The scents and sounds of a high, remote vineyard are captivating at twilight. Mas de la Rosa sits above the town of Porrera in Priorat, a wild, undulating plot of Cariñena and Garnacha and assorted local varieties. We arrive just as the light is waning on a bright, unseasonably warm winter’s day, and the air is filled with the fine garrigue scents of earth, stone and herb, along with woodsmoke (it gets cold very quickly when the sun goes down). A bell tolls the quarter hour, a dog barks somewhere far away, and the rumble of a tractor rolls up the valley. Other than that, silence.
Mas de la Rosa is one of the most recent purchases of Familia Torres. These vertiginous vineyards, so steep and inaccessible they have to be ploughed by mule, are pure llicorella, the Priorat slate so beloved of local winemakers (‘the vines drink stone’, they like to say). At the edge of the site, in an olive grove, is the old stone house – Rosa’s mas – that, legend has it, was almost burnt to the ground by its owner in the mid-19th century. The three-foot-thick walls are still blackened with scorch marks. It’s an atmospheric spot, and it’s easy to imagine the self-sufficient life the old lady and her family would have led here, chickens pecking in the vegetable garden, a donkey tethered under the olive trees.
Miguel Torres Maczassek, who took over from his father Miguel A Torres as managing director of the Torres empire in 2012, loves this place. ‘When I go up to Mas de la Rosa, I feel a special connection, an energy,’ he says. He appreciates its inaccessibility, the fact that you can’t get a tractor around the vines, that it’s perfectly resistant to technology.
The vineyard embodies the organic, traditional, artisanal ethos of Familia Torres, one of the dominant forces in Spanish winemaking. Half the Penedès titan’s 2000ha of vineyards in Spain are organic; Miguel Torres Sr, who at 78 is a robust and ubiquitous presence in the global wine world, is an indefatigable evangelist for sustainability. It was he who persuaded the Familia Torres board (the company is 100% family owned) to earmark 11% of profits for research into climate change. So far €15 million has been dedicated to such projects.
At Mas de la Rosa I feel a special connection, an energy
Climate change overwhelmingly occupies the three senior members of the family. Mireia, Miguel Jr’s sister, who runs the Jean Leon winery in Penedès, returns from the first Catalan Climate Action Summit in Barcelona as lunch is getting underway. ‘We’re talking about climate change,’ her father says. ‘Debating’ might be a better word. There is much good-natured disagreement around the table as to how the situation should be addressed. Miguel Sr puts his faith in the primacy of science, which he believes will provide the solutions. He has little patience with biodynamics, since much of it can’t be explained. ‘You have to be able to give a scientific reason for everything that you do in the vineyard,’ he says.
Not so, his son counters. ‘If we follow only a technical approach, then we lose our souls as vine growers. We have to understand the vineyard as an ecosystem – there should be something beyond climate change.’
Listening to the arguments, it’s tempting, if glib, to characterise the father as the head while the son is the heart. Mireia, meanwhile, privately disagrees with some of her father’s projects (though she won’t say which), but shares his scepticism about some trends. When I ask the table’s opinion of natural wine, she is blunt. ‘Un puñetero’ – a pain in the neck.
Whether head or heart, what unites the trio is an unswerving devotion to innovation. Familia Torres is a leader in the field of Carbon Capture and Re-use (CCR), partnering universities in researching numerous techniques for harnessing the CO2 released during fermentation. The projects are in their infancy – one of the most promising so far, says Miguel Sr, is a method of converting CO2 into a methane biogas for use in transportation.
Miguel Sr is an evangelist – the Al Gore of the wine world, famous for his conference jeremiads against pollution – and his is an empirical approach: science, and rigorous experimentation, will find the answers. He uses his considerable heft to carry his message worldwide. In 2019, along with Jackson Family Wines of California, he founded International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), a working group dedicated to seeking solutions to climate change through ‘the decarbonisation of the global wine industry’. Four more wineries, including Symington Family Estates of Portugal and Yealands of New Zealand, have recently applied to join.
Miguel Sr is an acolyte of empiricism and the power of persuasion (he nods emphatically at the notion that it’s the finance directors of any company who need to be won over in the argument for reducing emissions). Miguel Jr’s focus is slightly different. He carries the torch for research, but he looks to the vineyards – in particular the ancestral varieties project – to ensure the survival of the company.
Torres began its ‘garden of varieties’ in the early 1980s as a way of preserving forgotten grape varieties. Today there are over 200 from around the world, planted in rows at Mas Rabell, the fine old farmhouse and vineyard in the high Penedès. It began more or less as a ‘philanthropic’ project, Miguel Jr says – until the issue of climate change became more important. ‘Then we started to take a closer interest in the varieties that have specific properties – those that would ripen later and those with higher acidity.’
The team, originally led by Mireia Torres (who is now innovation manager, among several other responsibilities) has identified five ‘ancestral varieties’ – Forcada, Pirene, Gonfaus, Moneu and Querol – that show a high degree of adaptability to high temperatures and water stress. All these grapes were found in forgotten plots in the region, or sent in by growers and farmers who had them on their land but didn’t know what they were. Torres tests them to prove they are native to Catalonia, then adds them to the nursery, in some cases grafted onto existing vines. Once established, the grapes are vinified in a new, high- tech micro-vinification facility. Key to the project is disseminating these grapes around Catalonia – ‘they are part of Catalan viticulture and should be shared’, says Mireia.
We’re drinking a Forcada now, a lean, mineral, aromatic white with a satisfying weight on the mid-palate, reminiscent of a classy Ribolla Gialla or Grüner Veltliner. It’s in production now, available in UK restaurants. It’s an anomaly: ‘The wine has high acidity, yet it’s aromatic and has a fatness that is unusual for a white Catalan variety,’ Miguel Jr says.
His theory is that these ancient varieties – they are all pre-phylloxera – became adapted to heat during the Medieval Warm Period, an era of higher temperatures in the North Atlantic region, which lasted from about 950 to 1250. ‘Then, when things began to cool down, the Forcada would have become risky for the grower because it would have taken too long to ripen, so it became unfashionable. Now, as temperatures increase, a variety from the past can be used again.’
Winemaking, more than most forms of agriculture, embraces the present while keeping one foot planted in the past. At wineries the world over you can see multi-million-dollar scientific equipment alongside horse-drawn ploughs. Torres invests millions of euros in hi- tech research and development, but to visit its vineyards is to look deep into the past. At Grans Muralles in Conca de Barbera, vines have been cultivated in the lee of the 800-year-old wall since the 13th century; at nearby Milmanda, the documented history of the vines stretches at least as far back. At Costers del Segre, the ancient monastery farm buildings of the wonderfully-named 600m high Purgatori vineyard rise out of the morning mist like visitants from the dark ages.
When Miguel Jr says he feels ‘a connection’ with this land, he’s not being sentimental. These high vineyards are the future, just as heat- resistant grape varieties will guarantee Torres remains in business: ‘You can modify the DNA of a variety to adapt it, but to me it’s more wonderful to find a variety that is already from here. This is what I like, to find a connection with vines from the past – and our priority is to make sure the next generation have the chance to continue what we have started.’ His father nods in approval, then excuses himself – he has a guitar lesson to go to. He’s been learning for about four years, he says. ‘When you’re old, it takes time to pick up new things.’
Familia Torres is Spain’s biggest family-owned winery, with extensive holdings not only in its homeland of Penedès in Catalunya, but in Priorat, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Galicia – and in Chile and California. Founded in 1870 by Jaime Torres with the profits from a lucky investment in Cuba, the winery quickly flourished, registering the trademarks Coronas and Sol in the early 20th century. Its global reputation was forged in the early 1960s when a youthful Miguel A Torres, fresh from his studies in Dijon, decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon; Gran Coronas Etiqueta Negra (Black Label) was the result. Renamed Mas La Plana in 1995 after its vineyard, the wine was named best wine at the Gault Millau Wine Olympics in Paris in 1979.
Today, from its 2000ha across northern Spain, the family produce an astonishing range of wines, from the eternally popular Viña Sol and Gran Sangre de Toro to the renowned Grans Muralles and powerful reds from the high vineyards of Priorat. Now under the presidency of Miguel Torres Maczassek, the winery is a world leader in pioneering research into climate change and sustainability, and the preservation and cultivation of ancestral grape varieties.