For those familiar with a little of the recent history of wine, this description of a wine’s genesis may sound somewhat familiar:
- It was first made by a “Black Sheep” working at a wine producer founded in the 19th century
- Its creator aimed to create an equivalent in terms of quality and longevity to Bordeaux’s First Growths
- It was a new style of wine for the period, with a focus on quality and using newer oak
- The wine was named after a small rural building
- The head of the winery didn’t approve of the new wine so it wasn’t released at first
- It was initially a blend but then tended towards being a varietal
- The name of the wine changed a little over the years
- The wine is the winery’s flagship, even if it is now not necessarily the most expensive its portfolio
So were you thinking of Penfolds Grange?
I wouldn’t blame you – Max Schubert’s experimental creation of 1951 certainly matches the description, though another also fits the bill from closer to (my) home – Torres Mas La Plana (MLP).
The original home of Torres is Penedès in Catalonia, and although remaining family owned they have grown to be the largest producer in Spain. Outposts in Chile and California have grown their presence in the New World. Continental climate means hot days but cool nights which allow the vines to rest, so acidity is retained and the resulting fruit does not have a confected quality.
And as for point 2 above? Under its previous moniker of Gran Coronas Black Label in 1970 Mas La Plana won the Gault-Millau wine olympiad in Paris, with higher marks than top Bordeaux such as Chateau Latour or Chateau Haut-Brion.
Evolution in winemaking and style
When the vineyard was first planted in 1970 there was a little Tempranillo and Grenache along side the Cabernet Sauvignon. The majority of the Penedès region is still planted with white grapes for Cava, though of course they fall under their own separate DO.
In 1981 yields were reduced, mainly by abandoning the use of nitrogen based fertiliser, and cluster thinning (“vendange vert” in French). Maceration time was extended up to four weeks and American oak was complemented by French oak. The proportion of French to American was gradually increased so that the latter was absent by 1990.
40th Vintage Celebration Tasting At Brookwood Restaurant
1981 (from Magnum)
This was a surprise addition to the tasting. The Irish importers Findlaters had found a magnum from way back in 1981 in their treasure cave, but weren’t sure of its condition until it was opened on the morning of the tasting. Even the Torres winery don’t have any 1981 left in magnum so we were very privileged to taste it.
It was beautiful!
Obviously, being a magnum meant that it had developed more slowly than a standard 75cl bottle would over the same time. In my opinion it was right at its peak – still plenty of fruit, though more dried than fresh. This could have kept for several more years, but was perfect there and then.
Even just by looking at the bottle you can notice a few salient things about this era of Mas La Plana. Firstly, the vineyard name was a sub-brand, Gran Coronas was the principal brand. Nowadays, Gran Coronas is the next step down from MLP; in vintages where the fruit is not considered good enough to make MLP the grapes are blended in as a component of the Gran Coronas.
Secondly, the term Gran Reserva appears at the bottom of the label. The criteria in Penedes are not quite as strict as in Rioja or Ribera del Duero, but there is still a considerable minimum period of ageing in oak barrels. Gran Reserva used to be very important as a signifier of quality, but it also denotes a woodier style – and nowadays Mas La Plana is more about the fruit than the wood, so the term is not used.
Finally, the alcohol – only 12.5%! Compare this with the 2010 vintage’s stated 14.5% and the evolution of style over time is very apparent. Some of this is down to the actual heat in each year, as more sunlight energy is turned into sugar by photosynthesis. Some is also down to the yeast used – if commercial rather than ambient strains are used this can give a significant boost to alcohol levels. And of course, picking the grapes at a high level of ripeness in a particular year also gives more alcohol.
2005 is widely regarded as an excellent vintage in Bordeaux, but was also good in Catalonia. This was my favourite of the current millennium vintages – still loads of blackcurrant and blackberry primary fruit but already some interesting cedar and tobacco notes. The 2005 is in full bloom but has the structure to last until the end of this decade at least.
The charming Toni Batet from Torres (pictured) explained that sorting tables are used to ensure only the best grapes go into Mas La Plana, and if the vintage isn’t deemed good enough then the grapes from the vineyard go into Gran Coronas.
2008 & 2009
For me these two vintages were quite similar – and being so close together that’s understandable. It just shows that there aren’t bad wines made nowadays – at this level of quality, anyway.
And so to the 40th Vintage itself. This is such a baby, but amazingly already drinkable. It deserves to be laid down for another five years at least, but if I had to drink it now then decanting for a couple of hours would help it open out and soften the bold tannins.
For all the apparent similarities with the Grange story, Mas La Plana is its own wine and a worthy flagship for Torres. My personal preferences on grapes place Cabernet Sauvignon at the top of my red wine rankings (don’t say that too fast!), so it’s a winner in my book. And for a flagship wine, it’s not stupidly expensive, under €50 in Ireland compared to five times that (or more) for Grange.
Get some today and drink it when it’s ready!