In a survey of the top 50 most admired wine brands, there are many famous names. It is just like a Sunday afternoon pop chart with all the expected favourites and just a few surprises. The classics of France are there with Lafite at 42, Mouton Rothschild at 17 and Latour at 13. Chile’s Cono Sur comes in at 10, beaten by its stablemate Casillero del Diablo at six. From New Zealand, Cloudy Bay comes in at 14 and is pipped by Villa Maria at a very respectable four. But which is the brand that is admired most for its consistency, authenticity, and consumer appeal?
The answer is both surprising and totally understandable. The Spanish company Torres has come top for the second consecutive year, trouncing Penfolds, Guigal Tignanello and Yellowtail, as well as all the others I have mentioned
Its success is a surprise because Torres wines are so ubiquitous that they have almost become invisible. Nearly every supermarket in the land has a Torres wine – probably the clean, clear flavours of Viña Sol (£7.99 at Waitrose and elsewhere but often discounted to £5.99) and maybe the warm, red berry fruit of Sangre de Toro (£7.25, Asda). But there are serious, upmarket wines under the Torres banner too which are produced in tiny quantities. Milmanda (£30.20, Penistone Wine Cellars) is a single vineyard Chardonnay from the cool hills close to the Prades Mountains; the dense, powerful Salmos (£18.49, Waitrose) comes from the slate soils of Priorat while Grans Muralles (£58.80, Penistone Wine Cellars) is a complex, deep flavoured wine from a unique site in Conca de Barberà. There are Torres wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Jumilla and now a new venture in Galicia is making a stylish, but delicate Albariño.
This is why Torres deserves to be selected by the 200 buyers, sommeliers and journalists in this survey as their most admired brand. With key wines at the affordable end of the price scale and serious, well-made wines at the dinner-party and investment end of the scale, Torres over-delivers at all price points.
Torres was established in 1870 in Penedès. For the last 25 years the fourth generation of the family, Miguel A Torres, has been at the helm, but now he has relinquished his role as general manager to become president. This gives him more time to work on some of his favourite projects and talk about them, while his son, Miguel Torres Maczassek, has taken over the day-to-day running of the business.
Last week I met up with Miguel A Torres to talk about one of the major projects that have kept Torres at the forefront of wine for so long. “I have become the Indiana Jones of Catalan grape varieties,” he said with a smile. This quiet, alert man is an unlikely candidate for that swashbuckling Harrison Ford role, but over the last three decades he has helped sponsor and develop the re-discovery of 40 grape varieties.
“There used to be over 100 grape varieties in this region, but over time, and particularly during the phylloxera era, they disappeared. I feel that we have a historical and scientific responsibility to save these forgotten grape varieties. There may have been very good reasons why some grapes just fell from favour,” adds Miguel. “Winegrowing was basically an agricultural activity with a clear focus on volume; there was no real need to look for special quality aspects of a grape variety.”
But rather than let fashion and economics determine which grapes should be grown now, the Torres company has led the way in finding those old vines. “We told farmers that if they had an old vine they did not recognise they should call us.” Over the years, 40 distinct, old varieties have been rediscovered, then cultivated in the Torres laboratories and nurseries. Their characteristics have been researched and in some cases they have been grown in sufficient quantities to contribute significantly to commercial wines.
In front of me on the table was a glass of Querol, an old grape variety that has spent several years in the process, and is now taking its place again in a wine. “Querol is really unique because the masculine part of the vine is not very developed. This results in relatively small grapes that are extremely rich in extract and lots of colour, acidity and tannins. Querol adds freshness, great length and excellent acidity, resulting in a wine with good aging potential.”
In taste Querol has a dark earthy nose, with deep plummy fruit and clear freshness on the palate, but it isn’t a super-grape that will suddenly sweep the world. It was probably “lost” for a reason, not least because it has irregular bunches, low yield and a slight hollowness on the palate that requires another grape to fill in the gaps in the flavour profile. But it is worthwhile adding to a blend for its unique flavours and it now constitutes around 20 per cent of one of the top Torres wines, Grans Muralles. And if a grape can look over its shoulders it needs to. Previous new re-discoveries have been moved in and then out of the blend as their usefulness is assessed. Samsó was found, cultivated and given a chance but “it needed to become almost raisined before really showing its character”. Another long-lost grape, Garró, is still being assessed. “Why bother? Surely these grapes have died out for a reason,” I asked. “Some of these old varieties have unique properties that are worth investigating such as their ability to withstand drought and in these days when we talk about global warming, that may become significant,” said Miguel.
Finding old grapes is just one of the many projects that will continue to occupy his time. He is passionate about environmental issues such as water conservation, renewable energy and biodiversity and so Torres is probably one of the “greenest” wine companies on the planet – as well as the most admired.