The story of Jean Leon wines reads like a movie script. In 1951, at the age of 19, Jean Leon stowed away aboard a ship to New York from his native Spain.
Born Ceferino Carrión in the city of Santander, he changed his name and worked as a taxi driver until he made enough money to open a restaurant.
In 1956 Leon moved to California, where in partnership with the actor James Dean he opened what became the most prestigious restaurant in Hollywood, La Scala.
Family legend says he was disappointed with the available wines so in 1964 he opened a vineyard in the Penedes region south of Barcelona in Spain, illegally obtaining cuttings of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon while in France. The cabernet came from the famous Lafite vineyard in Bordeaux.
These were the first plantings in Spain of these grape varieties. Later Jean Leon’s New York taxi badge became the logo of the vineyard’s introductory level wines.
The Torres family bought the vineyard when Leon died in 1994. The property consists of 150 hectares, with 67 under vines.
The estate is divided into several sections known as “pagos,” and only one wine is produced in each section. All grapes for the premium wines are sourced from the vineyard. The “pago” concept is equivalent to the “cru” in Bordeaux, or the “vignetti” in Italy and the “quinta” in Portugal.
Mireia Torres Maczassek, the owner, presented premium Leon wines at a press lunch in Hong Kong.
We began with the 2007 Vinya Gigi chardonnay. Pale yellow in colour, it received six months ageing on lees in French oak barrels and then bottle aging for another half year. Leaving a wine on lees gives it more character, which explains the flavours of tropical fruits.
This is an elegant wine. The aromas of toast come from the oak barrels. The wine’s acidity balanced nicely with the toast aromas. It was like smelling lemons and limes while in a bakery. The wine had a long aftertaste – the sign of a quality product. Gigi is the name of one of Leon’s children.
A highlight was the 2001 grand reserve cabernet sauvignon. This wine was aged for 25 months in new French barriques, and then spent three years in the bottle to develop. It offers aromas of mint, eucalyptus and blackcurrants plus a slight honeyed sweetness.
The same toasty notes as the chardonnay can be attributed to the barrel ageing. Mireia Torres described the long and lingering aftertaste as “hedonistic”, and I was inclined to agree.
All grand reserve cabernets have a painting on the back label by a well-known Spanish artist, a reflection of the Torres family’s passion for the arts. The painting on the 2001 vintage is by Mireia’s mother.
The grand reserve was served with the main course, and slightly overshadowed the 2005 reserve cabernet sauvignon, served with cheeses at the end. It was a Bordeaux-style blend of 85 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 15 per cent cabernet franc.
Mireia suggested it should be kept until 2014 when it would be fun to observe how its aromas of currants and plums had softened and integrated.
It was aged for 18 months in French and American oak and then spent two years in bottle at the winery. It was dark cherry in colour with a smooth front palate and soft tannins.
A spicy aftertaste, a product of the oak ageing, combined lovingly with aromas of ripe blackberries and toast. The malolactic fermentation the winemaker used explains the soft and creamy sensation in the mouth.
Some Jean Leon wines are available in Taiwan at Finesse Cellars. The 2005 reserve cabernet retails for NTD $1,200 and the 2001 grand reserve for NTD $2,000.
* Published in China Post, Taiwan, under the headline “History of Jean Leon adds extra bouquet to delicious wines,” page 10, 17 May 2012. Find a link here.