Andrew Jefford finds a company in constant reinvention.
Spirit of renewal: Young vines planted by Torres at 750 metres above sea level on llicorella soils. Credit: Andrew Jefford
A rare moment: Miguel Torres, his son Miguel Junior and his daughter Mireia Torres, sitting together around the lunch table. The schedules of the three seldom coincide. We were discussing identity: a hot topic at present for Catalonia. The Catalunya DO, for example, is at present subject to informal boycott elsewhere in Spain since the secession crisis of October 2017.
Mr. Miguel Torres, his son Miguel Junior, and daughter Mireia Torres.
'We are not very political,' says Miguel Junior, with the calm affability which rarely seems to leave him. 'This is something we keep very private. We have people on both sides of the Catalan independence debate in our company, but we just concentrate on working hard together.’
'What's paramount,’ adds his father, 'is our European identity. We couldn't live without Europe. We have to stay in Europe; we need Europe. Now we have a more flexible government in Spain, maybe all this can be resolved.'
There's a picture of Barack Obama meeting Raul Castro on the wall nearby. 'I like to show this picture of Obama and Castro, because it illustrates that you can sit at a table and resolve problems. We are here to solve things, and to bring people together rather than separate them.'
It must have helped, of course, that the US and Cuban leaders were drinking Milmanda - and there is a historical twist, too: it was Jaime Torres' Cuba-made fortune which initially built Bodega Torres back in 1870. Arguments for reason, compromise and joint action are welcome in this summer of unreason and unilateralism.
I cannot think of a major wine company whose identity has changed more over the past three decades than Torres. Branded wines made at scale from purchased grapes formed the foundation laid by the previous generation: Vina Sol, Sangre de Toro, Coronas and Torres brandies. Miguel Torres added a Chilean dimension, and began the creation of fine single-vineyard wines such as Milmanda and Mas La Plana.
And now? You don't shift the fundamentals overnight, of course, and Vina Sol and Sangre de Toro remain vital (and surprisingly subtle) brands. But Torres is now well on the way to transforming itself into a cluster of individual and clearly differentiated wine estates, aimed squarely at the restaurant trade - as well as turning itself into the wine world's most environmentally committed large-scale producer.
Climate change is viewed by the Torres family as an existential struggle. 'We would like the next generation to continue producing wines; says Miguel Junior. 'If we cannot do that, we will have failed.'
The company has already invested 12 million euros in 'photovoltaic panels, electric cars, biomass: anything that can reduce emissions.’ The target is a 30% reduction by 2020.
Company thinking, though, goes much further than remedies. Torres is intensively researching the carbon capture of the vast tonnages of CO2 produced in fermentation every year around the world. 'Nobody has done this yet’, exclaims Miguel with some animation. 'We had a presentation about this last October. It can be done, and it will be fantastic for the wine industry.’
More than that, though, is the growing realisation that the fundamentals of wine production are changing, and in this respect, too, Torres is in mid-metamorphosis.
Back in the 1980s, advertisements in Catalan appeared in local newspapers. 'Bodegas Miguel Torres is undertaking a project of research and recuperation of ancestral Catalan varieties’, it read. 'If you know of any type of vine not coming from a customary variety and know where it can be found or someone who is growing it, please let us know.’
This began as a cultural project - but has now become a key part of the life-or-death struggle. ‘The next wines in which I have all my hopes,’ says Miguel Junior, 'are the ancestral varieties. Some of these came into being in the Medieval warm period; they ripen three weeks later than the varieties we are usually working with, and they retain their acidity.’
‘There are more than 150 varieties that are approved for winemaking in Spain,’ adds Mireia, ’but 85% of the vineyards are planted with less than 10 varieties. Some of the minority varieties are really interesting for the fight against climate change.’
Getting these varieties officially accepted is a long and painstaking process. 'It takes four years to convince the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture,’ reports Miguel Junior, 'then you need to show it to the Catalan government. That takes another two years. The Penedes Denominacion needs convincing: another two years. And of course if you plant in the wrong place, then you lose seven years.’ Even Miguel Junior says that it's a project 'for our children.’
Penedes has now approved two of these varieties, Forcada and Moneu, and Torres has now bottled the first production run of those as well as three other varieties: Pirene, Gonfaus and Querol (see notes below).
Another Torres climate-change initiative is the planting of vineyards at altitude - up to 1,000m in Penedes and Ribera del Duero, and in Priorat (where Torres is now, with Alvaro Palacios, one of the two largest quality producers) up to 750m.
Nothing at Torres is going un-thought or unexamined, and the company is large enough to contain multitudes. The Jean Leon estate and its wines are still predicated on international varieties, since that was what made its original reputation, and that's what its customers enjoy.
My notes on the Torres range are given below. The two current generations have created wines of diversity, subtlety and finesse: fine-wine values, rather than the kind of ponderous and pretentious interpretation of terroir which can sometimes result when a producer becomes obsessed with its 'icons'. Maybe they can help save humanity, too.