Torres

Discovery Tasting: Torres

The chance to sample almost-extinct Catalan varieties from Torres’ impressive vine recovery programme made for a memorable tasting

Torres are a name that needs little introduction: creators of a wide range of wines that are on sale across the world. This, in itself, is no mean achievement, but still being family-owned and family-run means that they are able to do things differently compared to many other large companies. And today’s tasting was a case in point.

Being family run has allowed Torres to take a very long-term view

It was a chance for our members to look at the extraordinary work that the company have done in attempting to revive forgotten, abandoned and almost-extinct Catalan grape varieties.

This was a project that began in the early 1990s – at a time, don’t forget, when most people were frantically planting Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. And now, almost 30 years later, it is starting to reach fruition, with a number of ancient varieties starting to appear both in single-varietal form and as part of new and existing blends.

It’s been expensive, time-consuming, rewarding and mind-blowing in more or less equal measure. As Torres’ technical director, Josep Sabarich admits.

‘It’s a bit of a crazy project. Only a family-owned cellar could do this.’

Josep Sabarich
Josep Sabarich, Torres’ Technical Director

The starting point for the recovery project began in the 19th century, when phylloxera destroyed Europe’s vineyards. When people finally replanted, they did it in a hurry and didn’t necessarily put back in what had been there before. It was also a chance for growers to get rid of varieties that were hard to grow or unproductive.

The upshot was that hundreds of varieties fell out of use – and decades later, Torres decided to bring some of them back. Partly it was to recover some of Catalonia’s grape-growing heritage, but also, as Josep puts it, ‘because we felt that these varieties could bring us something that we don’t have in our vineyard at the moment.’

The family put adverts in the Catalan press, encouraging people to inform them if they had old vines growing wild on their land. They checked over the submissions with ampelographers, and then, finally, with DNA analysis.

A wild vine climbing up a cliff-face, pic: G et M André

If the vines were unique they propagated them (to get rid of viruses) and then, if all went well, started experiments in the vineyard. It was a huge amount of work, but educational – for many reasons.

‘We learned that we are not smarter than our ancestors,’ says Josep. ‘The majority of these varieties were stopped being used for a good reason – either they weren’t interesting, or there were quality problems.

‘But some stopped being used just because they were low-yielding, even though they are actually interesting in oenological terms.’

A key benefit seems to be that many of these native varieties are extremely well adapted to the local climate. For instance, they all have a longer growing season than varieties like Chardonnay or Merlot, ripening later but also preserving more acidity.

‘This could be a way to fight against global warming. To readapt our vineyards to the current situation.’

Josep Sabarich

Down the line, Torres will not be the only beneficiaries. They are sharing their discoveries with other growers who want to make wine with them. In 30, 40, 50 years’ time, the likes of Moneu, Pirene and Querol could be as familiar to sommeliers as Cabernet, Xarel.lo and Tempranillo.

It’s a project that is not just good for Torres, but for all Mediterranean viticulture.

New vines from ancient varieties, being propagated before planting in a greenhouse

The Wines

Forcada 2016

Our only white of the tasting was notable for two reasons: its low pH and a long growing cycle that often sees it ripen in mid-October – highly atypical for a white grape in Catalonia.

‘The first thing everyone does is to compare a new grape to another one,’ says Josep. ‘To look for a reference. Here we’re thinking more in terms of Atlantic varieties than Mediterranean.’

Forcada – rare but worth looking for!

The wine is made with a combination of new oak, old oak and concrete tanks.

‘It’s too raw after fermentation – very electric and acidic,’ explained Josep. ‘We wanted to give it more creaminess and complexity in the mouth. Oak and concrete can do this.’

Despite being five years old, there was still plenty of acidity in the 2016, and Collective members likened it to Hunter Semillon, Pinot Auxerrois and Chenin Blanc.

Current production stands at just 2000 bottles with a RRP of around £45. The new vintage should arrive in the spring.

‘It’s for sommeliers who understand this wine, because it’s not something commercial,’ explained Torres’ fine wine ambassador and former London sommelier, Joelle Marti. ‘It’s a wine for special wine lovers.

‘It’s important that people who drink these understand everything that is behind the bottle.’

Joelle Marti

Our members certainly did – the wine came out top in our members’ poll.

Moneu 2020

Moneu – now back and in the bottle. Pic:_Jordi Elias

Planted next to Mas La Plana, in fertile soil with limestone, Moneu is a fairly low-yielding red, with good acidity, thick skins and plenty of colour. ‘It’s a very pure vinification with a short maceration to show just the fruit soul of the wine,’ said Josep.

This variety currently makes up 20% of the blend in Clos Ancestrale (the fourth wine here), where it is made in a more extracted and concentrated way that needs to be carefully watched.

Planted next to Mas La Plana, in fertile soil with limestone, Moneu is a fairly low-yielding red, with good acidity, thick skins and plenty of colour. ‘It’s a very pure vinification with a short maceration to show just the fruit soul of the wine,’ said Josep.

This variety currently makes up 20% of the blend in Clos Ancestrale (the fourth wine here), where it is made in a more extracted and concentrated way that needs to be carefully watched.

‘It’s very easy to extract colour and tannins,’ said Josep. ‘If you’re not careful you can go too far and get a rustic wine.’

The Moneu is not currently available as a single varietal – this was a sample bottle only. But perhaps that might change, because it was popular with our tasters.

Some Moneu is fermented in ‘tinajas’

Michal Dumny likened it to Dolcetto, while Harry Cooper felt it was ‘A little earthy, no tannin, spice and dark berries, with a little menthol on the finish. Very polished – my style.’

Remarkably, the oldest vines here are just seven years old…

Pirene

When they are first rescued the ancestral varieties obviously have no name, since nobody knows what they are. When naming them, the Torres team often try to link the new arrivals with people or places where they were discovered. This variety was found in several sites near the Pyrenees.

‘It’s my favourite of the three experimental varieties [today],’ said Josep. It is a little more serious as a wine, but still with good freshness and more complexity.’

Pirene: named after where it was discovered

With a very long growing season – it’s one of the first to bud-burst but picked the end of October – it gives a lot of colour. This vibrant wine was macerated for just four days.

Plans are to keep this as a single-varietal wine, though volumes are very limited. The new vintage (RRP £45) should be out in the spring. Members will need to register their interest early. And pray.

The rather beautiful ‘Pre-Pyrenees’ where ‘Pirene’ was found

Clos Ancestral 2019

A blend of 50% Tempranillo, 30% Garnacha and 20% Moneu, with an RRP of £16.99, Clos Ancestral was the most affordable of the day’s wines.

‘We wanted to have more democratic wines, to give access to ancestral varietals with wines that are more accessible,’ explained Joelle Marti.

Currently, the Moneu vines are only six years old, but Torres now have 16 hectares planted, and there are definite plans to grow the percentage of it in this wine, probably all the way up to 100% as the new vines come on stream.

Clos Ancestral: ‘More accessible’

‘These are easy-drinking wines, but also gastronomic, that pair with food and don’t disrupt it’

Joelle Marti

The plan is to create a full range of Clos Ancestral wines, using different varieties, including a white. It provides an exciting glimpse of the next generation of Torres wines; of ranges made with percentages of once forgotten varieties, in a low-intervention style.

‘Low intervention is not easy if you want to have regular quality,’ admits Josep. ‘You can lose some batches. But it’s an interesting way.’

The new Clos Ancestral vintage is due in spring.

Grans Muralles 2004 and 2017

The two Grans Muralles wines were, in one sense, very different from what has gone before. After all, this is an established luxury Spanish wine, with an RRP of around £100 that’s on top restaurant lists all round the world.

From Conca de Barbera in the hills of Catalonia, it has a slight air of Priorat about it: a Garnacha/Cinsaut dominant blend, from a continental climate, with alluvial, slatey soils.

But since 1996 Grans Muralles has also used some of the findings from the vine recovery programme. The 2004 included some Garró, while the 2017 had both Garró and Querol. Samso (used in the 2004) is not a rescued variety, but the Catalan word for Cinsault.

Garró is a tannic presence, designed to add just a little extra heft to the wine’s mouthfeel, but never more than 5% of the total. Querol’s presence can go as high as 20%, but is more typically 10-15%. It brings freshness and lift.

The slatey soils of Conca de Barbera are a key element in the style of Grans Muralles

Garnacha is, as Josep puts it, ‘the nose and the soul of this wine’, so the impact of the recovered varieties is not intended to be dominant, but to act as ‘seasoning’.

Of the two wines tasted here, 2004 was a cooler year with above average rainfall. 2017 was drier, warmer and has a lower proportion of Garnacha than 04. Josep calls decisions like this ‘the human inputs of wine’.

‘I love the complexity of 2004,’ he says, ‘but I also like the boldness of 2017. Though it could be a little raw just at the moment. Probably for today’s dinner I would prefer the 2004.’

‘It ages beautifully well,’ chips in Joelle. ‘We started this in 1996, so we know where we’re going with it.’

In 20 years’ time, they’ll be able to say the same for their exciting new Catalan grape varieties, too!

Late afternoon sun in Finca Grans Muralles – a wine on Michelin-starred lists across the world

Watch the video

Dicovery Tasting: La Rioja Alta

Twenty-four lucky members of The Sommelier Collective were treated to the club’s first ever Discovery Tasting this week (19.10.2020) from world-renowned winery La Rioja Alta.

Based in the famous Barrio Estacion (station quarter) in Haro, home to famous names like Muga, Cune and Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta has been making world-famous wines since 1890.

‘It’s the most exciting place in Rioja,’ said winemaker Julio Saenz. ‘If you visit our street you can walk from great winery to great winery.’

Along with technical director, Alejandro Lopez, Julio showed the members six wines: four vintages of the flagship reserva Viña Ardanza, and two of the gran reserva, 904. The members had all received their specially prepared tasting samples a few days earlier.

The Viña Ardanza vintages ran from 1989 through 2000 and 2001 to 2010, the latest release to hit the UK. Since the latter is ten years old, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is a house that takes its cellaring seriously.

‘Barrel ageing is a big part of our history,’ explained Julio. The 1989 spent 42 months in very old barrels. The average age of the barricas then was 18 years old, but this has changed over time. More recent versions spend around three years ageing in barrels with an average age of four years.

Though the barrels are always American oak – and the time in wood is always followed up by four to five years bottle-ageing before release.  

Asked to describe the wines, Julio repeatedly used words like ‘intensity, complexity, soft tannins, balance and long aftertaste’. They are wines that build gently in layers rather than making a lot of noise.

Judging from comments throughout, that elegance was a big hit with the Sommelier Collective’s tasters.

The Viña Ardanza wines are all 80% Tempranillo from the Rioja Alta region, with 20% Garnacha (Grenache) from Rioja Baja.

The 904 Gran Reservas are 90% Tempranillo – from some of the highest (calcareous) vineyards in the region, with 10% Graciano, a beautiful but difficult to grow native variety, also from the Rioja Alta sub-region.

‘In our opinion, gran reservas are the best wines of Rioja,’ said Alejandro. ‘The best grapes from the best vineyards and the best barrels.

‘The grapes for this wine are grown at the limit of where you can grow Tempranillo in the north of Rioja. So it’s not easy to have grapes like this every year. It’s why we can only make it four times in a decade, in the very best vintages.’

Wines tasted:

QUESTIONS FROM THE SOMMELIER COLLECTIVE MEMBERS

Which is your favourite vintage – 1985 or 1989?

Julio: 1985 – the previous winemaker told me he thought it could have been the best vintage of that period. I think it’s more Burgundian. It has less colour than 1989, but it is one of the best vintages.

Which is more important, tannin or acidity?

Julio: We are looking for very good acidity, but not too high. We need balance between the alcoholic content and the acidity, and the tannins. Acidity is typically at 5-6g/litre. Our tannins in Rioja are typically very soft and elegant. In our winery in Ribera del Duero, for example, the tannins are higher than for Viña Ardanza.’

Would you say that softness and non-aggressive nature of the wines is the hallmark style of Viña Ardanza?

Alejandro: It’s elegance – easy to drink – but with complexity and a lot of aromatic intensity, with softness in the mouth. To get that we need first of all the best grapes, and it’s not easy to get those every year. So in some years we can’t make it. We only make Viña Ardanza six years out of ten, for instance. If the flavour profile of the grapes doesn’t fit we can’t make it.

Which have been the best vintages of Rioja?

Julio: We’ve only ever classified four Viña Ardanzas as ‘Reserva Especial’: 1964 and 1972 and two of the wines here – 2001 and 2010. 2001 was an amazing vintage for us.

Where do you buy your barrels from?

Julio: We make our own. We’ve imported staves since 1996. We dry them for three years then make our own barrels. We only use American oak, from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. We need to have the control of this process because it’s so important to the quality of the wine. Toasting level is medium/medium plus.

Would you recommend decanting the wines?

Julio: I don’t recommend it. It’s better to open it just ten or 15 minutes before you drink it and move the glass to open the wine, and you’ll see the evolution then. Decanting it makes it worse. It drops its flavour quickly – and you’ll see that there is sediment.

STAR WINE
as voted for by the members

2001 Vina Ardanza
(50% of the vote)

La Rioja Alta wines are available through Armit Wines