VINA WITH VERVE

Whites and reds with real polish from the Spanish wine giants Torres
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The Independent Culture
THE TORRES wines I talked about last week range in price from low end to top-of-the-range, and I have a special affection for two of the cheapest whites: Vina Sol, and Vina Esmeralda. These are unorthodox blends that were, I believe, among the first of their kind. They've been imitated since but rarely equalled.

Vina Sol is made entirely from Parellada, one of the region's principal white grapes, and has wonderfully fresh, crisp flavours of pears and apples. Widely available in the 1997 vintage for pounds 4.49, it is one of the few Spanish whites I would happily drink as an aperitif (though I'd rather have it with mildly seasoned fish or chicken). Vina Esmeralda is an entirely different matter - Muscat and Gewurztraminer in proportions of 85/15. The wine was less dry and less acidic when I first drank it in the early 1990s than it is now, after a deliberate change of style. The change makes its floral Muscat character, with hints of gingery spice, better suited to drinking with food. A great wine for the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) contingent, and available from Threshers and elsewhere (96 vintage now giving way to 97) for around pounds 4.49.

Inhabiting a more exalted plane altogether is the company's most expensive white, the single-vineyard Milmanda Chardonnay. This is a wine that's hard to find but worth seeking out. I can't put hand on heart and swear that it's the greatest Chardonnay in its price range, around pounds 13.99, but I do know that it's hard to spend the same money on anything better from Burgundy or California. Creamy on the nose, sweet butteriness on the palate, citric finish - this is a wine to drink slowly, carefully. And preferably all by yourself.

Torres reds start slightly lower in price than whites, and end considerably higher. Starting at the top, Gran Coronas Mas la Plana is 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and capable of besting the best of Bordeaux - as it has done in blind tastings. At around pounds 21, the 1990 is currently drinking well but the 1994, when it becomes available, is the one to buy for laying down.

Other reds live in closer proximity to financial terra firma, and new vintages of two of them are coming on to the market now. The widely available Sangre de Toro 1996 is a 65/35 Garnacha/Carinena blend, given a total of 15 months in oak, and at pounds 5 or so it is well suited to serious everyday drinking. I would rather spend an extra pound or so for Gran Sangre de Toro, roughly the same blend but with more Garnacha and extra time in oak. The 1993 is from lower-yielding vines which are all Torres's own, and it is gripping stuff.

Better still, I'd wait a couple of years and spend more money for the 1994 vintage of Gran Coronas. Tasted side by side at the Torres winery, the 1993 had a cornucopia of berries 'n' cherries fruit resting on soft tannins, while the 94 showed both bigger tannins and softer fruit. This makes it a keeper in my book; something to put away for the Millennium? Or, for instant gratification, buy the still-available 1991 from Threshers and elsewhere.

But the best of Torres may be yet to come. This is another single-vineyard wine called Grandes Murallas 1996, a result of the experiments (reported last week) in going back to the future with traditional Penedes grapes. The grapes are Garnacha Negra, Garrut, Monastrell, Carinena. The wine was still in its infancy last autumn, but with pungent complex fruit that shows it is clearly destined for great things. When it comes on the market, I'll take a case.

Incidentally, Torres has a website at http://www.torres.es. Mark Palacio Balmer, one of the firm's public relations people, said he was looking to improve it. Since he is a graduate in computer studies, and since my last visit to the site brought a notice that it's being reconstructed, I can only assume improvements are on the way.

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