Now a venerable old man, my father, whose nearly ninety years of age can’t keep him from drinking a glass of red with each meal, used to tell me years ago that wine from the Priorat region was the best. At the time, two decades ago, perhaps even more, few people would have shared his opinion. Mostly because, back then, it was an unknown wine produced in a sandy, marginal, poor and inaccessible region in the south of Catalonia, Spain. It was produced just as it was created in nature, without major enhancements, or any regulations of production or sale other than those satisfying the subsistence economy of the working peasants, owners of vineyards they inherited from earlier generations. Moreover, the wine producers of the Priorat sold their product wholesale. Sold by the gallon, it was available in small stores before supermarkets replaced them. Customers would ask for the desired amount and the store attendant, usually a big-bellied man wearing a blue robe, would open the barrel’s faucet –with the word ‘Priorat’ written in chalk– and then fill up the five gallon glass vessel, supported by a lucerne carrier that one had to bring. During this operation, the wine the funnel couldn’t swallow was inevitably shed and, along with the moistened wood, would make for the smell of confined humidity that is characteristic of cellars. The price was a few pesetas, an amount that would be absolutely ridiculous in today’s terms.
The Priorat’s red wine was sometimes offered to winegrowers from other areas at a clearance price, to increase the volume of production. Back then, it was very difficult to imagine that this long-ignored humble wine, coarse and sharp – even disdained –, could experience the mind-boggling progression it has gone through over the last 15 years, to become one of the most sought-after wines. Still, as it was usually the case –and although it was often hard for me to recognize it –the future proved my father right.
What makes the Priorat one of the most appreciated wines? The answer is best given by the enologists of the region. It seems to be a concurrence of alchemical circumstances: First of all, the warm and dry Mediterranean weather fluctuates almost twenty degrees, contributing to the grape’s optimal ripening. Also, the shire is protected from the northern winds by the Montsant mountains. But, above all, it’s the composition of the soil, which is made up of a grey and angular rock: a kind of slate known as licorella. The rocks broken into pieces help avoid erosion and allow cultivation in very slanted, well drained and sunny surfaces.
When the slopes are too steep, terraces are built to support the vineyards so they can settle their roots deeply and find the hydration guaranteed by the fragmented rocks’ shadow. Since the steep relief doesn’t favor a mechanical cultivation, production delivers very scarce returns: an inconvenience that nevertheless gives the wine its very special identity.
In the 1970’s, a group of expert winegrowers –some of them real celebrities– became interested in the Priorat’s huge potential and decided to restore the vineyards. They planted new vines, like those of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah, aside from the ever-present Grenache and Carignan. Years after their first investments, they harvested the grapes and the first great wines saw the light.
The result exceeds all expectations and generates unanimity: we stand before a star in the modern wine-producing universe; new, and yet the possessor of an ancient civilization’s knowledge, as the monks of the Scala Dei charterhouse already produced this wine in the year 1000 (some architectonic vestiges of this charterhouse still remain in the form of a majestic renaissance-style, carved arch made of raw stone). Nowadays, the Priorat as an appellation of origin, extends to the ancient monastic vineyards, and the wine domains belonging to eleven different villages, extending almost two thousand hectares.
A little over a year ago, my father and I decided to visit this region, to which I was returning after 30 years. We rented rooms in a masia: a big house, with thick walls built three or four centuries ago, located in the midst of the forest, olive trees and vineyards; close to Porrera. During the day, we visited some of the sites suggested by the travel guide --but mostly wineries to taste wines and restaurants. Otherwise, we could always go back to the masia where the owner, Pilar, and her husband, had prepared lunch or a homemade country meal: simply exquisite. Pilar was the granddaughter of the last resident of the country house. Her grandfather had to emigrate to Barcelona’s industrial belt, along with many other neighbors of the area in the mid-20th century, to find a job and overcome poverty. Born in Barcelona, she dreamt of going back –and eventually had the opportunity, thanks to the new possibilities the region offered. She rebuilt the family house her grandfather left and turned it into a lodge. I still had the memories, from my first visit three decades ago, of an extremely depressed area, where only a few old people had resisted the exodus. I reencountered the landscapes of fundamental beauty, the silence and sense of prolonged time, but it seemed as if poverty had been exiled. In the cellars and during our strolls on the streets and in the plazas of Porrera or Gratallops, my father and I found some moments of stillness for conversation and company, far from the clamor of the cities and their traffic that mark, for better or worse, our daily life. Tasting these exquisite wines –products of patience and rigor– not only did we find the pleasure of something well done, but my father, with characteristic reserve and modesty, also tasted an intimate and old conviction: these wines were certainly the best of the best. Another impression filled me with satisfaction: to see how a very poor region had developed. Now, it offers new possibilities to the residents, even to the sons of immigrants and others who restored the villages and gave them new life with businesses and stores that complement the wine-growing industry. Still, one thought wouldn’t leave me: development can’t be achieved without culture, in this case the wine culture --a lesson to many other places across the planet, suffering from underdevelopment because they have yet to find within themselves the source of their livelihood.
Illustrations by Camila Valdeavellano.