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The Sant Miquel vineyard in the Pyrenees foothills, in Tremp, Spain. The vineyard is an experiment aimed at finding solutions to the problems for wine posed by climate change.

Countering the effects of climate change: High altitudes, old grapes

Nov 1, 2019 5:50 AM

Tremp, Spain

HIGH in the foothills of the Pyrenees, outside this small city in northwestern Catalonia, one of the most unusual vineyards in the world can be found on a plateau and descending along stony slopes.

The more than 200-acre Sant Miquel vineyard, around 3,000 feet above sea level, includes the usual suspects: sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and so on. It also contains two grapes so rare their names did not exist a few years ago.

They are called pirene and forcada, and they, along with Sant Miquel, are experiments aimed at finding solutions to the problems for wine posed by climate change. Sant Miquel's owner, Familia Torres, a global wine powerhouse based in Catalonia, has made responding to climate change a company priority.

All over the wine-producing world, climate change is causing a thorough reconsideration of the hard-earned wisdom that in some cases has been passed down through generations.

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Where to put vineyards, which grapes to choose, how to farm, how to make the wine and how to sell it - these key issues for wine producers must all be rethought in the wake of climate change.

Already, vineyards are experiencing increased temperatures, earlier budding (which makes spring frosts a greater threat), surprise hailstorms and other natural disasters.

The overall effects of warmer temperatures on grapes are increased sugar content and lower acidity, creating wines that may be unbalanced, high in alcohol or otherwise changed in character.

"We're facing stronger and more unpredictable events," said Miguel Torres Maczassek, the general manager of Familia Torres, as we walked in the Sant Miquel vineyard in May. "We are the first generation that doesn't know what we can plant." He added: "The problem with wine is the least of the earth's problems."

Torres and his father, Miguel A Torres, who led the company until 2012, have transformed Familia Torres from simply a top Spanish wine producer into an industry leader in the fight against climate change. This has meant both finding innovative ways to counter the effects of climate change on the wines and diminishing its own carbon emissions.

Torres' Pacs del Penedès winery, near Vilafranca del Penedès, was opened in 2008 and is powered by solar, geothermal energy and biomass, a method of turning organic matter into energy that the company says has reduced its natural gas consumption by 95 per cent. Roofs and other surfaces are designed to collect rain, important as drought becomes more of a consideration.

It has a fleet of 125 electric and hybrid vehicles in Spain, including a little solar-powered train that ferries tourists around the grounds of its visitors' centre. Employees are offered subsidies for using bicycles, electric vehicles and solar power at their homes.

Among other steps, Torres has made carbon footprint part of its criteria for choosing supply and transportation companies. It has installed a biomass boiler fuelled by vine cuttings, pomace and other materials that traditionally were burned, emitting plumes of carbon dioxide. It has encouraged local growers to bring their cuttings to Torres rather than burn them. The company estimates this saves 1,300 tons of carbon dioxide a year.

From a wine lover's view, perhaps Torres' most interesting effort to adapt to climate change has been the experimental high-altitude vineyards it has planted, including Sant Miquel; another, even higher vineyard at almost 4,000 feet in the Aragon Pyrenees; as well as a vineyard around 750 metres, or 2,500 feet, high in Priorat.

At these altitudes, viticulture would have been impossible 25 years ago. At the Priorat vineyard, Mas del Rosa, on a hilltop above the town of Porrera, old stone walls hold up abandoned terraces that once held vines.

"Grapes were able to ripen well at 500 to 550 metres, but not at 750, so it was abandoned," Torres said.

Torres bought roughly 50 acres there and is slowly planting a portion with carineña and garnacha.

"People in Porrera thought we were crazy," said Jordi Foraster, the winemaker at the Torres Priorat winery. "It's a bet for the next generations to keep making wines with the freshness that we want."

In Sant Miquel, in Aragon and in another vineyard in a hot, dry area in the Costers del Segre region - puckishly called Purgatori - where the summer temperatures regularly climb over 100 degrees, Torres is experimenting with six virtually unknown grapes, including pirene and forcada, that may be better suited for future climate conditions.

The six grapes are the legacy of a search the elder Torres began 30 years ago, when he had the idea of gathering ancestral Catalan grapes to create a historic collection. As climate change became an issue, the family began to think of these ancestral grapes in another way.

What if some of these grapes had been abandoned by growers precisely because they ripened too late and were too acidic? These characteristics, a problem under the prevailing climate of the last couple of centuries, could be beneficial now and in the future, when a primary goal for growers is to prevent grapes from ripening too fast in the heat and to retain fresh acidity.

Of the 52 old and forgotten Catalan varieties gathered in the search, Torres and his colleagues identified six of particular interest because of their high acidity and tendency to ripen late. Then began a long process to create vines that were free of viruses and other maladies, to plant them and eventually turn them into wine.

"It takes 15 years to recuperate ancient varieties to see if they are useful, and then years of bureaucracy to make a commercial wine," Torres said.

Later on, I tasted some of the wines made from the ancestral grapes. A 2016 Pirene, a red grape from Sant Miquel, was bright and lively, with floral and berry flavours. A 2018 was fresh, floral, balanced and altogether lovely.

Forcada, a white grape, ripens about a month later than chardonnay. A 2015 was dense and richly textured, almost oily yet with firm acidity and plenty of energy, while a 2016 red wine made of the gonfaus grape, grown at the hot Purgatori vineyard, was fragrant with purple fruits and flowers, lightly tannic and fresh.

The grapes were named for the places the vines were recovered. Torres said the plan was to share them with other Catalan growers.

"These are not our vines," he said. "These are vines that existed in Catalonia since ancient times." NYTIMES