This interview is published in the current issue of 'Hotel and Restaurant Times'
Miguel Torres Maczassek was travelling on business in the USA when an earthquake devastated much of Chile at 03.34 local time on 27th. February of this year. The epicentre of the quake was off the coast of Maule, where the Torres family has extensive vineyards, and when Miguel heard the news, he feared the worst.
‘I had difficulty in getting back to our headquarters in Curico’, he recalled when we met in Dublin’s Red Cow Hotel.. ‘The airports were closed, but I eventually got back through Argentina. I was greeted by scenes of great destruction. Craters had appeared in roads, communications were cut off, our winery was damaged and many of our employees had lost their homes’.
His first thoughts and actions were directed at helping his people. ‘We had to organise food and supplies and then we started to build new houses. We opted for timber frame dwellings as these could be prefabricated and we erected them with the help of volunteers. At first we were very slow, but as we gained experience we were able to assemble the houses faster and we were erecting four per week. When we had built houses for our own employees we began to help others in the community and we raised more than $100,000 for this project, which is still continuing.’
Torres lost ten per cent of its production in Chile to the earthquake and suffered damage to many of its buildings. ‘Fortunately the harvest was late and this enabled us to get organised before the picking began’, he said.
It was a baptism of fire for Miguel, who had recently taken over the running of the family wine operations in Chile. The fifth generation of the Spanish wine family, he grew up in vineyards in Penedes where the family produces its well known Coronas and Vina Sol wines. He studied business in Barcelona and in North Carolina and oenology in Spain before embarking on a career in marketing that saw him work for Danone and in the USA for the Spanish perfume company that owns Paco Rabanne and Nina Ricci. Returning to the family business he became marketing director of Miguel Torres S.A. before moving to Chile with his American-born wife and their children.
‘Chile presents many challenges for a wine company and offers enormous opportunities for the future’, he says.
Exploring those opportunities led Torres on a four year expedition to find a ‘Chilean Priorato’- an area similar to the vineyards developed by the family in Northern Spain in 1995. After visiting hundreds of sites, testing soils and studying the local terroir, the Torres team bought 369ha of forest in Empedrado county near Constitucion in the Cental Valley in 2003. It was 20km from the coast, with a slate foundation and on steep slopes. ‘The land drains rapidly and makes the vines work hard. It produces wines of exceptional concentration, colour and aromas’, says Miguel.
Before a single vine could be planted however, a massive landscaping operation was commissioned. Pine trees were removed (and replaced elsewhere), the soil was exposed and terraces constructed. Because of the exceptionally dry climate it was also necessary to install miles of drip irrigation pipes. When all was ready, Miguel and his team planted a wide range of grape varieties to discover what would produce best results. ‘So far pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and merlot have produced excellent crops’, he says.
It will be some time yet before the first commercial vintages are available from Empedrado, but Miguel believes that the wait will be worthwhile.
‘Chile has the potential to produce wines of outstanding quality, just as it can produce high quality volume wines’, he says.
He is currently exploring a range of possibilities including a revival of the carignan grape, which originated in Aragon and was brought to Chile by Spanish colonists. The best carignan wines come from old vines and Torres is part of a group of winemakers who are restoring old vineyards and nursing the carignan vines back to health. He is also experimenting with a Mission grape, known in Chile as Pais, which has grown in the country for 400 years, but which has suffered from poor viticulture. ‘You can find pais all over Chile, but it does not command a good price because it has been associated with poor quality wines. We began working with the vine , harvesting it early when the grapes are small with higher acidity and we have been making some good quality Pais wines. So far production is small, just 3,000 cases this year, but we hope to see it grow.’
In terms of the Chilean wine industry, Torres is a medium size producer, but it is to the forefront of a campaign to raise quality standards. The vineyards are almost all organic and engage in ecological best practice. ‘We have begun to use an eco-bottle which is lighter and uses less glass, so that it consumes less CO2 when it is transported’, Miguel says. ‘We have reduced the weight of a bottle from 520gr. To 470gr. without reducing its strength.’ The Torres winery also uses biomass as a heating fuel. ‘About half of our land is in forest, so we use timber as an eco-friendly fuel wherever possible’, he says.
Unlike many of its competitors, Torres sells about 20% of it swine production on the Chilean market. Not un-naturally, Spain is its biggest export market, but the UK and Ireland are also important.
‘We have been selling our wines in Ireland for many years and we have a very close affinity with the trade and with consumers here. Our Santa Digna varietal range is distributed principally through restaurants and is featured on wine lists all over the country.’
Miguel is conscious of his role within the Torres family and the importance of keeping the family business intact. From its homestead south of Barcelona the family has developed vineyards in the principal regions of Spain, has a thriving business in California run by Miguel’s aunt Miramar and is a major producer in Chile. ‘Family companies like ours are always looked at by major corporations who would like to take us over- but it is most important that our business stays within the family, Miguel says. Torres is a member of ‘Primum Familiae Vini’, a group that also includes producers like Antinori , Joseph Drouhin, Hugel et Fils, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Symington and other leading wine producing families. ‘We exchange information and share technology so that we can remain competitive with the big groups’, says Miguel.
Destined to return eventually to Penedes to head the family business, Miguel Torres Jnr. Is enjoying his Chilean adventure and in the process bringing new and interesting wines to world markets.