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A $41 glass of 150-year-old wine is the wild future of vineyards

The rediscovered varieties better endure drought conditions, a highly sought-after characteristic in a modern grape

Richard Morgan | Bloomberg 

A vineyard owned by Torres in the Spanish Pyrenees. Photo: Bloomberg
A vineyard owned by Torres in the Spanish Pyrenees. Photo: Bloomberg

is the fifth-generation manager of his family-owned vineyard, Bodegas Torres in Catalonia’s Vilafranca del Penedès, about an hour outside Barcelona. Yet in 2012, he bought 195 hectares of land 1,200 meters high in the Pyrenees, even though it’s not possible to grow there ... yet. Torres expects climate change to make it viable to produce grapes in a decade or two.

“We are not about to grow pinot noir in the Pyrenees, but maybe we can plant the pinot noir,” he said, standing on his vineyard. “When we tell people we’re buying land where nothing grows today, they look at us strangely. But we believe it makes sense.” 

Torres talks a lot about the future but even more about the past. Since the 1980s, Torres placed ads in local Spanish newspapers seeking grapevines that survived phylloxera, a late-19th century plague that decimated European vineyards. Today, 35 years and 500 phone calls later, he has found 46 ancestral varieties, six of which have been made into viable wines not tasted in 150 years.

But something unexpected happened during Torres’s quixotic quest to become a hero of 19th century wines: He stumbled upon a chance to become a hero of 21st century wines as well. The rediscovered varieties better endure drought conditions, a highly sought-after characteristic in a modern grape.

This year, a savage spring frost in Bordeaux and epic summer storms in combined to produce France’s smallest vintage in 60 years. In Chile, vintners are rolling the dice on wild grapes that grow in rainy forests to combat drought. In California’s wine-rich Napa and Sonoma counties, 20 wildfires have killed at least 40 people—some burned to ashes—in the state’s deadliest-ever wildfires. “Santa Rosa will be a different planet,” Sonoma’s sheriff told the Los Angeles Times of the county’s mecca.

Torres has been anticipating that different planet. “There are going to be new regions,” he said.

“Until now, I have never known a year in which it was too hot to make successful wines in Bordeaux or Burgundy,” wrote Denis Dubourdieu, the late, highly respected winemaker and researcher, in the Journal of Economics (PDF) last year. He was joined by 18 in that report, including two members of the Torres family. Their data were uniform: earlier harvests, less acidic grapes, awful rains and droughts and higher humidity — including “almost tropical conditions” in Germany.

Yet some experts still shrug at winemaking’s apocalypse. “They make some really nice wines in the desert in Israel,” said Gregory Gambetta, a professor of viticulture in Bordeaux. “It’s super-complicated,” he said of climate’s role in the process. (He called France’s vicious spring frost, for example, a “freak climactic event.”)

Torres is one of the winemakers sounding the alarm loudest. “Climate change is the greatest threat for the business in general, and for growers in particular,” he wrote in the journal report. But as dire as that sounds, he has a secret arsenal: six ancestral varieties of grapes he has named Forcada, Garró, Gonfaus, Moneu, Pirene, and Querol. 

“I’m going to plant as much Moneu as I can,” Torres said of his revived, round, aging with an open nose and notes of cassis, framboise and plum. “It’s seen now as experimental. In the future, it will be essential.” It’s not for sale yet, either by the bottle or by the vine.

There is just one commercial ancestral blend available at the moment: Grans Muralles. The includes both Garró and Querol and it’s served at a Torres restaurant in Barcelona, by the glass for 35 euros ($41) or by the bottle for 150 euros. The price drops to 130 euros per bottle if you purchase it to go, in the restaurant’s retail shop.

Pressing circumstances—the bad news in California, Chile and France, for example — keep shifting Torres’s sense of the industry. But he is eying Australia’s $5 billion market, where — according to a 2013 study — 73 per cent of now-viable vineyards will be unusable by 2050. When he speaks of his business strategy, he adopts an almost-wistful tone.

“Imagine it: in Patagonia! The vineyards will continue,” he said. The key is making the transition to more robust grapes immediately. The time, Torres said, is now.

First Published: Sun, October 22 2017. 02:32 IST
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