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Torres’ Mas La Plana 45th Anniversary: Beijing Tasting

Edward Ragg

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Left: a Mas La Plana cake for the wine’s 45th Anniversary, Aria Restaurant, Beijing.  

Right: Mas La Plana’s iconic black label and Burgundy-bottle shape. 

Spanish winemaking dynasty Torres is this year celebrating the 45th Anniversary of its iconic Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon. Miguel Torres Maczassek, current General Manager of Torres, recently came to Beijing to celebrate this milestone and offer a comparative tasting of select vintages of Mas La Plana (see below), including the very first vintage 1970, as well as showing other innovative Torres wines at a dinner at Aria Restaurant.

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Torres’ winemaking history can be traced to 1870, but the family was involved in viticulture in the Penedès region as early as the 17th Century. Torres’ modern manifestation was realized by Miguel Torres, whose innovative approach, in planting international grape varieties alongside native Spanish examples as well as embracing the technology that changed the world of wine in the 1980s and after, was instrumental in putting the Penedès and Catalonia as a whole on the international wine map. It is not without exaggeration to say that Miguel Torres made ‘modern Spain’ the phenomenon out of which today’s Spanish wine world has grown, especially since Spain joined the European Union in 1986.

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(Above: Miguel Torres)

Mas La Plana, philosophically, is very much part of that picture. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and made in an intensely fruity style that few wines from Spain in the 1970s displayed (Miguel Torres’ father was certainly nonplussed at this new style of wine his son was putting in bottle). It is important to remember that, apart from perhaps Rioja, Spanish wine was not well known internationally in the early 1970s. And, indeed, under General Franco and the uncertainty following his demise, the Torres family looked outside of Spain to ensure a future in wine production (beginning in Chile as early as 1979 and California in 1985).

However, Miguel Torres was adamant that a modern Spanish wine produced from Cabernet Sauvignon would get the world’s attention, as it duly did in 1979 when the 1970 Mas La Plana (labelled ‘Gran Coronas Black Label’) beat a selection of Bordeaux First Growths in a Paris blind-tasting competition – in a sense following in the footsteps of those Californian wines that had performed so well in the 1976 Judgement of Paris. 

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But the other thing to appreciate about Mas La Plana is that, although Miguel Torres sought acclaim for the wine by relying on a famous international variety, the wine is not a ‘Bordeaux blend’. Philosophically, Mas La Plana shares more with Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon or those Napa Valley Cabs that are very close to being or are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Where Bordeaux struggles to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, especially in the wines of the Haut-Médoc – seeking to add fruitiness to structure through Merlot and other varieties – Mas La Plana aims to represent Cabernet Sauvignon in as ripe and still refreshing a state as possible; with a stamp of the Penedès that makes this wine not entirely like Napa or Coonawarra or, indeed, anywhere else.

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But how did this unique Spanish wine come to fruition? During 1965-66 the Torres family planted Cabernet Sauvignon in its Mas La Plana vineyard, some 29 hectares surrounding the family home. The vine material came from Jean Leon, who, legend has it, surreptitiously took cuttings from the vineyards of Châteaux Lafite and La Lagune: Leon who had gone to California in the dream of pursuing an acting career, then opened La Scala restaurant, returning to Spain in the hope of producing a notable Cabernet Sauvignon he could then sell back in the US.

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Mas La Plana’s typical freshness of fruit and fairly vibrant acidity is attributable not only to meticulous care in the vineyard, but also the Mas La Plana vineyard itself being some 225 metres above sea-level. Thus, this site and its micro-sites attain the valuable sunshine and warmth of an essentially Mediterranean climate, but in slightly cooler conditions and with a beneficial diurnal range in which vines get to cool down at night.

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Following harvest, the grapes are typically de-stemmed, go for a cold soak – to extract colour and, more importantly, some perfumed fruit character – before a 25-day fermentation, light pressing and then maturation in medium-toasted new French oak for around 18 months or so (in the past new American oak was also used). Production can reach to 70,000 bottles or in tougher years, like 2014, only 30,000. To date, vintages in which Mas La Plana was not produced include 1980, 1984 and 1986.

In Beijing we were lucky to taste the following vintages; of which my favourites were the 1988 and 1971 (on the night). Interestingly, Mas La Plana has evolved into a fresher style – as with many contemporary wines – in preference over the more rigorous extraction that blockbuster reds of the early 1990s sometimes displayed (see the 1993 vintage below).

2010 Mas La Plana

Appearance: deep purple.

Nose: very bright, ripe, fresh (not cooked) black and red fruits: distinct cassis, red and black cherry here and other berry fruits. Subtle French oak notes of clove, vanilla, new oak, toast, a touch of liquorice. Already appealing, but undoubtedly young still.

Palate: lovely deep core of fruit here, quite vibrant lively acidity, ripe chewy tannins, beautifully ripe red and black fruits; with integrated high alcohol and long length. Young, layered.

Conclusion: already appealing, but has a great life ahead of it (this is still obviously young). Can drink now, but will surely be better from 2020 onwards.

Rating: 18/20 (now)  

2000 Mas La Plana

Appearance: deep purple with a garnet rim.

Nose: some lovely development on the first nose with leather, mushroom, cigar-box notes combining with distinct clove, cinnamon, mellowed toasted new oak, all supported by vibrant, elegant ripe black cherry, red cherry, cassis, plum and other fruits. Complex.

Palate: lively acidity, coating ripe tannins, lovely core of mellowing but still very fruity red and black fruits, showing some development, but by no means at the end of its life. Well-integrated structure: both juicy and subtle (vinous). Long length.

Conclusion: elegant, obviously starting to develop, but will easily improve in bottle for another five to ten years. Will be very good yet.

Rating: 18.5/20  

1993 Mas La Plana

Appearance: deep garnet (distinct orange rim here).

Nose: clear development on the first nose with meaty, roasted vegetable aromas combined with lots of coffee/mocha/chocolate (barrel maturation influence); but still with a distinct core of very dark fruits, almost brooding still in terms of fruit.

Palate: very big structure of extracted tannins with a big core of black fruits. Nevertheless there is still a lifting acidity here and considerable length to this wine. May need more time.

Conclusion: now this was really fascinating to taste because it represents an early 1990s style of extraction that Miguel Torres Maczassek was keen to qualify: as he said ‘we don’t want to be a Priorat now’ (with reference to Mas La Plana – the Torres family also making wine in Priorat themselves). I would say that it would be better to hold on to this wine and see how it looks again in 2020 (if you’re lucky to have access to some).

Rating: 17.5/20  

1988 Mas La Plana

Appearance: medium garnet (distinct orange rim)

Nose: lovely development on the nose with cigar-box, leather, cedar oak, and other mellowing notes, complex spices of vanilla, clove, cinnamon, liquorice (various other roots), still supported by a core of comparatively lively, bright cassis, red cherry, plum fruit (even a touch floral). Various herbs. Complex.

Palate: a lovely palate of integrated tannins and alcohol, lifting refreshing acidity and a beautiful core of fruit, combined with subtle developed aromas and flavours. Long.

Conclusion: Very, very good indeed. This wine is complex, layered, superbly well-balanced and may still improve in bottle (at least for another five years). However, it is drinking beautifully now.

Rating: 19/20  

1987 Mas La Plana

Appearance: medium garnet (slightly lighter in intensity than the 1988).

Nose: distinct tertiary notes of mushroom, leather, sous bois, but these are supported by vanilla, cinnamon, clove, mellowed oak notes and some almost perfumed fruit – 87 was a bit warmer than 88 it transpires. Undoubtedly complex.

Palate: a lovely palate of sweet mellowing red and black fruits – lots of cherry and plum, less cassis – with a profound tannic structure here (as on other vintages). Not tired, quite the verse. Lively, expressive, long, if lacking some the overall integration of the 1988 (a quibble).

Conclusion: still lively, still very good indeed. I prefer the 88, but this is an excellent wine. Actually, the 1987 gets better and better on aeration. Close in quality.

Rating: 18.5/20

1971 Gran Coronas (Mas La Plana) ‘Black Label’

Appearance: medium garnet, but slightly deeper than the 1987 even (vintage effect).

Nose: beautiful nose of distinctly tertiary aromas (sous bois, roasted meats, caramelized vegetables) but also sweet, ripe red aromatic fruits with lovely mellowing new oak and cocoa/chocolate characters. Also, cigars, cedarwood, rosemary, thyme. Very complex.

Palate: wonderfully intense palate of beautifully perfumed red fruits, large but mellowed profound tannic structure, lively acidity, still fresh and alive with wonderful length and complex layered flavours throughout. Conclusion: 100% American oak used at this time. Superb wine. Could even improve further, but I think it’s better to drink now. However, Torres itself only has about 100 bottles left.

Rating: 19/20

1970 Gran Coronas (Mas La Plana) ‘Black Label’

Appearance: medium garnet (but with much bigger orange rim than the 1971).

Nose: tertiary aromas of roasted meats, mushroom, leather, combining with barrel-matured notes of coffee, cocoa, chocolate, now caramelized with age. Certainly more developed on the nose than the 1971, with less overt fruit; but there are indeed perfumed red fruits here as well. Complex.

Palate: on the palate a profound tannic structure, but still with this wonderful core of fruit coming through (fruit more evident on the palate than the nose). Lively acidity, quite vibrant fruit – this wine is not ‘dried out’ in any sense – with mellowing chewy tannins and a long, layered finish.

Conclusion: I think I prefer the 1971 to the 1970 for the liveliness of the nose and still sweet fruit core that is noticeable on the nose. But the 1970 is hardly tired by any means. This is a very fine wine that is drinking extremely well now.

Rating: 18.5/20  

All in all, this was a rare privilege and thanks are due to Torres, Torres China and Miguel Torrres Maczassek for sharing these wines with a Beijing audience.