As the effects of climate change become increasingly clear, wine producers around the world are stepping up their efforts to grow their grapes and make their wines in ever more sustainable and environmentally and socially responsible ways. The most forward-thinking of them are implementing changes across the range of their operations, whether on their own estate vineyards or alongside grower partners from whom they purchase fruit; in their wineries; and throughout the distribution chain.
This shift is occurring along the entirety of the spectrum of producers, from the smallest to the largest, the latter of which, given their economies of scale, have the potential to substantially move the proverbial needle. Familia Torres, which produces terrific wines throughout Spain that are widely distributed around the world, has become an industry leader in this regard.
Fifteen years ago, in 2008, they inaugurated their Torres & Earth program, with the goal, as their website notes, of “mitigating the effects of global warming by reducing our carbon footprint, adapting to the new climate situation, and raising awareness both within the sector and society about the need to take action. Our objective is to reduce our CO2 emissions per bottle—from the vineyard to the end consumer—by 60% in 2030 [and] to become a net zero emissions winery before 2040.”
It’s a fantastically forward-thinking program, and reflects the deep respect that the Torres family has for an industry that they’ve been involved in for centuries (though the company itself was founded in 1870, they have been producing wine since the 1500s). Today, with properties all over Spain, Torres has become a wine-industry leader in the quest for environmentally and socially responsible solutions to the climate crisis.
One of the more interesting ways that they’re doing this is, fascinatingly, by looking backward, to the ancestral grape varieties that evolved to grow in particular landscapes and terroirs yet had fallen out of favor over the generations as more popular varieties took hold. To that end, the work they’re doing with ancestral grape varieties is rooted in excellent logic: As the climate is changing and the resulting impacts are becoming ever more dramatic and damaging, it’s the varieties that evolved to thrive in particular micro-climates and terroirs that have the greatest chance of not just succeeding, but also of possessing the ability to be farmed with fewer inputs, chemical or otherwise.
Clos Ancestral is a terrific example of how important and delicious these grapes can be. And the team at Torres has even gotten the community involved, having placed ads in local magazines, asking readers, many of whom had small plots of vines that they vinified for personal consumption, to let them know if they had any suspected ancestral or unidentified varieties on their land. Cuttings of them were then taken, testing on the material was undertaken, and eventually, experimental vineyards were populated by Torres with the most promising. And while the majority of the varieties weren’t all that great, they noted, they were able to find a number of compelling ones. Varieties like Forcada, Gonfaus, Pirene, and Querol are among the most exciting…and, based on my personal tastings, full of promise for the future and a great deal of pleasure right now.
The Gonfaus 2021, for example, has bracing acidity, with lots of purple fruit, hints of chocolate, meat, blood oranges, and sarsaparilla. It’s juicy with subtly tannic complexity, and reminiscent in the best sense of Beaujolais Cru. The Forcada 2020, on the other hand, shimmers with serious acidity, waxy flavors of lemon flesh and oils, springtime blossoms, key lime, and mineral.
Because Torres has estates throughout Spain, and given the scale of their operations overall, they are in the unique position to be able to both customize their work in each one and move the proverbial needle in terms of how top producers in the country handle the changing climate. As a result, their wines are not just expressive their places of origin—as the best around the world always are—but they also, in many ways, contribute to the collective road map of the way forward in a world where weather and climate extremes are becoming the rule rather than the exception.
As always, however, it’s the wine in the glass that keeps consumers and professionals coming back for more. And in that regard, Torres is excelling. A vertical tasting of their flagship Mas La Plana, for example, showed how brilliantly the wines age, as well as how notable the vineyard and winemaking changes that have been implemented over the years have been. In the 1980s, for example, more productive younger vines led to larger crops at harvest, whereas now, they’ve pulled back—a trend I’ve seen around the world among top producers. This allows the relatively poor soils to leave their mark more vividly, as does the reduced influence of oak, which has been achieved by cutting out any use of American oak and even incorporating foudres, those larger vessels that lessen the impact of the wood given the increased volume of wine within them. The result are fascinating.
The Mas La Plana 1989 boasted tannins that have taken on a sweet-savory character, like beef bouillon or demi-glace, alongside bright, mouthwatering, yet still mature notes of blackberries and cassis. Cedar-lined humidor filled with well-aged cigars, lingering tannins that are a but dry but still ripe and delicious, and hints of smoldering sage and dried violets lead to a leather- and dried-apricot-kissed finish. As a counterpoint, the 2017 showed expectedly more youthful fruit, yet still shined with remarkable complexity: Blueberries, cocoa powder, and dehydrated orange peels were joined by blood oranges, toasted vanilla pod, woodsy herbs, bergamot, and a passing glance of olives. (This was the first year that Mas La Plana was made with 40% used barrels, as opposed to all new barrels. There was also a shorter maceration than previous years and a lower fermentation temperature, which highlighted the freshness of the fruit. This holds the promise for a couple of decades of evolution if stored properly.)
Torres also excels with Chardonnay—their Milmanda is grown in clay-heavy soils, resulting in wines that find an elusive balance between generosity and vivacity. The 2018 has excellent concentration and length, with flavors of apricots, autumn orchard fruit, slightly dried apples, and a subtle floral lift. Partway through fermentation in a stainless steel tank, it was racked it into barrels to finish before malolactic fermentation (which classically adds more buttery flavors) was allowed to occur—though in this vintage, it was limited to just 15%, maintaining wonderful freshness. After that, the wine was racked back into stainless steel for 10 months of aging on the lees. All of this work to build texture while still maintaining elegance and liveliness resulted in a ripe and generous wine with excellent structure—a successful result of their ongoing revisions in their use of malo, time in oak, and toast levels to account for the effects of climate change. Even the gorgeously mature Milmanda 2013 boasts amazing structure, and is showing slight almond skin notes on the nose and palate, as expected given its maturity. The oak is more apparent here, yet it’s beautifully integrated, lending spice and even greater depth to yellow apples and seckel pears, grilled apricots, and brown butter.
Their Grans Muralles, which leverages Garnacha, Cariñena, Querol, Monastrell, and Garró from the Conca de Barberà region, makes the most of the fascinating gravel and alluvial, rocky, and sandy soils that result from the river on one side and the mountains on the other. The 2012 has distinctly savory aromas, almost meaty, like green peppercorn demi-glace on a steak. Purple fruit, hoisin sauce, and cloves ring through the long finish: This is a wine of outstanding potential. The 2018 has beautiful perfumed blackberries and violets that are complicated by cassis, star anise, huckleberries, boysenberries, cracked peppercorns, and a grace note of eucalyptus. And the range of reds from Priorat, from the old vines, Porrera-grown Mas de la Rosa to the fantastically cellar-able Salmos and Perpetual bottlings, take full advantage of the unique schist of the region, that ancient split slate that forces the vines’ roots to travel deep into the earth in order to find the water and nutrients they need.
Purgatori, in Costers del Segre, showcases some of the top Syrah in the country. And in keeping with other winemaking revisions and experiments, the team pulled back on their use of quite as much new oak in favor of a greater implementation of foudres. The impact has been striking. The 2016, for example, seems more advanced from a maturity standpoint, with sandalwood, leather, tobacco, green and cured black olives, salinity, and forest floor layered with plum sauce, crushed cherries, oolong tea, charred herbs, and carob. The 2019, in contrast, and likely as a consequence of the change in oak regime, places more focus on the Syrah itself, with floral cracked black and white peppercorn aromas, that classic Syrah meatiness, and black and green olives alongside notes of black and red berry fruit. On the palate, it’s bright and vivid, with layers of red and black raspberries, lingonberries, blue fruits, peppercorns, and blood oranges. In its bouillon-and-flowers savoriness, there are unmistakable nods in the direction of the greats of the Northern Rhône.
Familia Torres, with its excellent environmental programs, dedication to the land in which their precious grapes grow, and insistence on producing top-quality wines, is a benchmark for responsible, exciting winemaking. Their willingness to experiment, and to pivot as the changing climate and their individual terroirs demand, are helping to define the future of a producer that is fantastically nimble and forward-thinking. And the wines, based on my tasting, are as exciting, emblematic, and age-worthy as any collector could hope for.