2000s Archive

Wine Journal: The Romance of Old Vines

Originally Published April 2001
Once a forgotten wine in a poor corner of Spain, Priorato has become a heady success story.

TThe first storm of winter had done its worst just days before I arrived in Priorato last November. In four hours, more rain than is usual during an entire year had washed out dirt roads, hillside terracing, and young vines in this, the poorest and most isolated corner of Catalonia. But the region’s winegrowers were in high spirits, buoyed by their first impression of the year’s new wine. The rain marked the end of a summer that had taken the vines to the limit of their endurance, and it was already obvious that the resulting wines would be concentrated and powerfully aromatic. The essence, one might say, of Priorato.

Tucked away in hill country west of Tarragona, Priorato was long the butt of local politicians’ jokes. So when Joan Clos, the mayor of Barcelona, recently announced that he wanted to establish, within the city’s limits, a municipal vineyard “like the one in Montmartre” and then went on to say, “except that I want ours to produce a great wine. A wine this city can be proud of. A wine like Priorato’s Cims de Porrera,” it made an impression.

For Sara Perez, who produces that wine, the recognition was gratifying. For Priorato, it was something of a miracle. Though it’s not the first time that God’s finger has strayed there. In the 12th century, a local man claimed to have seen a congregation of angels working together on a hillside, each one carrying grapes up and down a great staircase to heaven. An account of the incident so affected Alfonso II of Aragón that, in 1163, he established on that very spot Spain’s first Carthusian monastery—called, appropriately, Scala Dei, or “Stairway of God.” Monks began planting vines, the first in the region since the Romans had packed up and left, centuries before.

Priorato’s secret lies in its schist—a crumbly gray-green slate that forces the Grenache and Carignan vines traditionally grown there to send roots down 40 feet or more in search of water. The nutrients and minerals they draw from that depth contribute to the intensity of the wine, giving it a strength that throws into relief the rich fruit and ripe, velvety tannins that are Priorato’s hallmark.

A mix of Grenache and Carignan is common all around the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France because the two varieties complement each other. You can see this just by looking at the vines. The Grenache is open, and its oval grapes hang in loose bunches. Its wine, though perfumed and soft, is equally unstructured and tends to fade quickly. A Carignan vine, on the other hand, is tight and knotty, and there are deep indentations in its leaves. Its thick-skinned grapes hang in compact, cylindrical bunches, producing a wine that can seem rigid and even raw when the vines are young but that gains in suppleness as the vines—and the wine—mature. Used together, Grenache and Carignan complete each other, the gentle finish of one braced by the structure of the other.

Over a dinner of roast kid and a glass of Cims de Porrera 1998, I talked with Salus Alvarez, the mayor of Porrera, one of the 12 scattered villages that produce Priorato wine. He told me that because of its rich texture and heady mountain flavor, it had been in demand as far back as the 16th century. Alvarez likes to browse through old letters and accounts stowed away in his neighbors’ attic trunks. “I learn a lot,” he said. “For example, I recently found a 17th-century sheet of instructions for blending wine for the Spanish colonies in South America. Another, prepared 100 years later, proposed a rule that would have restricted Priorato wine to shipment in bottle to protect its reputation.

“It used to give me a strange feeling,” he added, “to be looking at evidence of past prosperity while at the same time watching the decline of our village. The vines were being abandoned, and the people were disappearing with them. A hundred years ago Porrera had a population of more than 2,000. Today it has fewer than 300. It has been the same everywhere in Priorato.”

Phylloxera ruined Priorato, as it did many other marginal regions with labor-intensive hillside vineyards. They all had difficulty getting started again, and some never did. Priorato’s growers made things easier on themselves by changing their varietal emphasis. They planted more Carignan and less Grenache, even though this gave their wine a harsher style. Carignan sets fruit more reliably than Grenache—that tightness carries through—and even in the difficult conditions of Priorato, it will usually yield twice as much fruit as Grenache. The growers sold land to finance the replanting, and, to supplement what they could afford to pay them in cash, gave plots to their workers. By the 1950s, there were hundreds of tiny holdings—mostly planted with Carignan—and control of local wine production shifted from the estates to the cooperative cellars that sprang up in most of the villages.

The cooperatives were there to make wine, not to market it. But when shipped in bulk for others to blend, even Priorato fetches only a commodity price. The growers tried to cover their expenses by boosting yields. Quality fell, and revenues fell further. But the fundamentals of Priorato’s past success remained: schist, exposure to a Mediterranean sun, and altitude. It needed only a spark to set things in motion again. In fact, there were two: Jose-Luis Perez, Sara Perez’s father, and René Barbier. Perez, a wiry biologist now in his sixties, arrived in 1981 as director of the local school of agriculture. He fought for viticulture programs, hoping they would give the young an incentive to stay and a chance to succeed. In 1980, the bearded and heavyset Barbier—grandson of a French négociant who had moved to Tarragona from the Rhône Valley at the end of the 19th century—bought an abandoned property in the Priorato village of Gratallops. He renamed the steeply pitched vineyard, which came with a ruined house, Clos Mogador.

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