In the early 1980s, Miguel A. Torres of Familia Torres Winery started making annual advertisements in local publications and newspapers across his home in Catalonia, Spain. The advertisements invited anyone with information about unidentified grapevines planted in rural areas or villages to contact the winery. The open call will officially start a 30-year project to restore Catalonia’s ancient grape varieties, many of which were lost to phylloxera by the late 19th century.
Every year, the vineyard receives several calls from customers in response. Through the decades, the family has been able to study and rediscoverrediscover over 54 varieties. Many have been cultivated within Familia the Torres Library vineyards to investigate their long-term qualities and potential. The project is still in progress. Three of these ancient varieties have become single-variety offerings within the Torres portfolio. These include Forcada White, a white variety discovered in the foothills of the Roca Forcada Mountains; Gonfaus, a low-yielding red variety that has concentrated black and red fruits and spiced undertones; and Pirene, also known as the “Pinot Noir of Catalonia,” named after its initial discovery into the Pyrenees mountains.
The project started to conserve lost varieties, but in 2000, the entire family shifted its focus to climate change. Instead of focusing on types that were best in quality, they started seeking out types that could be able to adapt to changing climate.
Be aware of the latest drinks industry news and information. Sign up for our award-winning SevenFifty Daily Dispatch newsletter, delivered to your inbox weekly.
“We were looking for grapes that could achieve good acidity and also achieve maturity later than others,” says Mireia Torres-Maczassek, director of innovation and knowledge for Familia Torres and mother of Miguel. “With the changing climate and the need for adaptation, we don’t have to stick for one solution. The possibility of other species that naturally adapt to Catalonia is one aspect that we can consider.”
Torres is not the only one. All across the historic European regions, winemakers are bringing back almost lost varieties. The Catalan Institute of Vine and Wine and the Institute for Agrifood Research and Technology in Spain are researching ancestral types. Further south in Jerez in Spain, it is known as the Consejo Regulador DO Jerez-Xeres Sherry is now allowing the use of six indigenous to the region white, pre-phylloxera, grape cultivars: Beba, Canocazo, Mantuo Castellano, Mantuo de Pilas, Perruno, and Vigiriega along with Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez.
A large part of this resurgence stems from a desire to safeguard the rich history of a place. However, many consider these forgotten varieties a possible solution to fight climate change. In various ways, they help producers look back at the past to safeguard their future.
Preserving Heritage in the Veneto
Conserving the local culture is the main objective of Matteo Bisol and his wine brand Venissa. He is a native of Valdobbiadene in Italy, where his family is well-known for the Prosecco and Jeio brands. Bisol, as well as Jeio, Matteo carries on producing the local white variety of grape Dorona of Venezia.
Dorona was cultivated for centuries before it almost became extinct following a massive flood in 1966. The grape is indigenous to the islands Mazzorbo, Burano, and Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon east of the city of the coast. In 2002, Bisol’s father Gianluca discovered 88 varieties from the elusive array in the private garden of his father. Its ability to flourish in shallow soil, where salty seawater is only a few meters below the surface — is the main feature of the so-called “golden grape” of Venice.
Venissa owner Matteo Bisol is working to preserve a Venetian grape variety nearly wiped out by natural disasters. Photo credit: Kevin Day.
“Though they are a part of Venetian culture, these islands have their own heritage that’s different than the city of Venice,” Bisol says. Bisol explains that rowing from the mainland to get supplies could take approximately three hours before motorboats. “People who resided on islands also had their very own agriculture, fishing and wine-making industries to live. When we came across this unique kind of variety that is unique to this region We were determined to protect it.”
Bisol has 10 hectares under its management of Dorona di Venezia, which is believed to come from its Garganega and Trebbiano types. To honor the traditional Venetian tradition, the bottles of Venissa are constructed from Murano glass and labeled with gold leaf designs reminiscent of the old-fashioned gold art that was hammered. Although fewer than 4,000 bottles of Vanessa’s Dorona di Venezia are produced yearly, it is a highly allocated wine sold annually.
Prepping for a Warmer Climate In Sicily
In the rough Mediterranean island of Sicily, the family-owned winery Donnafugata has always fought for the balance between innovation and tradition. The sister and brother team, comprised of Antonio and Jose Rallo, Donnafugata’s co-CEOs and co-CEOs, have been essential in guiding a regional study of indigenous varieties in Sicily. With the help of the Sicilia DOC consortium, the project has discovered and created 70 types since 2009. Many are more widespread in the region, but certain varieties like Vitarolo and Alzano are different.
Many winemakers are preserving historical grape varieties from the threat of climate change. Photo courtesy of Familia Torres.
“Thanks to this research, we’ve been able to bring back numerous varieties that had almost disappeared,” says Antonio, who is also serving as Donnafugata’s agronomist as well as the chair of the DOC.
While it’s just one Island, Sicily is vast in terms of its diverse soils and climates, and cultivating conditions. The research investment made by the consortium has established the region as a pioneer in research on native grapes, which is as crucial to Sicilian culture as it is in addressing climate change.
“All of this is important for the future in viticulture for Sicily especially with climate change,” Antonio says. Antonio. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able in Sicily to not be affected in the same manner as other regions of central Europe. We know that if changes continue to occur in Sicily, it is likely that Mediterranean Sea will be warmer and we’ll begin to witness changes, such as much more rain.”
Over time, the project has studied the viticultural and flavor traits of the various varieties to determine the ones most suitable for a long-term cultivation region.
“With this research, we hope we can make some crosses so that we can have some clones, selections, and biotypes in the future that might be better for new conditions,” Antonio says. Antonio. “It is important, of course, to be more friendly to the world we have today, but also so that we have something to offer the next generation.”
Selling Forgotten Grapes in the U.S. Market
Although their lack of visibility makes them more of an item to be sold in bars and restaurants, they are becoming popular, with sommeliers constantly looking for a delicious wine with a compelling story.
While many consumers might be drawn to more extensive, well-known regions of wine such as Napa, Burgundy, or Rioja, Alicia Schmidt, the director of wine for Austin located in the state of Texas Emmer Hospitality Group, prefers to broaden the selection of wines by incorporating less-known regions or producers. These lesser-known wines are another option for the game.