There is a recurring theme of grape revivals beginning to take place in Europe. Back on May 28th I wrote about France’s The Forgotten Grape of the Loire, the Lignage grape, and today I will talk about efforts taking place by some of the world’s largest wine producers. Not only do they have the resources to take on such a massive undertaking, but they also have the land, the vineyards and the history to be able to go back in time to re-plant vines for the future.
One such producer is Spain’s Familia Torres where Miguel A. Torres, the fourth-generation president, began the work about 40 years ago after discussing the great phylloxera aphid epidemic of the late 19th century with famed University of Montpellier viticulture professor Denis Boubals. The insect infestation, which unknowingly came from North America, destroyed most European vineyards. However, Boubals believed that a few vines had probably survived somewhere.
Torres began the search for orphan vines and over several decades his winery has rediscovered 54 ancient grape varieties from Catalonia, including six good enough to produce as wine. It is his belief that we need a new way of understanding wine in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. With that aim, Familia Torres focused their efforts on reducing their carbon footprint, while recovering ancestral varieties, promoting research and implementing regenerative viticulture to benefit the vineyards and the planet. What makes these old varietals even more interesting and potentially important in light of climate change is that they have been found to be significantly resistant to both heat and drought.
Regenerating ancestral varieties is an exercise in viticultural archaeology to recover past heritage. By reviving varieties used by their ancestors, they can look to the future and discover the authenticity that will result in extraordinary wines that are truly special and cannot be made the same way anywhere else.
With an understanding of the type of varieties and vines that prospered so well in its soils in the past, the Torres family will be able to work better with the grapes and terroir they now have in their vineyards.
The first step of the project was to try and fine old vines and determine if they were indeed varieties that were no longer cultivated. This required going to the media outlets and placing ads asking farmers to contact Torres if they came across vines they could not identify.
Their first breakthrough came in the mid-1980s when a vine was found that Torres’s technical team could not identify. This unknown varietal was eventually identified as Garró. After much examination and research the decision was made to plant the variety in Conca de Barberà and add it to the blend of the first Grans Muralles vintage in 1996.
In 1998 a second variety was found and named Querol, after the village where it was found. The 2009 vintage was the first Grans Muralles blend to include grapes from the Querol vines.
Since 2000, Familia Torres’s research team has collaborated with France’s National Agricultural Research Institute, the INRA, to establish and implement specific stages when looking to identify and revive ancestral varietals. These stages include:
Search for Varietals
This includes the placement of ads with local and regional media outlets to tell grape growers who to contact if they happen to come across an old vine. When a potential case presents itself, Torres’s technical team conducts a preliminary evaluation on site.
Identification and Classification
To identify different varieties, ampelographers analyze the shoots, leaves, canes and grapes. A DNA analysis of the vine is then completed to dispel any remaining doubts about the variety. If the variety is identified as being unique, the team then completes a detailed description of all of the plant’s components.
Evaluation and Enological Potential
In order to study the behavior of these varieties under normal reproductive conditions, the vines are planted in a pilot vineyard. This allows for an in-depth analysis of the vegetative and productive parameters of each individual variety. The grapes are harvested to evaluate the enological (science that deals with wine and wine making) potential and organoleptic (being, affecting, or relating to qualities (such as taste, colour and odor) of a substance (such as a food) that stimulate the sense organs) quality of the wines.
Adapting to the Vineyard
The varieties displaying enological potential are planted in vineyards to evaluate their performance under more extreme climate conditions. Once the ideal conditions for each variety have been identified and its enological potential verified, the process of registering it with the relevant authorities begins.
The complete list of ancestral varieties that have been regenerated by Familia Torres include the following:
Garró was the first variety to be revived. First found on the terraced slopes of the Garraf Massif in the mid-1980s, it was planted in the early 1990s in Conca de Barberà. It was initially used in the blend of the first Grans Muralles vintage (1996). This is a late ripening, low yield variety with “great aromatic complexity”, according to Torres. It also “displays intense notes of green leaves and ripe black fruit. They are big on the palate, with lots of character and lively tannins”.
This old vine, rediscovered in 1998 near Querol (Tarragona,) saw the resurgence of a variety that was named after the village where it was found. It is one of the few known varieties that is completely female. This means that unlike most vinifera vines, its flowers are female rather than hermaphroditic (having both male and female reproductive organs). s a result, the berries are smaller and more irregular, and produce in a low yield.
Torres says Querol wines “are intense and fruity (forest fruit, pomegranate juice) with a big, concentrated palate that displays good acidity”.
Moneu was also found in 1998 near Querol. It is named after Coster de Moneu, located to the south of the village. It is a red variety that grows well in high temperatures and drought conditions. The wines offer intense aromas of fragrant fresh fruit with well-defined acidity and gentle tannins.
This is a red variety that was found around Lluçanès in Osona county in 1998. The climate conditions there are extremely dry, with large changes between daytime and nighttime temperatures. Gonfaus is a very low-yielding variety with wine that displays complex aromas of ripe fruit with slightly spicy undertones. It has well-integrated acidity and ripe, sweet tannins.
Forcada is a white varietal found in Ripollès county. It is very vigorous and productive, as well as very aromatic. It has aromas of herbs, white flowers and citrus.
Found in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees, Pirene is a strongly pigmented red variety with high tannin levels and a spicy, minerally nuance. The flavour reveals flavourful fresh fruit.