2010/12/16

Jean León: from Santander to the White House

In 1941 a terrible fire turned into ashes most of the centre of the city of Santander, located in the Atlantic coast of Spain. The Carrión family, all its property lost, had to emigrate to Barcelona. A few months later, the father and the eldest son died when their boat was torpedoed.
In this difficult environment, the remaining family struggled along somehow, and in 1947 young Ceferino packed his meagre belongings and left for Paris first and then stowed himself away to New York. One step ahead of immigration authorities, he crossed the US till he reached Hollywood. He enlisted in the Army and served in the Korea War. He then obtained US citizenship and started working as a waiter in a famous Italian restaurant, Villa Capri. As a finishing touch he changed his less than glamorous name  of Ceferino Carrión to Jean León.
Jean León or perhaps still Ceferino Carrión?
He made good friends in Villa Capri; to start with, the owners, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, to whom, according to some reports, he provided with an alibi when they assaulted a suspected lover of Marilyn Monroe, married at the moment to the baseball superstar. This was one of the shadowy moments of Jean León’s career, marked by the friendship with the Sinatra clan.
Aided at first by James Dean, and in spite of the young actor’s untimely death, he opened in 1956 his own restaurant in Beverly Hills, La Scala. Very soon the place was a favourite of the Hollywood star system, with some actors even dining in the kitchen if there was no table available.
Jean León at La Scala
In 1962, in another sensational moment of his career, he served a take away dinner to Marilyn Monroe in her own house. The next morning she was found dead. Jean León never commented on what or whom he saw there.
At the same time, Jean León was a very discerning wine lover, and he wanted to craft his own wines to match his recipes. So he started searching world wide for a suitable place to establish his winery. Finally in 1963 he settled in a 150 hectare estate in Torrelavit, Penedès. In another bold move, he replanted most of the land with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay reputedly bought (others say stolen) from Lafite-Rothschild and Corton Charlemagne. This was unheard-of in Penedés at the time-he became arguably the first to plant foreign varieties in Catalonia. He hired a gifted young oenologist, Jaume Rovira, who built the winemaking facilities in the middle of the estate, following the pattern of Bordeaux chateaus, and they started production.
Jean León and Jaume Rovira
His wines, always a limited production, steadily improved as vines aged, and were, for instance, served in 1981 in the celebration of Ronald Reagan’s accession to the White House, one of the five US presidents he got to meet.
Cancer claimed Jean León’s life in 1996 as he was sailing in Thailand. A few years later, the giant Torres bought the state and has continued with a similar philosophy; in fact, Jaume Rovira is still at the helm.
The property is generally oriented towards the south, with a gentle slope and an average height of 300 m. Soils are sandy, with limestone and clay in variable proportions; this is a vital factor in the comparative quality of the different plots. The four main vineyards are:
  • La Scala, with the highest proportion of limestone and planted with the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines. 
  • Le Havre, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc. 
  • Gigi: less limestone, more clay and Chardonnay vines. 
  • Palau, with lowest limestone / clay ratio, and Merlot vines.
Wines presently produced start with Magnolia, the introductory range. The white, Magnolia Blanc, is Chardonnay/Xarel.lo, lightly oaked, young and fresh. Magnolia Negre is Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot, also lightly oaked, fruity, to be drunk still young.
Next comes the oak fermented Chardonnay from the best grapes from the Gigi plot. Five months in oak and six in bottle round it off.
The Merlot spends 12 months in oak and 6 in bottle before leaving the cellar and offers the red fruit aromas typical of the variety.
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva spends 18 months in oak and 24. The last I tasted gave me the impression that perhaps a little less barrel would have produced a more lively wine; it tasted tired. Wrong bottle?
Selected Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from La Scala plot are used for the Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva, aged for 25 months in barrel and 36 in bottle. The label is specially designed each year by a different, well-known artist. The wine is dark red, with the ochre overtones of long ageing, tertiary aromas of toast and spice. Wide, well structured. 

And last of all, Zemis is a special blend of the three red Bordeaux varieties, with 20 months of oak and striving for balance and that elegance that Ceferino had in himself and showed as Jean León.


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