Jean Leon: Drinking wine like Hollywood royalty

The legend of restaurateur and winery owner Jean Leon lives on under the watchful eye of the Torres family, writes Peter Ranscombe.

SOMETIMES the very thing for which you’re looking is sitting right under your nose.

Jean Leon emigrated from Spain to America with dreams of starring in Hollywood films.

Yet he returned to his homeland to fulfil his second dream – making his own wine.

Leon waited on tables at Villa Capri, the Los Angeles restaurant owned by Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, before planning to open his own eatery with James Dean.

Following Dean’s death, Leon continued to pursue his dream, and opened La Scala in Beverly Hills in 1956.

It quickly became a hang-out for Hollywood stars, from Marlon Brando and Robert Wagner to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marilyn Monroe, who ordered takeaway from the restaurant on the night she died.

In 1962, Leon bought land at Penedes in Spain and planted his first vines the following year.

Instead of picking native varieties, he opted for cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux’s flagship black grape, latter adding cabernet franc, merlot, and chardonnay.

Leon had fallen in love with French wine and culture, and cabernet sauvignon was the wine of choice for diners at La Scala.

His wines became so successful that Ronald Regean served two of them during his inauguration dinner at the White House in 1981.

Passing the torch

After being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1994, Leon sold his vineyards to the Torres family, the Spanish wine dynasty that also has vineyards in California.

Torres has continued with Leon’s single vineyard strategy, with the grapes for each wine coming from a single field of vines.

The family began farming the vines organically in 2008 and gained certification in 2012 for Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Mireia Torres, a member of the fifth generation of the clan to make wine, has looked after the Jean Leon brand since 2010.

She has continued to innovate at the winery, including by selecting native yeasts from the fields to use in the fermentation that turns the grape juice’s sugars into alcohol.

Her sustainability research has included flying drones over the vines to work out which plants need copper and sulphur and which ones don’t, reducing the use of sprays in the fields.

Cover crops have also been planted between the rows of vines, which will become more important to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the climate continues to change.

Inside the winery, she joins winemaker Roser Catasús Colomé in experiments with oak vessels, with 10% of each year’s barrels used for trials.

Leon chalked up a number of firsts with his brand, including bottling the first Spanish single-variety cabernet sauvignon.

It looks like Torres will continue that pedigree of innovation for a long time to come.

What does Jean Leon wine taste like?

Jean Leon Vinya Gigi Chardonnay 2018 (£17.75, Fareham Wine Cellar)
Named after Leon’s daughter, Gigi, who still runs La Scala, this impressive chardonnay has a lovely fresh nose, featuring a mixture of pear, green and red apples, and cream. The pear and cream are joined by lemon on the palate to balance the crisp acidity, while there’s an elegant touch of toast on the finish too.

Jean Leon Vinya Palau Merlot 2015 (£18.75, Fareham Wine Cellar)
Merlot joined the Jean Leon party in 1991 and here is used to create a grown-up version of what can often be a dull work-a-day grape. Dark and brooding chocolate, coffee, and black plum aromas lead into much fruiter and juicier plum and blackberry flavours, with a hefty dose of vanilla too. That vanilla sweetness from the new oak barrels is likely to diminish in future vintages as Torres moves over to larger format foudres instead of smaller barrels, reducing the oak’s influence on the finished wine.

Jean Leon Vinya Le Havre Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2015 (£18.75, Fareham Wine Cellar)
Made from a blend of 85% cabernet sauvignon with 15% cabernet franc, which brings a wee hint of pencil lead and raspberry on the nose in amongst all the pronounced blackcurrant, cassis, dark chocolate, and wood smoke aromas. On the palate, there’s plenty of juicy blackberry and blackcurrant alongside the heavy vanilla and dark chocolate. The acidity is still fresh, even six years after harvest, and there’s a mix of spice and roast meat on the finish. Although the grape varieties and the location are different, this should still appeal to Rioja fans.

Jean Leon Vinya La Scala Gran Reserva 2013 (£32.50, Fareham Wine Cellar)
While the cedar and dark chocolate aromas are heavy, there’s still enough room for the ripe blackberry and raspberry aromas to shine through, along with some lighter floral touches. There’s a surprising freshness to the acidity here too, and the integration of the tannins is textbook, with enough grip for roast lamb or beef, yet great balance from the intense dark and red fruit flavours and the sweet vanilla and chocolate. La Scala lives up to its reputation – another one for Rioja fans to explore.

Read more of Peter’s wine, beer, and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain