Most people have heard about the myriad apple varieties that have fallen from favor over the past couple of hundred years, leaving us with — at most — five or six sorts to choose from. It’s the same story with Vitis vinifera, the family of grapes used for making wine. Countless varieties have ceased to be cultivated, sometimes for perfectly good and understandable reasons: They didn’t produce enough grapes, perhaps, or the resulting wine simply didn’t taste good.
Spain has an extraordinary treasure chest of such varieties, many of which have fallen by the wayside over the years. Mireia Torres, chief wine-making consultant for the Torres group, commented to me on a recent visit: “We have at least as many grape varieties as Italy — we’re just less good at making a noise about them!”
The better the planet, the better the wine
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The Torres family is well known on both sides of the Atlantic, not only for its astonishing range of wines but also for its pronounced sense of responsibility for the natural environment at every stage of the wine-making process. “The more we care for the earth, the better our wine” is the house motto.
As early as 1983, Miguel A. Torres, father of Mireia, began to sketch out a project to recover the wine-growing heritage of Catalonia. The project gained new momentum in the early 2000s under Mireia’s leadership, in collaboration with INRA, France’s National Agricultural Research Institute. The objective, now clearly established, is to identify and catalog these ancestral vines to evaluate their wine-making potential and their resistance to disease and drought — the latter an increasing threat to Torres vineyards throughout Spain, California and Chile.
The first step in the process was to place ads in the local press across the region of Catalonia, asking people to contact them about any unidentified vine varieties. The response was astonishing: People popped up in the hundreds with news of some little old vine that had reverted to the wild in a corner of their vineyard. Once informed about a potentially interesting specimen, a team from Torres visits and inspects. Any vine that looks promising is taken back to the research station and work starts on identification and classification.
The next step is to ascertain the health of the plant to eliminate potential risk of disease. Cuttings are first grown in vitro until the research team can be sure they are healthy; later they are grown hydroponically (without soil) in greenhouses. Once vines have passed the health test, they are tested for their wine-making potential. Tiny amounts of wine are made from the grapes, the quantities varying between 5 liters and 50 liters (1.3 gallons to 13 gallons).
From research to production
At the conclusion of this time-consuming and costly process, selected healthy vines are grafted onto rootstocks and planted in Torres vineyards in different parts of Catalonia, in different soils, climates and altitudes. That way it is possible to ascertain where they are likely to perform best.
From the 50 or so varieties gathered and identified, seven have shown potential and already play their part in some of the top Torres blends (notably the medal-winning Grans Muralles). A handful more are showing promise as single varietals, and Torres sees a bright future for them as high-end varietal bottlings.
“Reviving ancestral varieties is a long, slow process that demands great patience, hours of experimentation and a skilled team of incredible professionals,” said Miguel Torres Maczassek, brother of Mireia and general manager of Bodegas Torres, explaining that “the work lies somewhere between viticulture and archaeology. It gives us a better understanding of the wealth of grape varieties that existed prior to the outbreak of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, as well as helping us to tackle the effects of climate change.”
Thanks to the work undertaken by Bodegas Torres, the Spanish branch of the great Vitis vinifera family no longer looks quite so challenged.