The success of Priorat

  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

One man’s vision 30 years ago to revive this most uncompromising of wine regions is now a reality, with Priorat the only Spanish DOC other than Rioja. Beverley Blanning MW pays a visit

At some point along the road that curls through the hills from Falset to Porrera, a glimmer of a signal shows up on my phone. I stop the car and call Joan Juncosa. ‘Can you come at 5pm?’ he says. ‘We’re up in the vineyards, but we’ll be back in Porrera by then’ Back in the car, I look out for him. But there is no sign of harvesting – or people – in any of the vineyards I pass.

Crumbling stone terraces slipping down the steep slopes indicate where vines used to grow in this sparsely populated enclave of northern Spain. It’s rather a lonely sight. The unforgiving, starkly beautiful landscape bears little evidence of grape-growing today, even though the wines from this place are the most memorably thrilling in all of Spain.

Shortly after 4pm I arrive at the tiny, deserted town of Porrera, a place whose architects apparently planned for nothing wider than horse and cart traffic. The road rises steeply and disappears around a blind corner; with every turn it’s clear I’m deeper in trouble. With no prospect of either turning around or going any further up the narrowing streets, I abandon the car and continue on foot.

Under the eaves of a tall town house by the bridge, a small sign adorns the door: Vall Llach. A young man sits at a desk in the dim light of an untidy office. ‘René Barbier sent me,’ I say – words which produce a flurry of activity. Within a few minutes, a smiling, bearded man stands before me. He is Salus Alvarez, president of the Consejo Regulador of Priorat and general manager of Vall Llach winery. A native of Porrera, Alvarez sports a well-worn, black ‘DOQ Priorat’ T-shirt. We have plenty of time to visit the vineyards before my 5pm meeting with Juncosa at Celler Cal Pla.

Catalan ribbons hang in the dusty 4x4 which takes us up to the highest contours of the hills behind Porrera, now lost from view. We see nobody. Alvarez speaks warmly of Barbier, ‘the grandfather of the region’, whose vision led to the revival of Priorat in the 1980s: ‘He showed us a new concept of what could be done. He brought the world – and culture – into Priorat. He gave us confidence, by his worldliness, that our wines would sell.’ I’d met Barbier earlier in the day. He told me, ‘My idea was to work, right from the start, as if this were the world’s most important region.’ Barbier’s wine, Clos Mogador, takes its name from a novel written by his aunt, Elisabeth Barbier. Les Gens de Mogador tells the story of the decline of French vineyards in the period following their devastation by phylloxera. Barbier chose the name for his wine, he says, because ‘For me, Priorat is the opposite – I wanted to finish the story.’

In the beginning

When Barbier first came here there were only 600ha (hectares) of vines. There are now nearly three times as many, but it’s still some way short of the 5,000ha that thrived here in the mid-1800s. Following phylloxera, the Spanish suffered a second blow – Civil War. Under Franco, wine growing in this remote region of Catalonia all but collapsed. Alvarez remembers: ‘By the 1960s and ’70s everyone who had money had pulled up their old Garnacha vines to plant hazelnut trees. Only those who couldn’t afford to do this, and a few old people with no family, kept their vines.’ One of these was Carmen Bargallo. At the age of 70 she decided to sell her vineyard to local resident, Lluís Llach, a nationally famous Catalan singer and co-owner of Vall Llach. Her vineyard, Mas de la Rosa, is what we’ve climbed to see.

The land falls away sharply beneath our feet down to the unseen road below. The view is breathtaking. Old Cariñena vines spread their arms low and wide across the broken slate, achieving an equilibrium that escapes me on the loose, rocky surface. Bunches of grapes hang sparsely, inches from the ground.
‘The old lady used to come here every day to tend her vines,’ Alvarez says. ‘She walked for an hour and a half each way from Porrera to get here. When she got to the top, she would sit down with her tools and shuffle from vine to vine like that until she reached the bottom of the vineyard. She sold the land because she said she was getting too old for the work.’

It’s hard to imagine anyone working here. In summer the temperature of the slate underfoot can reach 50˚C. ‘When you harvest here, you use one foot to stabilise yourself and the other supports the basket,’ says Alvarez, adding, ‘The most important thing is not to drop the basket.’

We snake back down the road to Porrera and I wander up the main street to find Juncosa. The cellar is marked by a rock nailed to the wall, etched with ‘Celler Cal Pla’. Wineries and homes are indistinguishable in this part of the world, their identities revealed mostly by chance: an unobtrusive sign, an open door, a window enlarged to allow crates of grapes to pass through. Potted geraniums in the arches and balconies of the apartments up above provide a diversion from the chaos of thick electricity cables that hang low across the streets, or cling like black creepers to the walls. Small, wrought iron balconies are draped with blinds against the heat of the afternoon.

Eventually a small truck appears, laden with crates of white grapes (a curiosity in this arid, hot climate). It’s Joan Juncosa and his brother. After a brief hello, the two swiftly set to work unloading, sorting and transferring the grapes to the press.

In Plaza Catalunya, the town is showing signs of life. A few men sit outside a café under the plane trees, dominoes and beer before them. On one side of the square a plaque with new, shiny brass bolts bears the inscription Bodega Bernard Magrez. The tendrils of the Bordelais owner of Château Pape-Clément (and numerous other wineries), have reached Porrera. All doors are closed, with the exception of one vast opening, across the square from Magrez’winery. Here I recognise the figure of Alvarez overseeing the arrival of the Vall Llach harvest. I stand to watch the focused operation of sorting the grapes.

Old vines, not wines

A slim, stubbly man in his sixties appears beside me. After a time, he introduces himself as Lluís – the owner. As we watch the sorting, the silence is broken by sporadic town announcements that emit from loudspeakers in the trees. Lluís tells how he came to be here, of his departure from the world of travelling and celebrity to return to this close community where his mother used to live. His decision to commit himself to this project and to buy vines was ‘a final gesture’ for his friends here, following the diagnosis of cancer.

The main building of his winery, where I’d knocked that afternoon and finally visit long after nightfall, is little changed from the home it once was. The original staircase leads to three separate floors of barrels. It’s easy to imagine them furnished as the spacious riverside living quarters of one of the town’s prosperous families. At the top of the house, the maze of barrels across the floors is mapped out and pinned to the wall. Here, I taste inky, smoky, herbal, intense wines. One, Idus from Vall Llach (see box p48), is described as a ‘wine of the people’ – made from the grapes of 17
Porrera families.

As the golden light of the evening begins to fade, I return to Juncosa, who’s just cleaning up. It’s 7pm. He shows me the old cellar across the way, the one with the stone sign, which has been used by the family for 200 years. He is the winemaker, and his younger brothers, parents and wife are all involved in the business. We walk back down the street and turn into a side alley to enter an unmarked house. The central courtyard behind the front door is covered with Astroturf and strewn with toys. To our left a woman is preparing food in the kitchen. Through an entrance to the right he leads me down the stairs to show me the cellar, so stuffed with barrels and bottles we can’t get as far as the bottom of the steps. In a windowless room further inside the house, we taste his wines.

Juncosa is the eighth generation in his winemaking, vineyard-owning family. But he is the first to put wine in a bottle – ‘the first real winemaker’, he jokes – since the family decided the eldest son should study oenology in 1991. ‘We used to send the wine in bulk to Tarragona, and it was exported to other countries,’ he explains.

It’s ironic that the Juncosas have no real idea of what their wine tasted like before their first bottling in 1996, and certainly no way of knowing how it would have aged. It’s not uncommon. Alvaro Palacios, a pioneer of the Priorat revival with René Barbier, had already told me of this contradiction. ‘We have no old wines in the region,’ he said. ‘There are some old vines, but no old wines.’ But there are not so many old vines in Priorat, either. Palacios’ famous La Ermita vineyard, source of the eponymous icon wine (see box, right) is the largest plot of old-vine Garnacha in the area, just 1.7 hectares.

Juncosas’ Cal Pla wines (see box, right) have such sense of place that it’s shocking to think they were once used as blending material for lesser wines. Even the most basic is full of character, with iodine, slatey notes. The mid-range Mas d’En Compte is one of the most affordably successful wines of Priorat: crisp, balanced and mineral, with lively, earthy, floral fruit. The top wine, Planots, is made from century-old vines. The impressive raw material is evident although, like many of the top-end wines of Priorat, the fruit is a little hard to reach beneath its heavy blanket of new oak.

In the makeshift cellars of Porrera, Gratallops and the other villages dotted across this dramatic landscape, the quality of the wine demands attention, and growers now realise the unique value of the land beneath their feet. When Lluís Llach started out, he wanted to sell his grapes to René Barbier. Barbier refused, insisting, ‘You have to bottle them; show what is Priorat.’

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