The Quest to Recover Ancestral Grape Varieties in Catalonia - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Quest to Recover Ancestral Grape Varieties in Catalonia

It was one of the most unusual bunches of grapes I’d ever seen: tiny berries clustered tightly together alongside swollen orbs of fruit, some three times the size. This lack of uniformity usually indicates some sort of disease or a problem ripening, but no—this was just the character of the variety, Querol.

Querol is just one of Spain’s nearly extinct indigenous varieties, but it, along with other ancestral grapes, might hold the key to Spain’s winemaking future. Familia Torres, a family-run wine company, aims to revive these grapes in their experimental vineyard, Mas Rabell, in the Penedès DO of Catalonia. What started as a heritage project four decades ago to revive oft-forgotten parts of Spain’s winemaking culture may also be the path to its future.

Familia Torres was founded in 1870 and today counts eight estates throughout Spain—mostly in Catalonia—under its umbrella, as well as estates in California and Chile. But Catalonia is its heartland; this autonomous community in the northeast of Spain is home to rugged landscapes, high-altitude vineyards, and seaside villages. Spanish is a primary language but, more often than not, Catalan rolls off the tongue of its residents.

Miguel A. Torres and Miguel Torres Maczassek
Miguel A. Torres and his son, Miguel Torres Maczassek | Photo by Edu Bayer

In the 1980s, Miguel A. Torres, fourth generation and president of Familia Torres, became intrigued with the idea of recovering varieties that potentially survived the phylloxera crisis that occurred around the turn of the 20th century. “There were many more varieties than the ones that we know today,” says his son, Miguel Torres Maczassek, the company’s general manager. But the vineyard infestation, which nearly decimated an entire industry, also created a reckoning. Post-phylloxera, winemakers cultivated varieties guaranteed to do well in the climate, or turned toward more fashionable grapes that held international appeal.

“It was really a philanthropic project,” explains Torres Maczassek. “In my father’s mind was not the idea to make a wine, it was to have a collection, like a botanical collection.” This being the ’80s, well before the widespread use of internet and email, Torres began his search by placing ads in local newspapers.

The response astounded the family and they were soon making treks to the farthest corners of Catalonia, oftentimes with an ampelographer in tow, to examine the vine. Yes, vine singular; sometimes it was just a lone plant, climbing up the trunk of a tree, or resting on the outskirts of a field, that brought the team out. Anything they couldn’t easily identify was sent to a nursery at the University of Montpellier in France, which contains one of the world’s largest databases of grape varieties. If it didn’t match anything in the records, they knew they’d struck gold. The family amassed a collection that currently includes 64 varieties, about six of which are now actively being used in winemaking.

Once a vine is designated an ancestral variety, the real hard work begins.

Once a vine is designated an ancestral variety, the real hard work begins. Vines of that age are riddled with disease, and the viticulturists need pristine plant material for further experiments. The vine is reproduced several times in a greenhouse using new cells over several growth cycles until it’s given a clean bill of health. It’s then brought to Mas Rabell for cultivation and study. “We want to find the differences; to see which ones ripen earlier, which ones have problems with a lack of water [for example],” says Torres Maczassek. Pruning techniques popular before phylloxera are again en vogue as these varieties don’t respond as well to modern methods.

Catalonia grapes
The Mas Rabell experimental vineyard | Photo by Jordi Elias

Once the family has a grasp on the vine’s personality, which takes several harvests, they consider what kind of terroir will allow the variety to thrive. Torres Maczassek says they’ve found the same varieties both along the coast and in the mountains, and their task is to find its happy place. On average, it takes about 14 years for a discovered vine to become viable for winemaking.

Familia Torres first started using the ancestral varieties in blends; the 1996 Grans Muralles debuted with some Garró—a somewhat floral variety that’s light in color but rather tannic—in the cuvée. Now, these rediscovered varieties make up a larger proportion of the blend, and in 2020 they released their first single-varietal wine, made from the white grape Forcada. With notes of citrus fruits and a touch of salinity, the wine is a delicious pairing with the razor clams and crudo served at dinner.

While the senior Torres saw this project as an homage to Catalan viticulture, his son now considers it a potential solution to winemaking under climate change, or “climate emergency,” as he puts it. Grapes like the aforementioned Forcada have high acidity levels and ripen later, both qualities that play well in a warming climate. Torres Maczassek and his sister, Mireia, both now lead the project, and these varieties constitute the majority of their new plantings in vineyards throughout Catalonia.

Catalonia grapes
Ancestral vines being grown in a laboratory. | Photo by Jordi Elias

Torres Maczassek admits there was some hesitation in the family about making their findings publicly available, as the project was—and continues to be—a time-intensive and costly endeavor. However, they ultimately decided that “even if we recover them, they are not ours,” says Torres Maczassek. “These varieties belong to all the Catalan families that were wine growers before phylloxera.” Vines are available for any interested winemaker to purchase through a nursery, and the appellation of Penedès has even approved the use of some of these new varieties in its rules, which the family hopes will continue to legitimize their use in the eyes of other winemakers.

“It seems like we try to control nature in every single way, but we can learn a lot from nature,” says Torres Maczassek. “It’s been surprising that we find varieties that we need so much today. Here in the Penedès with the climate change, with the heat, [with the lack of rain] …finding varieties that ripen late that have good acidity—this is a gift and this came from nature. I cannot ask for more. These are the varieties that probably our children will use.”

And the quest continues. While email and the internet have helped in their search, their biggest sourcing channel still remains the old-fashioned newspaper ad. “Every month we still get a phone call,” Torres Maczassek says with a smile.

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