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Adapting vineyards to a changing climate: Torres looks to the future

Catalan producer Torres is experimenting with new innovations to tackle climate change in the vineyard.

In the face of rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, what can wine producers do to adapt their viticultural practices? Catalan producer Torres, which has emerged during the past decade as one of the global wine sector’s leading pioneers in tackling climate change, is experimenting with a range of creative ideas.

Planting vines at higher altitudes is one option. The company is investing in cooler vineyards high in the mountains of the region. It has planted vines in Tremp at 950 metres in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees and bought land in Benabarre at 1,200 metres. Benabarre is currently too cold for producing grapes, but Torres has no doubt that it will be planting vines there in the future, as temperatures continue to rise.

The latest project is a tiny, steep vineyard at Els Tossals, at the end of a long, tortuous track, with stunning views over the hills of Priorat and intense aromas of wild thyme and herbs. At 750 metres, it is the appellation’s highest vineyard planted in slate – and it is cold: the grapes ripen slowly here and the few that have been harvested so far were picked in mid-November.

Miguel Torres Maczassek, Torres’ fifth-generation managing director, has high expectations of the young Garnacha and Cariñena vines at Els Tossals. ‘Older people in the area thought we were crazy when we planted here. Viticulture was abandoned years ago because it was so tough. Given the challenge our generation faces, we have to adapt – sometimes by changing grape varieties, but sometimes by planting higher. We are living at a time when wine maps everywhere will have to change.’

At their experimental vineyard at Mas Rabell, the Torres team is also exploring other ways of delaying ripening so that it takes place as late as possible, when days and nights are cooler. ‘The last phase of ripening is important, because the phenolics are better if the grapes ripen outside the warmest period,’ said Torres chief winemaker Josep Sabarich.

Tests underway at Mas Rabell suggest that different training systems, cover cropping, canopy management, higher vigour rootstocks, lower density planting and shade nets can collectively delay ripening by over two weeks. ‘The reality,’ said Sabarich, ‘is that there is no one solution to the challenges of climate change; there are a range of things you have to do to adapt.’

Miguel Torres Maczassek and Jordi Foraster at the Els Tossal vineyard in Priorat. Credit: Rupert Joy

Torres has recently installed a metal canopy of photovoltaic solar panels above some of the vines at Mas Rabell to reduce sunlight and water stress, as well as generating electricity. ‘It is on a very small scale at the moment’, said the company’s climate change director, Josep Maria Ribas Portella, ‘because we have not yet got permission to install them on a larger scale. But we are hoping to experiment with one hectare of solar panels in our vineyard next year.’

The most intriguing aspect of this experimental work has been the rediscovery and testing of long-forgotten and discarded native grape varieties – a kind of viticultural archaeology. Over 30 years ago, Miguel A Torres, now the patriarch of the family, had the idea of trying to find ‘ancestral’ grape varieties. The company placed advertisements in local newspapers asking people around the region to contact them with vines they could not identify. ‘Initially, my idea was to try to rediscover the region’s viticultural heritage,’ he admitted. ‘It was only a while later, after I started the Torres & Earth climate programme, that I saw this could also help with our commitment to fighting climate change.’

The late ripening, acidity and resilience to climate stress of several of these ancestral varieties could be beneficial as the climate continues to warm. The high acid, late-maturing Forcada, currently produced as a single-variety wine, is a good example. Sabarich sees it as a potential blending partner for Mediterranean vine varieties less endowed with acidity. ‘In the old days, people here probably grew hundreds of different varieties, but phylloxera destroyed most of them,’ he said. ‘Recovering as much of this diversity as we can is an important tool for us to become more sustainable.’

Around 60 native varieties have been rediscovered over the intervening years, most of them high yielding and low quality, according to Torres senior. ‘We have focused on developing the few that we really liked through microvinifications. It has taken a lot of time to bring them back to life in the form that you can taste today.’

Meanwhile, in the winery, the Torres team is working hard to reduce the company’s carbon footprint through a range of innovative measures from solar energy to a biomass boiler run on vine cuttings. The most striking are large balloons fixed above the stainless steel tanks to capture CO2 produced during fermentation, which is then reused in the winemaking process.

Balloons above the tanks to capture CO2 produced during fermentation. Credit: Rupert Joy

Tasting notes

Forcada 2019

Forcada has a distinctive high acid character, unusual for Mediterranean varieties. A citric, slightly medicinal nose gives way to crunchy acidity in the mouth, with a bitter-sour twist on the finish: this would be a good partner for fresh, herby, lemony salads.  It is grown at 450m in clay soils, important for the freshness of the wine. Around 3000 bottles are made.

Moneu natural 2020

Rediscovered in southern Penedès, Moneu is currently grown near the Torres Mas la Plana vineyard. So far just an experimental wine, it is produced from 100% destemmed grapes, with no crushing, fermented in earthenware amphorae and left on skins for three months. It has a jammy, peppery nose and offers a fresh, attractive mouthful of soft black fruit.

Pirene 2020

This variety was rediscovered in the Catalan Pyrenees – hence the name – where it is now planted at 950m. Naturally high in acidity, the grapes are (unusually for the region) picked in mid-October and given a short maceration to maintain finesse. It has an expressive nose, with ripe, fresh intensity in the mouth. Delicious. Around 2,000 bottles are made.

Clos Ancestral 2020

An attractive blend of Tempranillo, Moneu and Garnacha, from various vineyards in Penedès. The intention is to increase the proportion of Moneu – currently around 25% – in the blend. This has a herby, garrigue nose, with a moreish, peppery palate. Excellent value.

Grans Muralles 2017

A blend of Garnacha, Cariñena and Monastrell with a smattering of two rediscovered native varieties, Querol and Garró, which bring a juicy freshness and complexity. This is beautifully delicate and perfumed, with a wonderful quality of fruit, great freshness and length.

The single-variety wines are currently produced in very small quantities and mostly sold on-trade or not yet produced commercially, though Forcada is available in the UK from VINVM (2016: £33.50, 2017: £39.50) and Waud Wines (2016: £44.95). Clos Ancestral 2020 is available at Vinissimus at £17.75. Grans Muralles 2017 is available from VinQuinn at £57 in bond.

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