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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

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Towering Torres: Spain’s Mega Bodega is a Soaring Family-run Monument to Wine Quality Preparing for a Generational Changing of the Guard

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Bodegas Miguel Torres, S. A., the 138-year Catalan bodega founded in 1870, has not only long been one of the most important and certainly the largest wineries in Spain, it has also consistently been one of the most quality oriented as well as one of the most innovative. Its 66-year old President and Managing Director, Miguel A.Torres Riera, whose family winemaking roots can be traced to the 17th century, is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most important wine visionaries. Torres, who studied enology and viticulture in Burgundy and Montpelier, has been responsible for introducing a number of technological and marketing advances into Spain. Through his leadership and his writings—he is the author of several books on the wines of Spain and Cataluña—over the past four decades, he has been one of Spain’s most influential forces in bringing the country’s winemaking and viticulture into the modern age.

Miguel Torres Riera

There is a long standing, widely believed myth about winemaking that plays on the “little old winemaker me” concept and says “the smaller, the better.” But, the truth is that there are great small wine producers and some very bad small wine producers and the inverse is true about large wine producers: there are some very ordinary-to-mediocre large producers and some producers who make a lot of wine at the highest levels of quality. There are many examples of size married to quality in the wine world: the Champagne houses of France such as Bollinger, Roederer and Pol Roger; the great Symington family port lodges in Oporto; the cava producers of Cataluña, especially Codorníu; the large Rioja bodegas CUNE, Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Cáceres and Muga; the Sherry producers González Byass, Hidalgo and Osborne; and Robert Mondavi in California. But even in this privileged company, the Torres family winery operations, based in Cataluña, Spain just outside Barcelona in the Penedès wine region, stand out as one of the top mega size-quality marriages in the world.

In 2007, Bodegas Miguel Torres, billed some €200,000,000 in annual sales of wines from not only Penedès, but from the Catalan wine regions of Priorat, Conca de Barberà and Costers del Segre; from the Spanish regions of Ribera del Duero and La Rioja; and from California and Chile. The company prefers not to disclose annual case sales–“we don’t want consumers focuses on the number of boxes,” Miguel Torres Riera says--but the majority of the estimated millions of cases of wines Torres sells get excellent ratings at their respective price levels. And their top cuvees, including several single vineyard “finca” estate wines, including Milmanda (Chardonnay), Mas La Plana (Cabernet Sauvignon), Grans Muralles (five native varieties), Fransola ( Sauvignon Blanc), Mas Borràs (Pinot Noir) and Reserva Real (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) consistently rate at or near the top of their respective categories. The winery's new wines from Priorat, Salmos and Salmos Perpetual are already making their mark as some of the most elegant wines of the region. In fact for these top finca wines, Torres recently inaugurated their state-of-the-art showcase, €12,000,000 winery, Bodega Waltraud, named for Miguel Torres’s wife.

Torres Salmos & Salmos Perpetual

Remarkably, Torres accomplishes their quality goals without exaggerating current dubious “taste” parameters that call for overripe fruit, low acid, high alcohol and the horrid abuse of new oak that has become the dominate flavor in many high scoring modern wines. “We don’t follow these tendencies, Torres Riera says, “For us, the wood has to be in equilibrium with the wine, never as the dominant flavor factor, which has no place in our wines. Nor, for my palate, do I want wines that pass the 14% alcohol level and I certainly don’t want wines of 15-16%. That is not my idea of wine.”

In fact, the common thread that runs through all of Torres wines is not slavishness to a so-called “modern” taste profile, nor the sameness of a house style, but a method, an approach and a parameter of qualities and characteristics that they look for in each wine. Miguel Torres Riera explains, “Our finca wines are the result of many years of work, matching the right grapes to the right soil and climate and evolving a distinct style for each of the wines. And every wine has its own winemaker. We want tipicity, a wine that is typical of its region, soil, climate and terruño (terroir, or sense of place). In reds, the fruit should stand out, but it should be in harmony with the oak, and have round, smooth, not astringent tannins and whites should have the aromas of the fruit from which they came.”

This philosophy and quality orientation was an achievement that did not come easy. Miguel Torres Riera’s father ran Torres, then focused on the mass sales of the firm’s famous inexpensive red wine, Sangre de Toro, which became world-famous and instantly recognizable because of the little plastic fighting bull dangling from the neck of every bottle. Forget the play on the Hungarian Egri Bikaver name and the confusion with the black-red, powerful wines of Toro in Castilla-León, this Spanish “bull’s blood” was the engine pulling the whole Torres train. And padre Don Miguel Torres Carbó, who during the Spanish Civil War had his winery blown out from under him–along with one of history’s biggest wooden wine vats, big enough to hold a banquet for King Alfonso XIII inside. Don Miguel had painstakingly rebuilt his business and hit the international markets selling his Sangre de Toro around the world and was a no nonsense iron-fisted ruler of his little Catalan wine fiefdom.

As Miguel, Jr., as he was then called, came of age, studied enology in France and began to earn his wine spurs, he was often at loggerheads with his father as he tried to implement his ideas which would eventually modernize Torres, but more importantly, helped to modernize the entire Spanish wine industry. Young Torres’s ideas would include importing and planting foreign varietals, as their neighbor, expatriate Spaniard and Los Angeles restaurateur to the stars, Jean León, had already done in the 1960s, when he smuggled in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay vines, declaring at the border that the were to used to make lamp bases.

Convincing his father (and the rest of Spain for that matter) was no easy task, but young Miguel pushed ahead to put forward his ideas and gradually gained his father’s acquiescence with a series of successes, not the least of which was the triumph of his Cabernet Sauvignon-based Mas La Plana 1970 in a famous Gault-Millau Paris Wine Olympiad tasting in 1979 in which the Torres wine topped Château Latour and a number of famous châteaux. This tasting helped legitimize Miguel Torres Riera’s modernization efforts and bestowed world-wide fame and respect on him.

Torres Riera recalls what the Spanish wine scene was like during the 1970s, “In general, Spanish wines, including those in Cataluña, were being produced by barely adequate methods. Most of the wine produced in that period was destined for national markets; the great potential of export markets was just beginning to be understood. And the sales of Spanish wines sometimes suffered from boycotts because of the internal political situation during those years (the waning years of the Franco dictatorship). We were at the end of one epoch and at the threshold of another. However, by the end of the 1970s, modern technologies such as fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats began to be incorporated into Spanish winemaking. Because of our proximity to France and the open-mindedness of Catalan winemakers who saw that new winemaking technology could produce better wines and thus open more markets, the majority of technological advances during these years entered Spain through Cataluña, specifically in Penedès.”

Much of this modernization was possible because of the efforts and example of Miguel Torres Riera and it was not limited to technological advances and better winemaking techniques, Torres also recognized that the upward trajectory of the quality curve had to begin in the vineyards. “In the 1970s, the tendency of most producers was to work with high-yield grape varieties,” Torres recalls. “The concept of the pago (single vineyard) and terroir was almost non-existent. In Cataluña, we began to plant different varieties, including foreign grapes, which adapted well because of the diversity of micro-climates and difference in altitudes in the region. Little by little, new quality-oriented wines began to go well beyond what had been produced before.

Torres Vinoteca in Barcelona Displays the Broad Range of Torres Wines

Spain, which has been always the sleeping giant of the old world, has vineyard sites of great quality and an exceptional climate that permits grapes to ripen very naturally, which is to say that we have the best conditions for cultivating grapes and, thus, the potential for producing wines of very high quality. Spanish bodegas have made big investments in their vineyards and in new winemaking technology and our enologists are much better trained now, so we have seen significant improvements. Among Old World wine-producing countries, Spain has gained recognition for the quality of its wines. This is not a passing fad, it a trend that is here to stay.”

Looking back over his more than four decades of winemaking, Torres considers his achievements in the 1970s–leading the changes, innovation, trying to motivate his employees and Catalan and Spanish winemakers in general to make changes and introducing foreign varieties–to be among his greatest contributions to the world of Spanish winemaking. In the 1980s, as more modern techniques began to take hold, Torres continued trying to improve and evolve his wines by experimenting with recuperating ancient Catalan varieties, which he continues to research. This resulted in the development of one of the winery’s top red wines, Grans Muralles, a blend of five native varieties–Monastrell, Garnacha Tinta, Garró, Samsó and Cariñena--grown in slate soil on a single vineyard site in Conca de Barberà.

And, in the 1990s, Torres, who has never been an admirer of heavily oaked wines, began to focus on the quality of the wood in which his wines were aged. He began to work with used barrels, promoted contests for the best barrel producers, developed techniques to prevent bad barrels and employed infrared systems to detect and track the quality and origin of the oak. He has developed an ever-evolving system for oak aging his wines. He says, “Sometimes we age wines 6 months, 12 months, up to a maximum of 18 months. Wines like our top of the line Mas de la Plana and Grans Muralles are aged 18 months in new oak (which unlike some wineries is not in new virgin oak barrels that have not be properly seasoned before use). After the barrels are used for our top single vineyard wines, they go for the reservas, so a Gran Coronas (Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo), for example may only be 30% new oak. From ageing wines such as Gran Coronas and Gran Sangre de Toro (Garnacha and Cariñena), the barrels are used to age other wines and are used for six-to-seven years, then they are used to age our brandies.”

Still indefatigable in the twilight of his career as the Director of Torres, Miguel Torres is taking the lead and tackling yet another big challenge to wine in Spain (and elsewhere), climate change. “Climate change is what preoccupies me most. We are making changes and investing €10,000,000 to study what we need to do to deal with climate change. For instance, we are trying to delay maturation as much as we can, so we can take advantage of cooler nights later in September. Formerly, wanted to have the grapes mature as early as possible because of the possibility of rain, botrytis, mildiu, etc., but now we try to delay maturation through management of the leaf canopy, using good later maturing vine stock selection that can delay maturation almost two weeks more than standard ones. We leave more leaves instead of pulling them. We are paying more attention to finding higher altitude vineyards and planting them where there can be a degree or two of difference in temperature. One of our prime new sites is our high altitude Tremp Sant Miquel vineyard in the denominated region of Costers del Segre in Lleida province, located in the Catalan Pyrenees at an altitude of 850-1200 metres above sea level and among the highest vineyards in Spain. We have planted 132 hectares of Merlot and Chardonnay.”

So, why am I reviewing the career of Miguel Torres Riera? Because this man has had a monumental influence on the evolution and modernization of the Spanish wine industry, is a widely respected, revered and emulated figure in the world of Spanish wine and his reign as the king figure on the Spanish wine scene is drawing to a close just after the end of this decade. Now approaching the age of 67, Miguel Torres will step down when he reaches the family council mandated retirement age of 70 (his father ran the company until his death at 82). Miguel’s children, Miguel Torres Maczassek, and, with his sister Mireia, an enologist who is the technical director, are in line to take over the reins of the Torres empire in a generational changing of the guard. when their father reaches retirement age.

Miguel Torres Maczassek

I asked Miguel Torres Maczassek to reflect upon his and his sister’s planned ascension to leadership positions at Torres. “Both my sister and I have a great deal of illusion about the project, moving into leadership roles at Torres. Especially since there is a great difference between our generation and the third and fourth Torres winemaking generations of my grandfather and father. My father had big problems with his father, he was the patriarch and he wanted to control everything,” Torres said. “My father has learned to have confidence in us, his children, and he has permitted us to work as we see fit. He gives us some leeway with our projects. Sometimes we make mistakes, but we also get it right sometimes, too. But, we know that our father has a lot of experience, so we usually ask him what he thinks of something before going ahead. My sister and I have it very clear that we have to opt for high quality wines for the future and at the same time for the best possible value for our wines.”

Miguel Torres Maczassek, talking about the Torres winery’s size, philosophy and the generational changing of the guard in an interview with this writer in July at Monvinic wine bar in Barcelona, summing up “I would say that Torres is something quite special. There are other wineries around the world like the Rothschilds, the Drouhin family, and others who make somewhat less or more wine than we do, but this is not really the most important point. We only grow as a company when we are sure that we can control the quality and have the qualified people and quality control mechanisms in place to make good wines. If not, we will not grow just to be growing so we can be bigger. Our idea is to achieve growth correctly in the direction of higher quality.”

Torres Maczassek, who spent several years preparing by running Torres’s Jean León winery and then moving to the parent company to direct their marketing effort, when asked how he felt about filling his father’s formidable shoes, told me, “Of course I want to be the Director of Torres, but it is not enough just to want the job, you have to demonstrate that you can do the job well. It is planned for my sister and I to take over, but that will depend on the shareholders, all members of the family, who will have to approve us. I have three more years ahead to develop projects and continue preparing myself to handle the position. I have a lot ahead of me.”

By Gerry Dawes

About the author

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.

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