Every once in a while, even the Mighty Casey strikes out. Thus, to devoted fans, there will be no joy in tasting the latest releases of the usually stalwart Coronas red wines offered by the Torres winery, leading seller of Spanish table wines in the United States.
If not exactly strikeout victims, the new releases have certainly failed to advance the runner -- in this case, Torres' reputation for producing excellent values in the low, middle and high price categories.
In tastings of the 1985 Torres Gran Coronas "Black Label" ($25-$30), 1986 Torres Gran Coronas ($12-$15) and the 1987 regular Coronas ($6), none lived up to the standards set by previous offerings. Although technically correct and immediately identifiable by their distinctive cherry and oak bouquets, each displayed a disappointing lack of fruit and stuffing on the palate.
Fortunately, substantial stocks of prior vintages of these wines are still available at retail. In addition, given the line's track record, a comeback is expected for future releases. Thus, despite the recent lean patch, it's worth taking a closer look.
An Overview Torres Gran Coronas "Black Label": Though no longer absurdly cheap, this will be remembered as the wine that made critics and consumers stand up and take note of the modern renaissance of Spanish wines. In 1979, at a so-called wine "Olympiade" sponsored by France's prestigious Gault et Millau magazine, a $10 red wine from the Penedes region of Spain, the 1970 Torres Gran Coronas Black Label, topped the 1970 Chateau Latour in a blind tasting of prestigious cabernets. In fact, the Torres was voted best of show. The French cried foul (perhaps rightly in that the Latour clearly had not reached maturity) but the point was made. Torres was to be a player in the rarefied world of prestige cabernets.
Released in 1976, the 1970 Black Label, the first ever, was not all cabernet, but a blend of 70 percent cabernet with two local red varieties. Cabernet franc was later included, but then dropped. Only since 1978 has Black Label been 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. Though the use of cabernet is no longer almost unheard of in Spain, Torres is still among a handful of practitioners.
Although the Torres family owns 1,000 acres of vineyards, Black Label derives exclusively from Torres' best vineyard site, called Mas La Plana. First planted in 1966, Mas La Plana has grown from its original 22 acres to a total of 71 acres.
Under the leadership of second-generation winemaker Miguel Torres Jr., Black Label continues to undergo considerable experimentation in vinification. Originally all the wine was aged in new American oak barrels, which impart stronger vanilla and spice accents than does the more expensive, and more subtle French oak. In 1980, French oak was first used for a portion of the wine and now accounts for about 50 percent of the wood, all of which is new. In coming years, however, the portion of American oak is expected to increase. Maceration periods (contact with the grape skins and stems at fermentation) have been increased to extract more tannins and deepen color. In the vineyards, vine density has doubled to 2,000 per acre, an unusually high number, which Torres believes improves the concentration of the individual berries by stressing the vines.
Torres bottles Black Label only in better years. There will be no 1986 Black Label as a result of botrytis (rot). The 1984, 1979, 1974 and 1972 vintages were also skipped. Recommended recent vintages are the first rate, finely made 1981, and the dense, chocolatey, smoky 1978. The 1982 ($29; wholesale through Kronheim) has ample power and weight, but is too simple for the price. The voluptuous 1983 is excellent, rivaling the 1981.
Torres Gran Coronas Riserva: Middle children tend to be overlooked, and this wine, sandwiched between the sexy Black Label and the bargain-priced regular Coronas is something of a Cinderella wine. Indeed, I prefer the '82 Gran Coronas to the Gran Coronas Black Label of that year. The 1985 is also quite good.
Aged in new American oak for six months followed by one year in used casks, the wine is in a style closer to the Black label than to the regular bottling. Indeed, the blend is similar to the 1970 Black Label that outpointed Latour, 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent tempranillo, the principal red grape of Rioja. Though it lacks the power of the Black Label, many will prefer its softer, more approachable style.
Torres Coronas: At $7 or less, few wines deliver the balance of cherry fruit and smoky oak typically offered by this Torres bottling. Despite a modest price, the wine is clearly on a style continuum with its pricier siblings. With no cabernet, the wine is 100 percent tempranillo. Aging is in American oak for 15 months. On the palate, the wine is round, lively, of medium weight and tastes more expensive than it actually is. Both the 1986 and 1985 vintages are excellent and are still available at some retail locations. Because the wine is not intended for aging, however, anything older should be approached with caution.
Recent Releases Torres 1985 Gran Coronas "Black Label Reserva" ($30; Penedes, Spain): Despite a first-rate, roasted, warm, cherry-scented bouquet, this wine shows a dismaying lack of concentration and depth, and finishes short. What might be the problem? Certainly not the vintage, which was excellent throughout Europe. My guess is that the culprit is stretching -- meeting high demand by increasing yields per acre. In addition, Torres' ambitious replanting and vineyard extension programs at Mas La Plana may be taking their toll, as young vines simply can't deliver the depth of fruit coaxed from low-yielding old vines. (Kronheim)
Torres 1986 Gran Coronas "Reserva" ($15; Penedes, Spain): Given that there is to be no 1986 Black Label, one would have expected this bottling to have benefited from the inclusion of grapes normally destined for the premier blend. While the wine has an appealing, vanilla oak and cherry bouquet, there is something dreadfully wrong with the finish -- dry, dusty and reminiscent of the tart 1983 French Burgundies, which suffered from rot. That may well be the problem here, too. But why, then, was the 1986 regular bottling not similarly afflicted? (Kronheim)
Torres Coronas 1987 ($7; Penedes, Spain): The bargain-hunters' string of luck has run out with this release. After years of making almost every critic's best-buy list, the regular Coronas has slipped. Not that this is a terrible wine. The nose, in fact, would do well on a wine twice as expensive. But the fruit is flat, and the wine finishes dry and short. Buy as much '86 as you can find, and wait for '88.
Alternatively, give a try to Torres' new cabernet from its new estate in Chile, Miguel Torres 1989 "Curico District" Cabernet. It's abundantly fruity, has subtle hints of smoky oak, and sells for about $6.