic memories together in paradise. But he knew that dream would never be realized when he was given the news that he was gravely ill and would only have a couple years to live. He turned to the Torres family to ask if they would purchase his winery, keeping his legacy alive, and so they did in 1994. His winery still continues today as a great tribute to Jean Leon with his wines made in the strict standards that he always employed himself when he was alive.
Gratitude for Each Day
Some people remarked that it was not typical for Miguel A. Torres to come to lunch while media people were there visiting. Torres expressed how his son and daughter were the new generation and they were gearing things for the future, such as wanting to use more indigenous varieties. And so, I think he is at the point in his life where he would like to pass on to people the most important part of his family’s legacy… which started with his father. Miguel Torres senior was able to survive something that many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen were not able to survive. So often I think of the people I have seen taken in the prime of their life… they were good people… people who did everything right, they had everything to live for… why them and not me? Torres and Jean Leon did not dwell on their misfortunes because they knew that each day was a gift that many did not get to enjoy, and they made sure that every day of their life was one that was worth living.
All of the Below Wines were Tasted on April 25th, 2017
Formal Tasting of Jean Leon Wines:
-2016 “3055” Chardonnay, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. No MLF. Two months partial aging in oak. A white chalky intensity with lemon rind and a touch of white flowers. 3055 was the taxi cab license number that Jean Leon worked under during his time in New York City – before moving to Hollywood.
-2015 “Vinya Gigi” Chardonnay Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. Six months in French oak. Named after Jean Leon’s daughter and coming from a 12 acre (5 hectare) single vineyard. Richer body and aromas of hazelnut and marzipan with ripe apples.
-2013 “Vinya Palau” Merlot Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Merlot from a 25 acre (10 hectare) single vineyard with low yields. The name of this wine pays homage to Jean Leon’s home town. Gorgeous notes of lavender and lemon verbena with spicy plum pie.
-2011 “Vinya Le Havre” Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc from a 47 acre (19 hectare) vineyard. Named after the French port of Le Havre, where Jean Leon stowed away trying to get to America – a sailor discovered him but decided to keep him concealed – he never forgot that generosity. Black raspberry with autumn leaves and a slight grip on the palate that added another nuance to the juicy body.
-2009 “Vinya La Scala” Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a 20 acre (8 hectare) vineyard named after his beloved restaurant. The 1975 vintage was served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration – a great moment for Spanish wine. A graceful Cabernet Sauvignon that shows black currant leaf and attractive fresh blackberries; although there is plenty of ripe fruit, there is an overall restrained, linear quality with fine tannins.
Tasting at La Bodega Waltraud:
-2016 Waltraud Riesling, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Riesling. Inspired by Miguel A. Torres’ wife, Waltraud Maczassek, from Germany yet she made her home in Penedès with her husband – the label is one of her own drawing that depict the sensation of this wine. These grapes are planted in the Upper Penedès where there are cooler micro-climates. Wonderful balance between sugar and acidity as it seems dry although off-dry with some residual sugar. Jasmine and orange blossom perfume this wine, offset with bright flavors of lemon confit.
Formal Tasting of Torres Wines Before Lunch:
-2014 Milmanda, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. 2014 was a different vintage for reds because of too much rain, but with extremely strict selection (only used 1/3 of their harvest) they were able to produce enchanting whites such as from the Milmanda vineyards. Pristine white peach flavors with stony minerality and a creamy texture that still had marked acidity on the long, refined finish.
-2012 Mas La Plana, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mas La Plana is a prestigious single vineyard of 72 acres (29 hectares). This wine has always been a textbook example of why Cabernet Sauvignon can excel as a single varietal wine in warm weather – the first vintage of this wine dates back to 1970. A multi-layered wine that shows such complexity as fresh leather and sweet tobacco, while wrapped in juicy blackberry goodness. The well-manicured tannins melt into the alluring body of this wine.
-2013 Perpetual, Priorat DOQ, Catalonia, Spain: 90% Cariñena and 10% Garnacha coming from vines that range between 80 to 100 years old and are grown on steep, rocky slopes. This is a smoldering wine that slowly reveals its intoxicatingly smoky aromas, with notes of broken slate, powerful black cherry jam flavors and firm structure that gives drive and elegance to this opulent wine.
-2010 Grans Muralles, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia: Blend of Garnacha, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Querol (a rescued local variety), Cariñena and Garró (another rescued local variety). Querol has small berries and offers lots of acidity – also the thick skin makes it quite challenging to break them, and Garró has no pits and gives intense floral notes. This wine has a great balance of savory and sweet with violet, tree bark and an explosion of creme de cassis, with mouth watering acidity along the prolonged finish.
The Muralles vineyards used to surround the walls of the historical Cistercian monastery of Poblet and today this wine still pays tribute to the ancestral varieties of Spain.
-2010 Reserva Real, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. At first, I was captivated by the smell of sautéed tarragon with cocoa powder; then went deeper with toasted oak and black currant that was superbly supported by the fine tannins – and yes, a jaw dropping-ly expressive finish.
The Reserva Real – Royal Reserve – was created in honor of the visit of HM Juan Carlos – then the King of Spain – to the Torres winery in 1995 to mark its 125th anniversary. The grapes come from their small vineyard of (4 hectares) in Agulladolç, showcasing the Silurian slate soil which is unique to Penedès.
Tasting of Torres Wines during Lunch
–Santa Digna Estelado Rosé Sparking, Maule Valley, Chile: 100% País. This is just one of the examples how the Torres family was able to pioneer quality winemaking in other countries, such as Chile. País is an old variety that dates back to being planted in Chile around the 16 century, believed to come from Peru, and it was not taken seriously until Torres started making this delightful, traditional sparkling wine from it. Delicate bubbles with lively fruit of wild strawberries layered with toasted notes. A lovely sparkler for a modest price.
-2013 Torres Purgatori, Costers del Segre DO, Catalonia, Spain: Blend of Cariñena, Garnacha and Syrah from the high altitude vineyards of Costers del Segre. A rich wine giving generous fruit and spice yet still having lots of freshness.