In late September we took a Renfe express train from Barcelona up into the hills and slopes of Tarragona.
Several hundred years before the Romans arrived, the Phoenicians introduced the grape to this rich llicorella soil. Sheltered by the dramatic Montsant mountain range, where the hot Continental wind meets the cool Meditteranean breeze, a microclimate forms, wrapping the El Priorat region in a regulated temperature. The ripe wines produced in this area were later praised by the Romans, with Pliny the elder once describing them as ‘some of the best in the Empire’. Sadly, with the withdrawal of the Romans, went the wine, until it was entirely banned by the Moors in the 4th Century.
In the latter half of the 12th Century, King Alfons el Cast (King Alfonso of Aragon) sent two knights in search of an ideal plot to establish a monastery for the Carthusian Order from Provence. The knights travelled across Catalonia when finally they arrived at the foothills of the spectacular Montsant mountain range, struck by the beauty of the panoramic landscape. A pious shepherd told them about a mystical stairway that appeared out of the highest pine tree, along which angels from heaven would descend and ascend bringing wine to God. Construction of the monastery began in 1194, and it was named ‘Escala Dei’ (the ladder of God).
Viniculture thrived once again for almost 1,000 years, until the vineyards were destroyed by oidium and phylloxera and the winegrowers fled to the burgeoning textile and silver industries. In the 1970s, René Barbier, a student of the University of Bordeaux, and Carles Pastrana began replanting vines in the dark terroir of slate and quartz. They were joined by a handful of young enthusiasts and one veteran oenology professor. They imported French varieties and they employed a very technically correct modern French style. Eventually, the original clan diverged and cultivated wines in their own unique ways. Five rose to international fame: Barbier (Clos Mogador), Pastrana (Clos de l’Obac), Pérez (Mas Martinet), Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) and Alvaro Palacios.
We were given a grand tour, by the lovely Katja, of Barbier’s vineyard Clos Mogador, near the small village of the Gratallops. The tour began outside, studying the terrain. The soil is made from layer upon layer of slate, which lends the wines a distinctive minerality. The land is difficult to control and harvest, but Barbier likes to keep intervention to a minimum. He allows the sweet grapes to grow alongside with weeds, flowers, oaks, wild roses, nut and olive trees. We sniffed some amazingly fragrant fresh fennel growing among the vines, the idea is that this fauna enhances the aromas of the wines.
Inside, we saw the various production stages, from filtering out the over or underripe grapes by eye to the open and closed fermentation and finally the basement full of large oak barrels. So much attention is given to these grapes.
Finally, we had a tasting of three of the wines, Clos Mogador, Manyetes and Nelin. The wines embody their landscape; complex, deep and aromatic. There is rich graphite minerality present, with soft velvety tannins. Each one evolves as it breathes, releasing ripe silky fruits and contrasting spiciness. The Manyetes was is the more ‘feminine’ style, being slightly more earthy and balanced in structure. Nelin, the white wine was particularly surprising, transforming with each sip, at once full bodied, oaked and fragrant, and then delicate and floral, and then sweet and fresh. It has a deceiving nose and a remarkable finish. Bread and delicious olive oil from local olive trees was served alongside.