Wine: All hail the king of Spain

Torres has kept tradition alive while marching in step with the New World

Rioja, sherry and cava are Spain's three best-known wines. Yet the figure that towers over Spanish wine doesn't have a winemaking hand in any of these three great vats. Miguel Torres is Torres, the firm that lives up to its name, with production of 33 million bottles of wine, 9 million of brandy and an array of brands that would make even an Aussie company turn green. Torres, based at Vilafranca del Penedès near Barcelona, is Spain's biggest family-owned producer of wine, and its most profitable exporter.

While the likes of Bull's Blood and Blue Nun tarnished the concept of wine brands, Torres has flourished because it never forgot that to succeed, a brand should be a reliable guarantee of quality. The importance of that ideal was drummed into the young Miguel from the early 1960s, when his father decreed that every bottle produced would carry the Torres name and no one else's. At a time when the foundations of European wines were being shaken by commercially astute brands such as Jacob's Creek and Kumala, getting in early helped Torres to keep tradition alive while marching in step with the New World.

Like his autocratic father, Torres junior was an innovator, but in different ways. Strongly influenced by his studies at Dijon in 1959, he returned to Spain in 1962 to pioneer a dozen foreign grape varieties, among them chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Cool fermentation in stainless steel and new oak were as alien at the time as black magic, but their introduction led to fresher, fruitier-tasting wines which were instantly lapped up by customers overseas. Even today, Torres's Viña Esmeralda has been given a new lease of life by the introduction of the screwcap.

Torres's faith in cabernet sauvignon was vindicated when the 1970 Torres Gran Coronas Black Label (now Mas La Plana) knocked Château Latour and other Bordeaux icons off their perch in a 1979 tasting - in Paris. Certainly it was cabernet sauvignon that gained Torres its deserved recognition on the world stage. But apart from that particular wine, neither cabernet nor chardonnay were styles on which future Torres brands were to hang their sombreros.

Instead, after setting up a winery in Chile's Curico Valley in 1979, he started planting vines a decade ago in Priorat, Spain's exciting new region for full-blooded reds. He now has more than 100 hectares there with the first wine made from syrah and grenache grapes, as yet unnamed, to be released later this year. More recently, Torres has been instrumental in re-introducing native varieties into Catalonia. From unheard-of Catalan varieties such as garró and samsó, which he has resurrected single-handedly, he also makes an extraordinarily intense and complex red from the medieval Grans Muralles vineyard. All of which demonstrates Miguel Torres's belief in combining the modern power of brands with the traditional knowledge of good appellations.

The Torres dynasty began with his great, great uncle Jaime, who founded the company on the back of Cuban oil in 1870. Miguel only took over after his father's death in 1991, by which time Miguel had been playing heir to the throne for even longer than Prince Charles. Having learnt from his father that control freakery is counter-productive, he plans to work until he's 70, passing the mantle to his children in eight years. With his daughter Mireia and son Miguel well established at Torres, the family line looks pretty secure.

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