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Miguel Torres: 'Climate change is the greatest threat for the wine business in general, and for wine growers in particular'

Par Sharon Nagel Le 24 février 2016
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Miguel Torres: 'Climate change is the greatest threat for the wine business in general, and for wine growers in particular'
Miguel Torres

n the global wine industry, one figure in particular stands out for his commitment to combating the effects of climate change. For years, Miguel Torres has travelled the world to raise awareness of the issue both within the wine industry and amongst lawmakers, drawing their attention to the efforts required to safeguard wine growing on a planet that is getting distinctly warmer. An active advocate for change worldwide, he also practises what he preaches in his own wineries, particularly in Spain where he believes the impact of climate change will be “dramatic”, as in the rest of Europe. Vitisphere asked Miguel Torres to share his thoughts on the wine industry’s reaction to climate change and his own plans for the future.

When did you realise that climate change was starting to affect the way you grew vines and made wines?

I really became aware of climate change in around 2007 when I watched Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I suddenly realised that what he was describing could affect my vineyards and that’s when we started to make investments and conduct research. We immediately noticed that, based on records of temperatures in our vineyards, there had been an increase of about 1°C over a forty-year period. We knew something was happening in the vineyards, but we didn’t realise it was this significant.

Where was the first place you really noticed it?

The first steps we took were in Spain and now, 99% of our efforts are focused on Spain because Spain will be more affected than Chile by the increase in temperatures.

What were the first steps you took to mitigate the negative effects of climate change?

We set aside a budget of 10 million euros to introduce new techniques such as renewable energies, biomass and conduct research. We had to adapt and be prepared for an increase of one or maybe two degrees in temperature this century. We created a plant conservation centre in one of our vineyards where we experiment and study all possible avenues for delaying maturation. Our overriding ambition is to harvest later to compensate for the advance in maturity created by global warming. We study many aspects of this vineyard, including plantation density and canopy management, to find techniques that can contribute to delaying maturation. We also bought land near the Pyrenees at higher altitudes. Similarly, we moved south in Curico and the Itata valley in Chile. All we can do is experiment and invest in new vineyards and of course adapt.

How do you explain your level of commitment to protecting the environment and your vineyards against the negative impact of climate change?

It comes from the realisation that we live off the earth and we’re not treating it properly. Our ambition is that others may follow our example. We have spent the last four years discussing with the Spanish Wine Federation the possibilities for Spanish wineries to move ahead with climate change. It is still a great challenge because companies are not prepared to make investments. At least now, everybody understands that we have a real problem and that they have to conduct audits of their carbon footprints and establish scopes for them. The most important one is scope three – i.e. suppliers, everything you buy plus the logistics – which is an area where we can achieve reductions without having to make huge investments. At Torres, last September we adopted a plan for this and I hope the Spanish Federation will make the same move.

How far advanced would you say manufacturers of dry goods for wines are at improving their carbon credentials?

Last September we gathered together most of our suppliers – especially our glass suppliers which are the most important from an emissions perspective. We want them to conduct audits of their carbon footprint and then make us proposals for reducing their footprint over the following year. Glass manufacturers have already begun reducing the weight of the bottles, which is good. But we have to go further and become more efficient in the manufacturing process. Also, we have been discussing ways of reducing carbon footprint with viticulturalists for the last two years. One of the issues we face is organic viticulture: at Torres we have 800 hectares of organic vineyards and we also buy organic grapes, but organic viticulture produces more emissions and we should be doing something about it. According to recent studies, organic viticulture can produce up to 20% more emissions than conventional wine growing. Everybody thinks they’re helping the planet but actually it’s the contrary. We conducted our own study at Torres, with these results, but research from Saragossa university now confirms them.

What are the main areas of research you focus on?

Currently, we are aiming to secure European grants for research. I have spoken to the commissioner for climate change in Europe so that these grants can be used for the glass manufacturers. Also, people tend to think that vineyards are natural and do not pollute. That’s a big mistake, they also pollute because of the imbalance between the carbon absorbed by photosynthesis and the carbon produced by vines at night during respiration. Then there are the emissions from work in the vineyard. At Torres, we also want to absorb the CO2 from the fermentation process without using yeast. So far, the project hasn’t been very successful. We managed to reduce emissions by 10%. But now, thanks to the Canary institute, it looks like we are going to get much better algae and we hope that in the future we can achieve better results. The logic behind the process is very sound: we use algae to absorb CO2 then use the algae as fertiliser. We also have a small nursery where we create carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and observe the consequences. We have been doing this for some years now. We have many other small experiments that are ongoing.

Have these studies helped you produce new clones or revive ancient grape grapes, for instance?

We have been recuperating old Catalan vine varieties. Before phylloxera, there were more than a hundred vine varieties in Catalonia and most of them disappeared after phylloxera. We have retrieved around forty of these vinifera vines. Some of them make good wines but, perhaps more importantly, they are also more drought-resistant and some of them seem to ripen later. The theory is that these varieties may have originated in the warm period of the Middle Ages, in the 13th or 14th century, so they were naturally adapted to the heat. We are already producing wines from some of these grape varieties – at least three of them are blended into one of our wines. We currently have around 20 hectares planted to these old Catalan varieties and the area is growing.

How important is vineyard relocation to your climate change strategy?

It is very important. If we cannot change the climate, we have to adapt to it and look for higher altitudes, northern latitudes in Spain and southern latitudes in Chile. Elsewhere, we have been looking at Sweden, at Gotland island in the south, but the land is already too expensive there. However, at the moment, we are not looking to move to different countries – it’s too far away from our base.

How do you think ultimately that climate change will affect the physiognomy of the global wine landscape and distribution of vineyards?

Unfortunately we don’t know. Even with +2°C, which is an optimistic outcome, there will be a dramatic change, especially for Europe. Countries like Chile, for instance, can adapt much easier: wine growers only have to move closer to the Pacific and they already have a cooler climate. Chile has the Humboldt current and according to climatologists, it will continue for at least 50 years because the Antarctic will keep its ice, at least most of it. There have been warmer periods in the past, and almost every time, the Antarctic managed to keep its ice. So Chile is better prepared for climate change. Also, in Europe, we have the constraints of the appellation system. I am trying to persuade European legislators to become more flexible over this: probably in 30 years time it will not be possible to grow Pinot noir in Burgundy. Other possibilities have to be sought. So yes, I think there will be a big change in the appearance of the vineyard.

You have pioneered adaptation of wine growing to climate change. Does it feel like you’re the lone crusader?

Yes. Unfortunately, I do feel very much alone. I went to Expo Milan where there was a gathering of European legislators from Brussels. I was invited by the agricultural manager for the European Union and I urged them to do things for wine producers in Europe. There are many things that should be done. There are issues such as organic viticulture, as I mentioned, greater flexibility with the appellations and research that need to be addressed. We should already be doing a lot of research into clones and other techniques that can delay maturation.

Do you think the international wine industry has been slow to react?

People don’t realise that you need to invest money. Most people I talk to about the projects we have rolled out at Torres only see them as a marketing advantage. In fact, it is the opposite – we haven’t sold a single bottle of wine more because of these projects. Consumers still don’t appreciate our level of involvement. It’s too early, but it still has to be done. Maybe in five years’ time, there will be a change in consumer attitude.

Is there still too much talk and not enough action?

Absolutely. Everybody is becoming sustainable and yet the funding actually being spent is nothing. There have to be audits and good practices. There is not the will for reducing emissions.

What further adaptations will be necessary within your company to continue to fight against climate change in the future?

For us it’s very easy. My son is the general manager of the company. He took up this position three years ago. We had an agreement. One of the points was that every year, 11% of the investment budget would be allocated to climate change. We will install more photovoltaic panels and for our winery we are buying electric cars – I got my own electric car in January, I had a hybrid one before. We have done our duty in scopes 1 and 2 and have reduced our emissions by 38%. So our main task now is to ensure that our suppliers adapt and make everyone realise that climate change is the greatest threat for the wine business in general, and for wine growers in particular.

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