Wine: Branded For Life

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; Well known wine names don't always mean a lack of taste or integrity
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WINE IS made in small parcels by dedicated individualists who prune their vines themselves and decide when to pick by using the same intuitive system as granddad's. They don't care about making money, and they don't sell to anyone they don't like. They have never heard the word "marketing". They never wear a tie.

Ha! Did I get you going there for a minute? Welcome to the real world, the world of stainless steel and refractometers and computers. And welcome, most of all, to the world of brands. Everything seems to be a brand nowadays, even in the wine business. Wine-branding is usually attributed to New World marketeers, the wizards who have turned names like Gallo, Mondavi, Hardy's and Penfolds into huge commercial successes: consumers see the name and trust it because it's familiar. In some cases, of course, it will also guarantee good wine.

A few European examples qualify as brands: Moet et Chandon, and their prestige cuvee Dom Perignon; George Duboeuf, the so-called King of Beaujolais; Mouton anything. The brand may be attached to good or indifferent bottles, but most important of all, from their owners' point of view, the names are known. And people buy them because they recognise them.

The name Miguel Torres might not be as famous as that of Dom Perignon, even though his family firm sells consistently good wines on an industrial scale. This is an un-sexy part of the wine industry, but an important one. In a world where the choice of wines has become forbiddingly diverse, there's a lot to be said for knowing a name and sticking with it when in doubt.

The Torres story is well known: after studying chemistry in Barcelona and then oenology and viticulture in Dijon, Miguel returned in 1962 to the family bodega in Vilafranca del Penedes, near Barcelona. The firm had been around since the 18th century, selling brandies as well as wine, but Miguel brought it decisively into the modern era. He planted French varieties alongside the traditional Tempranillo, Parellada etc, experimented with new blends, and installed the full panoply of equipment for making, storing and testing. His efforts leapt to prominence in 1979, when his best red, Gran Coronas 1970, won top marks in a blind tasting conducted in France.

Today Sr Torres, a man of professorial bearing who tastes with meditative concentration, sells his wines, including those from subsidiaries in Chile and California, in 107 countries. They could sell more than they make, and they are encouraging local growers with price guarantees so they can expand production. But they never cut corners on quality even as they try to cut costs. The outside growers are encouraged to cut yields and reduce their use of chemicals to control pests and fungus - a major concern of Miguel, who has bought no fungicides, he says, since 1993.

They never stop experimenting: the winery includes a vineyard planted with single rows of varietals from all over Europe, which they use to blend tiny cuvees for research purposes. They are also experimenting with indigenous varietals, ironic for the company that brought Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to the Penedes.

A visit to the Torres winery is a sobering experience. The plant occupies a site the size of a large factory. Some of the storage vats have a capacity of 35,000 litres. At the bottling plant, I saw shipments earmarked for the UK, Denmark, Illinois, Puerto Rico. This is an international brand.

Is that a bad thing? Not when the quality is there. Obviously, it varies from year to year just as it does with any wine. Jaume Rovira, winemaker at the Torres-owned Jean Leon winery, says: "We elaborate on what the vines give us, we don't make the wine." Next week I'll pick out a few of my favourites from the current Torres range.