Drinking with a legend: Miguel A. Torres

Source: http://www.playhousewinefest.com

Miguel A. Torres, born in 1941, is one of the most celebrated wine icons in the world. He has won numerous accolades including the prestigious Decanter Man of the Year award in 2002. Yet, despite all his fame and the success of the Torres corporation, he is remarkably down-to-earth, humble, and lovingly self-deprecating. We were fortunate enough to learn more about him at the 2011 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival as he answered questions from moderator Anthony Gismondi for an event titled “The Legacy of a Spanish Visionary”. Whoever comes up with the titles for these events is no casualty of hyperbole.

The session started off with a video that would not be out of place in a corporate investor roadshow, outlining the achievements and grandeur of the Torres enterprise. There is plenty for Torres to brag about. Since 1870, the company has been passed down from generation to generation within one family (with Miguel A. Torres representing the 4th generation). Worldwide, they operate over 2,000 hectares of vines (or about half the total plantings of British Columbia). Their wines are exported to over 230 countries. In 2010, Torres was ranked as the 11th most powerful spirits & wine brand in the world and the most powerful in Europe.

Torres & Gismondi

Despite the size and recognized influence of Torres, they have stressed a reverence for the heritage of Spanish wine and the tradition of their vineyard. Their vineyards are largely organic or under the process of being certified, using no chemicals or insecticides following the principles of integrated viticulture. When questioned about biodynamic winemaking, he replied that they were not interested, but he respects the practice and thinks it suits smaller growers. “How do we schedule 30 winery workers by the movement of the moon?” he quipped. That said, the Torres vineyard in Sonoma County will be moving to biodynamic viticulture. There is a corporate pragmatism befitting a company of their size, yet no visible desire to become a large Cali-esque, industrial bulk wine eyesore.

With regards to bottle closures, he stated that he is a big fan of the Stelvin (aluminum screw cap) for all their wines that are meant to be drunk young. For the heartier reds meant for cellaring, they are sticking to the tradition of a cork. He even joked that on those nights when his wife is out and he finds himself alone at home, he prefers a screwcap as he finds a cork too difficult to open at his age. Hardly surprising for a man approaching his 70th year, at which point he will retire from day-to-day operations to enjoy a life of grandchildren and sport.

As a young winemaker in the 1960′s, Miguel A. Torres witnessed the transformation of the Spanish wine industry from a forgotten backwater of colonialism into a thriving world player. Personally, he was quick to embrace New World ideas such as stainless steel fermentation vats which allow cooler fermentation of white wines leading to the retention of aromatics. He has been keen to experiment throughout his career, adding several international varieties to his vineyards in Spain, such as Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot. He eventually threw in the towel on the possibility of his vineyards successfully producing imports such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. The tradition of the Spanish vineyard has rarely been tampered with though, with low density plantings of dry harvested old vines responsible for the character that he strives to bring through to the bottle.

There is one act of Miguel A. Torres that most exemplifies his title as a visionary within the wine industry. Throughout the 20th century, the country of Chile struggled as a wine producer due to bureaucratic regulations and high taxes. However, he saw a diamond in the rough and in 1979 he was the first foreigner to set up shop in Chile. What attracted Torres? The high altitude, cool climate, disease-free vineyards, and the tremendous knowledge of the local farmers in their vines and viticulture. It was the opening of the floodgates as many foreign wineries soon followed including Robert Mondavi, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, and many others. He is loathe to stand still, and is currently growing Pinot Noir high in the hills of the Chilean coast, near the Pacific Ocean. No doubt, a practice that others in the industry will be quick to imitate.

What about the wine? Well, it almost felt secondary to the enjoyment of the discussion. During the session, we were served ten different wines from Torres, including the vineyards in California and Chile. There is an excellent variety of styles and price points within the Torres line. One of our favorites was the 2010 Viña Esermalda which Gismondi suggested as made with Vancouver in mind. The citrus and stonefruit flavours from the Moscatel and Gewürztraminer would pair elegantly with most Asian dishes we find here. It’s no surprise to find food-friendliness in their wines. As Miguel A. Torres humorously stated with his literal translation, those who do not consider wine when making food are, “not my piece of cake”.

We were blown away by the 2008 Salmos from the hills of Priorat, where the steepness and difficulty of the terraces make production costs over 3 times higher than their other wines. If that’s true, then Torres is willing to cut profits in order to deliver value to their customers. At $38, this wine drinks like one twice its price, with complexity, richness, and balance of juicy black fruits, minerality (from the slate soil), and a long length. A must buy.

Another favorite from the session was the 2005 Grans Muralles, composed of Monastrell, Garnacha Tinta, and several other varieties. These are all grown in a single vineyard dating from the Middle Ages, and the wine tastes just as intriguing as the historical significance. It’s complex, rugged, and rustic, with a balance of black fruit, earth, and herbaceousness. At $65 it’s worth a try.

The remaining wines we tasted all shared an authenticity of Spanish origin, and a distinct preference, as stated by Miguel A. Torres to “let the fruit come first and go easy on the oak”. Regardless of your price range, from $15 to $65, there is excellence and value in the Torres range.

What will happen next year when Miguel A. Torres retires? It’s one of the most asked questions in the wine industry. Will his son, Miguel Torres Jr, succeed him, or his daughter, Mireia Torres? (His son is currently running Torres’ Chilean operations while his daughter is the company’s technical director.) Regardless of who it is, our money is on the heritage, legacy, and excellence of this great Spanish family continuing from strength to strength.

4 comments to Drinking with a legend: Miguel A. Torres

  • Brilliant article guys, very well done. I must admit I absolutely love the Grans Muralles.

  • Great article! I agree, the wines were almost secondary to the enjoyable conversation & easy, natural charm of Senior Torres!

  • Hi, it was nice to meet you in Diploma class tonight! Salmos is an amazing wine – one of my faves from this year’s Playhouse for sure! Torres’ Celeste from Ribera del Duero is also another winner and I think it’s even more afforable, like $25? Great blog by the way! :)

  • Hola! I’ve been following your weblog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Tx!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the excellent work!

Wine truths

“I am certain that the good Lord never intended grapes to be made into grape jelly.”
by Fiorello La Guardia

Wine Ratings

★☆☆☆☆ - Poor quality. Avoid. Save your money. Between 80-84 points.

★★☆☆☆ - Average quality or poor value. Between 84-88 points. Some expensive wines are downgraded for bad value.

★★★☆☆ - Good. Between 88-92 points. Or a good value on the lower end of the point scale.

★★★☆☆ - Excellent quality. Between 92-96 points. Or a cheap yet good quality wine which is excellent value.

★★★☆☆ - Outstanding, best examples in the world. Between 96 and 100 points. A perfect wine.