Querol, Forcada and Pirene are grapes most people have never heard of. Their names are new, chosen by Spain’s Torres family after they found them growing wild in Catalonia. Yet the family is convinced that these varieties were commonly used in the region’s blended red wines for hundreds or thousands of years, before phylloxera destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards in the second half of the 19th century.
These long-forgotten grapes have been resurrected, along with more than 50 others, as part of the Torres family’s 30-plus-year journey to recover the lost winemaking heritage of Catalonia, in the northeastern corner of Spain, around Barcelona. The more they learn about these ancestral varieties, the more the family believes they could play a pivotal role in arming today’s winegrowers to cope with an increasingly warm and dry climate.
“We always knew that Catalonia had so many different varieties in the past,” says fifth-generation family member Miguel Torres Maczassek, who helms Familia Torres today. “But after phylloxera, growers only replanted Tempranillo and Garnacha, abandoning most Catalan native Mediterranean varieties. We suspected that many had survived the devastation of phylloxera in the 1800s and were still out there.”
Recovery of these vines is a painstakingly slow, yet fascinating process, led by Torres’ sister, Mireia Torres Maczassek, director of knowledge and innovation. After discovering an unidentified vitis vinifera vine and analyzing its DNA to determine that it is truly a unique variety, the Torres research team begins propagating it from plant cells (not vine cuttings, as is typical) in test tubes to eliminate any viruses. Next, they plant the vines in experimental vineyards to assess their enologic potential—in other words, whether the grapes can make wine that actually tastes good. By the time, the team can finally use a new variety in a wine that goes to market, 15 years or more has passed.
Several decades into this Jurassic Park-like endeavor, the Torres team began to notice that many of these varieties seemed hard-wired to be more resistant to high temperatures and drought—the exact conditions increasingly threatening winegrowing in many Spanish regions. “Every time we plant new vineyards today, we are thinking about the next 50 or 70 or 100 years, and I am certain these grapes will play an important part,” says Miguel Torres.
For example, Forcada, a white ancestral variety that Torres is especially excited about, ripens very late and is naturally high in acidity. While they harvest their Chardonnay from the Conca de Barberà district in August, their Forcada growing in Alt Penedès isn’t picked until a full six weeks later, in October. In a hot climate, this means the variety can showcase the holy grail of low pH, high natural acidity and complex flavor development. “We are planting a lot of Forcada; I’m a huge believer in its future here.”
The experiment didn’t start out as a response to climate change, though the family is now well-known for its activism on that front. Torres’ father, fourth-generation Miguel A. Torres, began the project back in the 1980s, before rising temperatures were on most winegrowers’ radars. He hypothesized that the ancestral vines that survived phylloxera may be more disease-resistant and potentially useful in cultivating heartier vines. Partnering with a leading viticulture professor from the University of Montpelier, he began the hunt for old vines. “My father put advertisements in the local papers asking growers to call us if they found an unidentified vine,” Torres recounts. The phone started ringing. “It was a lot of fun. Most of the time, these vines were found in a forest or at the edge of a road or close to a river. They were growing completely wild.”
The first discovery was a red grape identified as Garró, an old variety that was on the brink of extinction. After a decade of cultivation and study, they added it to the blend of Torres’ Grans Muralles in 1996, an icon wine created to feature ancestral varieties, blended with regional standards such as Cariñena and Garnacha. Over a decade later, Querol, named for the nearby town where it was discovered in 1998, was included in the blend as well. Torres’ Purgatori blend now contains some Gonfaus, a variety discovered in 1998 near Barcelona, while another variety native to Penedès, Monau, appears in the Clos Ancestral bottling.
Not every variety is suitable for wine production; only about six have made the cut so far. Some show such promise the Torres family has chosen to bottle them individually, starting with Forcada. Pirene followed and Gonfaus will debut this spring. Bearing a “Varietat Recuperada” label in a hand-written style, they are made in tiny quantities–only a few thousand bottles in some cases, but those numbers could increase in coming years.
Interestingly, though the Torres team has broadened the hunt to other regions in Spain, such as Rioja, they have found nowhere near the number of ancestral vines as within Catalonia’s borders. The center of Spain was more isolated, explains Torres, whereas Catalonia was part of the major Mediterranean trading route that the Phoenicians established as far back as 1,500 B.C., so a wide range of diverse grapes were coming and going.
“In the mountains near the border of Penedès, it’s like a sanctuary of ancient varieties,” he says. “It seems phylloxera didn’t get into the mountains.”
The project has revealed many clues about the region’s viticultural past, Torres adds. “The concept of a monovarietal vineyard did not exist back then; it was more like a society of vines, which cross-pollinated.” They’ve also identified a number of “parents” of today’s popular grape varieties.
How do they select each rediscovered grape’s name? “That is the hardest part. It’s like naming your child,” says Torres. “We usually select a nearby landmark—from hills, rivers, mountains, towns. Then we baptize it, and it goes to the Ministry of Agriculture.” The Torres family has to convince the Catalan government, as well as the appellation’s governing agency, that each is a unique vitis vinifera variety from Spain so it can legally be included in wines made by any winegrower.
“We are not doing this for us, but for all the growers in our region. And we share what we’ve learned and our mistakes. For example, don’t vinify Forcada with wood; it doesn’t work well.” There is tremendous interest from the winemaking community, he reports. “People want to learn, and there is so much momentum. Many here agree that these grapes could help us fight against climate change as we look to the future. This work is not a sprint, it is a marathon.”