Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Jean Leon Wines
The Jean Leon winery is part of the Torres Group, run by Mireia Torres, daughter of Miguel Torres, but it was founded by a larger-than-life character called Jean Leon. Jean Leon’s real name was Ángel Ceferino Carrión Madrazo; born in Santander, Spain. He decided to leave Santander for a better life and at a young age set off on a journey that took him to Barcelona, then to Bayonne, Bordeaux and Paris, then to New York and eventually Los Angeles.
Jean Leon must have had a persuasive personality, because things took off for him in the US. He met Frank Sinatra when he started working as a waiter at Villa Capri, the restaurant owned by Sinatra and baseball’s famous Joe DiMaggio. He became friends with numerous Hollywood stars and in 1965 he opened Hollywood's most elegant restaurant in partnership with James Dean.
It was called La Scala. The restaurant had an underground wine cellar that housed about 25,000 bottles, including many of the world’s finest wines. It became a celebrity haunt. Apparently, Jean Leon was one of the last people to see Marilyn Monroe alive. As the story goes, he personally delivered her favorite dish to her home on the day she died, Fettuccine Leon or Fettuccine a la Marilyn, a dish of pasta and seafood in an Alfredo sauce.
Leon's success brought him quite a bit of money so he decided that he wanted to buy a French Champagne house. That proved to be a little out of his means, so he turned to the country of his birth, Spain.
In 1963 he bought a 150 hectare property in central Penedès, 20 km from the sea, tucked behind mountains. He named it Vinya La Scala. This was a new concept in Spain at the time, the “Pago” or single vineyard property. He uprooted all the original local grapes and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay, new grape varieties for the region at the time. The local people thought he was crazy. The first wine he released was the 1969 Gran Reserva.
Jean Leon and Ronald Reagan met in Hollywood, when the politician was an actor. Their friendship grew, and one day Reagan who was contemplating a political career, told Jean Leon (who was a Democrat) that if he voted for him in the upcoming election and he became president (as a Republican) he would serve Jean Leon’s wine at his inauguration. Jean Leon replied that friendship mattered more than politics, and he voted for Reagan. On January 20th, 1981, Ronald Reagan kept his promise. Vinya La Scala Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva 1975 and Vinya Gigi Chardonnay 1980 were chosen as the wines for Reagan’s official inaugural dinner at the White House.
Before passing away in 1994, Jean Leon entrusted his vineyards and winery to the Torres family, already owners of extensive tracts in Penedès. Mireia Torres has been working with organic viticulture at this vineyard since 2008, and by 2012 the wines became formally certified organic.
I wasn't expecting to like these wines as much as I did, but they show a great ability for developing very well with age.
Jean Leon 3055 Chardonnay, Penedès.
3055 was the number of the taxicab Jean Leon drove when he first arrived in New York City. Fresh with lovely pear and citrus fruit. Very subtle toasty richness. Lovely focus and concentration, a stylish wine. 90/100
Jean Leon Vinya Gigi 2016 Chardonnay, Penedès.
The vineyard was named after his daughter, Gigi, who still manages La Scala. The wine is from a 5 hectare single block, fermented in new French oak. Really intense and concentrated with bold toast, nut, fig and honey notes. Powerful mineral and spice flavors, with notes of fig and herbs on the palate. Really magnificent; powerful yet fresh. 95/100
Jean Leon Chardonnay 1997, Penedès.
Rich complex nose of bread, toast, honey and dried apricot. The palate is bold and smooth with lovely toast, peach and bread notes. Soft but still well defined, this had aged beautifully. I tasted it at the Gastronomika Conference that takes place every autumn in San Sebastián. 96/100
Jean Leon Vinya Palau Merlot, Penedès,
Fresh with a hint of mint and red berries on the nose. The palate is fresh and fruity with nice brightness and a savory, mineral structure. Very sophisticated with balance and elegance. Tasted at the winery during my visit sponsored by Wines of Catalunia. 93/100
Jean Leon Gran Reserva 2016 Penedès.
Since 1996 this has been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Sweet, rich, ripe nose with sweet, alluring berry. The ripe, supple, warm palate is sweetly fruited with notes of spice, tar and minerals, as well as soy sauce notes. Seductive and mellow. Also tasted during Gastronomika. 94/100
Jean Leon Gran Reserva 1994 Penedès.
Fresh and smooth, in an elegant style with ripe berry fruit and a soft, rich texture. The fresh palate has a herbal, minty edge and is warm and broad with some leathery notes in the background. It was drinking very well when tasted in 2018 at the winery. 95/100
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