When Miguel Torres, the fourth-generation proprietor of Spain’s Familia Torres winery, began seeking out almost-extinct ancient grape varieties in Catalonia almost 40 years ago, it was an act of historic curiosity. It was not, as it would later become, a mission that could potentially rescue Mediterranean viticulture from the ravages of climate change.
In truth, Torres was always more interested in French varieties than those that are considered Spanish or Catalan. His wine Torres Mas La Plana, from the vineyard of the same name, is made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
“In the 80s, he did a sabbatical year at the University of Montpelier, where he worked with Denis Boubals, a very important teacher of viticulture there,” explains his daughter, Mireia Torres Maczassek, who works alongside her father and brother Miguel. “He convinced my father that it was interesting to recover all these ancestral varieties, the [ones] that were lost with phylloxera.”
Her father started searching for these varietals. “In the 80s, we put advertisements in the local press asking for ancestral varieties,” Mireia says. Every year since, the winery has had multiple grape growers visit with ampelographers—those who study grape varieties.
Today, Familia Torres has successfully recovered 52 long-lost grape varieties.
Rescuing Ancient Grapes
Of course, there is much more to “rescuing” ancient varieties than simply replanting. On a recent intensive visit to the family’s wineries and vineyards in Catalonia, not far from Barcelona, Miguel Torres Maczassek—known across the wine industry as Miguel Junior—explains, “the process takes around 14 years, depending on the variety. Some of the varieties we find in vineyards, but others we find in places where there are no vineyards anymore, in the forest, climbing a tree or close to a creek, and they survived somehow.”
But these varieties are not ready to be made into wine. “They are full of viruses and the wine will not be very good, it will be just average,” says Miguel Junior. “We have to replicate them, but without the viruses.”
Rescuing and repropagating vines is an intensive process that involves a combination of science, farming and intuition. During one vineyard visit, I was handed a sealed test tube containing the cutest baby grapevine I have ever beheld. Miguel Junior spelled out the steps just to get it to that stage.
“[We] wait until spring, when the plant grows very fast, and we take the cells from the upper part of the shoots,” he says. “These cells are free of viruses because the virus doesn’t have time to reach those parts of the plant. The plant is growing too fast. With those cells, we replicate them in Petri dishes with nutrients that allow the cells to grow, and then we have plants that are very small in these tubes.”
From there, the plants are moved to an indoor nursery and then to an outdoor experimental vineyard with varieties from Spain and around the world. Next, growth rates are compared among vines cultivated in one place under identical conditions.
Promising varieties are grafted and planted in vineyards where they are expected to thrive, but not without government intervention. “We have to convince the Spanish government, the Catalan government and the appellations that this is something worthwhile,” Miguel Junior continues. “It takes a long time. It takes forever.”
Of more than 50 identified varieties, five are currently being used to make wine, some as single varietals and others in blends. Familia Torres has almost 50 acres of Forcada, the only white grape they have successfully resuscitated, under vine at their Finca Mas Palau in Penedès. It produces a wine with terrific acidity and flavors of citrus and tropical fruit with touches of smoke. At present, only about 4,800 bottles are made annually. The family also sells vines to other producers.
“These varieties are not ours,” Miguel Junior points out. “The more people plant them, the more these varieties will remain.”
Taking Vines to New Heights
The most important aspect of all this work is that the successful varieties have been shown to be resistant to both drought and heat. They also have long ripening seasons, making them ideal cultivars as the wine world continues to be battered by the effects of climate change. Because of high summer temperatures at lower elevations, the Torres family has been buying and rehabilitating remote mountaintop vineyards.
While the Las Palau vineyard is at around 1,800 feet of elevation, the Les Escostes vineyard, an ancient location with clay soils and stone terraces soars to about 2,300 feet. This difference in altitude can aid in preserving freshness and acidity during the long, hot growing season thanks to mountain breezes and cooler nighttime temperatures; the temperature falls by one degree for every 328 feet of altitude. This barely accessible vineyard up a steep, twisting dirt track can only be cared for and harvested by hand. But to the Torres winemakers, the challenges are worth it if the grapes survive and the resulting wine is good.
The other rescued-producing varieties are Moneu, Querol, Gonfaus and Pirene, the last of which is named for the nearby mountain range that shares a border with France. Producing an expressive wine with bright flavors of pomegranate, cranberry, milk chocolate and clove, it is planted in the highest vineyard in Catalonia, which sits at more than 3,100 feet above sea level.
Miguel Junior notes, “Climate change is forcing us to find different places and different environments where we can plant vines in the future. We were looking for better acidity, better freshness and late ripening.” He went on, “Pirene can help us to recover viticulture in the Pyrenees. There used to be a lot planted there, but there are very few wineries now.”
Both the single varietal Forcada and Pirene are available in the U.S. market, and Querol has been part of the blend of Las Muralles, along with Cariñena, Garnacha, Monastrell and Cinsault, since 2012.
A Family of Pioneers
A glance at Familia Torres’ Instagram feed informs you that they consider themselves “guardians of the landscape for five generations,” which is no idle boast. Between photos of bottles and glasses, you will spot images of vineyards, soil and grazing sheep that tell the story of a family which puts the planet first in all their decision-making. In addition to their vineyards in the Catalonian appellations Penedès, Costers del Segre, Priorat and Conca de Barberà, they apply organic farming practices to their vineyards in Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Rías Baixas as well as properties in California and Chile. In Chile, they have initiated a project to reclaim the Pais grape, the variety originally brought to the Americas by Spanish invaders.
In Spain, the Torres family are pioneers in regenerative farming. As Miguel Junior explained while visiting the Mas la Plana vineyard, which was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon by his father in the 1960s, “Every time that you cut the grass, the plant releases carbon from the roots that stays in the soil. This is what we call the ‘carbon pump.’ By letting the grass grow and cutting it with sheep, we store carbon again, like the forest would do. On that side, we see how biodiversity increases the microbial life. It translates to more insects, more birds, more amphibians and it contributes to creating a more resilient ecosystem.” Ground cover between vines also holds rainwater; with bare soil, the water simply runs off.
It follows that Familia Torres is also a major player in the wine industry’s fight against climate change through the reduction of carbon emissions, having reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 35% per bottle from 2008 through 2021. Their goal is to reach a carbon reduction of 60% by 2030 and to become a net-zero winery by 2040. To that end, they have initiated the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), alongside California’s Jackson Family, which promotes decarbonization across the entire wine industry.
“Seventy-five percent of the surface of [Spanish] vineyards of almost one million hectares is represented by 10 varieties, but there are a lot of local varieties that are very interesting throughout all of Spain,” Mireia says. The Torres family, he continues, is part of a group within the country that is working on a “project across Spain on winemaking and vineyard growing, and now they are trying to see what the influence of climactic change will be. They are also trying to see which of the local varieties will be more interesting in terms of climate change for the future.”
Of all the people in Spain working on such projects, the Torres family appears to have the longest head start, the largest investment of resources and personal commitment. And so far, the only bottled wine that gives insight into the varieties their ancestors may have drunk.