We take a look at what’s behind the success of one of Spain’s great wine regions.
A wine revival
Thirty years ago, the Priorat wines were on the verge of extinction, with grape prices so low that this region had become one of the most impoverished in Spain. It took a few forward-thinking adventurers to get the region back on its feet. Many people believe that René Barbier Ferrer (now in his sixties) was the mastermind behind this revival, but, when you talk to him today, he is as surprised as anyone by this very recent success.
René comes from the city of Tarragona, and owes his French-sounding name to his great-grandfather, who came down from the southern Rhône region in search of wines during the 19th-century phylloxera outbreak, which affected France thirty years before Spain. René had spent his youth exploring the inland mountains of the province: he knew the history of the monks of Scala Dei, and had probably spent many hours in the foothills of the Montsant mountain range exploring the romantic ruins of the monastery. In 1979, while working as a salesman for a Rioja wine-producer, he decided to buy some land in the village of Gratallops. Thanks to his job, he had met many like-minded friends, and together they introduced modern planting methods and new grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the region. Other wine producers, such as Cellers de Scala Dei, Masia Barril near Bellmunt and Ricard Pasanau in La Morera de Montsant, were planting Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, but it was the international vision which René and his colleagues brought to the Priorat wine scene that really made the difference and ensured their wines reached international customers. The typical foreign wine consumer back then drank wines based on grape variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or wines from well-known French wine regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. René believed that by using these varieties in the Priorat, the wines would be more appealing to foreign consumers than the Garnatxa and Carinyena wines being made at the time. He also introduced modern methods to the wine-making process, which were key to the improvement in quality of the finished wines.
They inspired many other grape-growers in the region, and the newly created wine-making school in Falset also helped to train their sons and daughters in the new methods of wine-making. Many Priorat grape-growers over the last few decades have broken their ties with the local cooperative wineries to set up on their own in small family-run wineries, often in their homes where their ancestors used to make wines. Their story has quickly become history, with famous wineries such as René’s own Clos Mogador as well as Clos de l’Obac, Clos Erasmus, Alvaro Palacios and Mas Martinet becoming internationally recognised as quality wine-producers around the world.