Carbon capture man

Miguel Torres has set out to combat global warming. In October, he shared the results to date. Felicity Carter reports.

Bodega Waltraud, a model of ecologically friendly architecture.
Bodega Waltraud, a model of ecologically friendly architecture.

When Miguel Torres, head of Bodegas Torres, one of Spain’s most notable wineries, saw An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 climate change documentary by former US vice president Al Gore, it changed his life.

He’d already seen for himself the way the climate in the Penedès region had become drier and hotter over his lifetime, but until he saw the film, he hadn’t realised how dire the situation was. A few weeks later, he gathered his family together and told them that the company had to “do something”. Today, 11% of Bodegas Torres’ profits are devoted to climate change projects.

Paying to fight climate change

Founded in 1870, Bodegas Torres is situated about four km from Vilafranca del Penedes and has the distinction of being both Spain’s biggest winery and its largest vineyard owner; it also has estates in California and Chile. When CEO Miguel Torres stepped down in favour his son, fifth-generation Miguel Torres Maczassek, the two men agreed that Torres senior could continue his projects. The company has now “invested more than twelve million euros,” says Torres. “Every year I know I can count on one million, one million and a half euros, for our program.”

Today, Miguel Torres “and a team of three or four” remains in charge of three departments: legal services, internal audit and his true love, the environmental department. He has read more than 40 books and hundreds of scientific papers, and spoken to universities, scientists, writers and politicians. And he’s overturned the way his family’s business is conducted. In October, he held a small conference, Torres & Earth, to showcase the trials, successes and disappointments. 

Adressing a small, round lecture theatre, Torres picked up a piece of chalk and drew two circles, representing the earth and the sun. The sun, he said, beamed low wave radiation to earth, which is then normally bounced back to space. But as human activity releases carbon and other gases into the atmosphere, the radiation is reflected back to earth, where it’s trapped, causing temperatures to rise. The heat generated each year by this ‘greenhouse effect’ is “equivalent to 300,000 atomic bombs,” said Torres.

Torres is a quiet, besuited man with startling blue eyes, who sounds calm and optimistic, even when describing the apocalypse. He becomes more passionate as he describes the way that reducing emissions dictates almost everything at Bodegas Torres. Synthetic fungicides may, for example, be used in preference to organic ones, to reduce the number of times a petrol-fuelled vehicle has to pass through a vineyard. “In England, a company is designing an electric tractor and we said, ‘as soon as you are finished, send it here and we will try it’.” All 1,000 farmers who work with the company have been advised on recycling. 

Torres explained the company also wants to improve wine quality, while adapting to climate change. “We are changing our viticulture practices to delay maturation,” he says. “We went from guyot training to gobelet.” Gobelet is the ancient method of growing vines with no wires, so the plant grows into a ‘goblet’ shape, with a canopy that protects the grape from the sun, like an umbrella. Another project has been the creation of a climate change vineyard, for viticultural experiments like lifting the vine’s arm to delay maturation. Or putting aside 100 ha of land in an area that’s currently too cold to plant, but which one day soon may become viable. Or planting 2,000 ha of forest.

Carbon capture is another important goal. Torres produces 3,000 tonnes of CO2 from the fermentation process and has a three-pronged approach to deal with it. The first is simply to lower the amount of energy used. “We produce 25% of our own electricity with biomass [from burning wood, vine and other plant matter],” he explains. The second is collaboration, with the company offering to invest in any European company that is willing to send a prototype for Torres to test. Finally, Torres has a research department that seeks solutions in tandem with universities and chemical companies.

The company has also conducted an audit to find out where the carbon is coming from and where it’s going and discovered there are three sources. The first are the emissions produced by the cars driven by employees or suppliers. Then there is the electricity used in production and administration and so on. “These you can control,” he says. There’s also the third part of the equation, “all the products you buy: cartons, bottles, everything. And then the logistics – what are the emissions when we send a case of wine to Japan? These two things together represent 80% to 90% of emissions.”

To get suppliers and logistics companies on board with the goal of lowering emissions, Torres created an award, the Torres & Earth Award, which began in 2016. The first awards went to glass manufacturer Vidrala, the logistics company JF Hillebrand, and winegrowers of Canela, who between them reduced emissions by 26%. “And in the future, what about transportation with wind?” Torres is enthusiastic about what can be done, but his time is up. Now the floor is ceded to the company’s researchers.

Innovative ideas 

Renewable energy systems are being trialled and there are PVSs (photovoltaic solar panels) galore – in Spain, Chile and Sonoma – as well as other technologies under study, such as Spinetic power generators, with individual windmills turning inside a frame. “You could have one in your garden!” Torres calls out from the front row. Other projects being considered include replacing office windows with ones made from new energy-generating plastic ‘glass’.

Miquel Rosell, an oceanographer who has been working with the company for nine months, described trials to capture CO2. “One litre of grape juice will produce 50 litres of CO2,” he said. But, he says, this CO2 is “high quality”, meaning it’s not adulterated with other gases. “We need to think in terms of the circular economy. How do we transform something of no value to something that you can sell or use in the winery?”

One possibility is to use CO2 as fertilizer, because it stimulates plant growth. “We have two greenhouses with lettuces. We see faster growth in the lettuce [fed with CO2].”

There have been disappointments, such as the experiments with algae, a photosynthesizing organism that is excellent at capturing carbon – on a small scale. “When you try and scale up, it’s really expensive and complicated,” says Rosell. “So now we’re experimenting with using them to clean water.” He admits that none of these technologies will capture vast amounts of carbon by themselves. “The important thing is not that we are actually capturing CO2 – we are studying the methods, to see which are the better combinations. This is a presentation to let the world know that we need friends and protectors, and what’s available.”

Thanks to all these activities, Torres says that the company’s own CO2 emissions have fallen by 40% since 2008, while supplier emissions have fallen by nearly 20%. Invitations to other producers have led to 25 wineries in Spain taken up the offer to draw on Torres’s research.

The politics of climate change

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For all the talk of small, artisanal, sustainable wineries, it’s the big companies that are doing most large-scale sustainable work. It costs money to plant a forest, or capture carbon, or get researchers involved in water conservation. Family ownership helps. “The main concern for the manager is to produce profit. In a family, long term thinking is critical. Payback from solar panels, for example, takes 16 years,” says Torres. Over that period, the cost of purchase and installation can be amortised “It’s money that stays in the company. Otherwise you have to pay the bill to the electricity company and this is money that goes away, leaving the company.”

Yet no company, no matter how big or well meaning, can solve climate change by itself. For that, political action is required. Torres shakes his head. “Many countries are making an effort to reduce emissions,” he says. “China is putting PVS all over the country. Morocco will produce 50% of its own electricity with PVS,” he adds. “In Spain, the Minister of Energy says we will continues to use the nukes for ten more years. Because of drought, we have less hydraulic energy, so we’re going to use coal. No mention of solar.”

He told Meininger’s that the company has been working with the Spanish government for over a year, to reduce the unnecessary bureaucracy surrounding solar panels. “It’s so time consuming so most people don’t do it.” As the recently elected president of the Spanish Federation of Wine, he has asked 1,000 wineries across Spain if they might be interested in using solar panels, and is taking their answers to show the Minister that they want to do it. “Spain was number two in the world ten years ago – and now we are down to number ten!”

He’s also petitioning the minister on other issues. “The next twenty, thirty, forty years will be very difficult for southern Europe because of climate change.” Torres lists the requirements. “More reservoirs in our vineyard to collect the water from the winter. Irrigation – that’s compulsory. Most people still don’t have it.” The vines need to be protected with plastic nets. More ventilators are needed to protect against frost.

The big question, of course, is – is there still time? Has the world gone past the point that something can be done? Torres sighs. “I wish I could answer you. I wish,” he says. “That’s a question I keep asking my people all the time.” There is evidence, he adds, that carbon emissions are slowing, while action to combat change is rising. “There is a change taking place, but we still need to mobilise people, the average consumer, the person who still says, ‘well, so what?’”

Torres seems to have endless energy to talk about climate change, which is clearly his life’s work. As for Al Gore, the man who sparked this passion, Miguel Torres says he finally got to meet him. But they only shook hands and didn’t speak. “He was paid a lot of money to give an address, as usual, and then I remember I was introduced and we shook hands, and that was it.” 

It was enough. 


Ancestral varieties

Bodega Waltraud is the perfect place to have a tasting of recovered grape varieties. Designed by architect Javier Barba, it’s a showcase of environmentally friendly design, from the recycled cork ceiling to the drought resistant plants to the recycled water feature. 

Christoph Kammuller, director of communications, says the company first started placing media ads in the 1980s, asking people to let them know if they’d seen any unusual grape varieties. The Torres team would then drive out and inspect the grape. Often, however, the plants turned out to be known grapes that were living outside their normal zone, while the grapes that were interesting needed resuscitating. “You have to clean them and make them virus free, then multiply them and put them in a greenhouse,” says Kammuller. Yet they found some intriguing possibilities. As others have also discovered, grapes were often abandoned simply because they were growing in the wrong environment. “We tested them on several heights and microclimates,” says Kammuller.

Originally, Torres was simply looking for grapes that could help it produce a top wine. But viticulturists soon realised they had found grapes that were resistant to drought, or which kept their acidity in warmer temperatures. Some of the discoveries were also exciting in their own right, such as Forcada, which was found in the northwestern part of the Penedes and planted in the Torres vineyard in 2005. The first vinification was 2014 and the wine offers plenty of acidity, spicy herbs and good texture. Another discovery, the red grape Gonfaus, could also be destined for great things. Taken from the Pyrenees and planted in 2010, it’s a medium intensity red variety that’s resistant to drought.



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