HISTORY OF PRIORAT AND CLOS FIGUERAS
Priorat being close to the ancient Roman capital of the Iberian Peninsula, Tarraco, ( Tarragona of today), it is no surprise that vineyards have existed in the region for more than 2000 years. It is believed that many of the surviving terraces were initially built by the Romans.
During the middle ages the entire region was dominated by the Carthusian monks at the monastery of Scala Dei, the prior of Scala Dei exercised his authority over 7 villages, hence the name Priorat. The monks controlled the local economy and all cultivations. Apart from the vine this included olive trees, almonds and hazel nuts. Not much else can grow in the poor schistous soils of this Mediterranean enclave.
In 1835 the Spanish state expropriated the monasteries which were destroyed and the land given over to smallholders. During the 19th century the Priorat vineyards extended over 5000 hectares until phylloxera struck at the end of the century causing ruin and massive emigration. What with political upheavals and the Spanish civil war, it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that the Priorat began to revive. In the 1970’s only about 600 hectares remained under vine.
During the 1980’s a group of inspired enthusiasts fell in love with the area and saw the potential to produce very great wines in the Priorat. The group was led by René Barbier, whose father had owned a wine shipping company in Tarragona, and Alvaro Palacios from the Rioja. In 1989 their first wine was produced with three other friends in an abandoned chicken farm outside the village of Gratallops. The presence of very old Grenache and Carignan vines in the unique slate / schist soils called “llicorella”, helped by some recent plantings of international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, showed the way to make wine of world class quality. It was not long before the international wine press was falling over themselves to expound the virtues of this “rediscovered” territory, putting Priorat back on the map as one of the great wine producing regions of the world.
Today the region enjoys the coveted “Denominacion de Origen Calificada” appellation which in Spain is only shared with the Rioja.
Christopher Cannan, with his export orientated wine shipping company, Europvin, based in Bordeaux, had already discovered the potential of the Priorat back in 1983 when he was given a bottle of the 1974 vintage Priorat from the Scala Dei winery by a small retailer in San Fransisco. Tasting the wine that same evening with a Californian wine maker, it turned out to be excellent and extraordinarily good value at $ 4.00 a bottle !
Shortly after Christopher met Manuel Peyra, owner of Scala Dei, and started exporting these delicious wines to various countries including the U.S.A. and Japan. At the time Scala Dei was the only single privately owned estate exporting the wines of Priorat.
Later in 1988 Christopher met Alvaro Palacios at the New York Wine Experience. Alvaro informed Christopher of his plans and invited him to dinner in Logroño where he enthusiastically explained the project to produce world class wines from old vineyards in the Priorat. He proposed to introduce Christopher to René Barbier at Clos Mogador. A few weeks later René turned up in Bordeaux in his old Peugeot and a few samples of his Clos Mogador. At first Christopher was sceptical.
The wine was excellent but the price was high for an unknown product. Nevertheless a couple of years later Christopher decided to show the wine to Robert Parker at one of his regular tastings in Europvin’s Bordeaux office. Parker did not wait to write an article to show his enthusiasm but it was after he published his subsequent issue of “The Wine Advocate”, with exceptionally high scores, that the trade finally took notice of what was happening in this remote corner of Catalonia. Since then Europvin has been exporting Clos Mogador and other Priorat wines to numerous countries in North America and Asia. The Priorat has not looked back. Today over 2000 hectares are in production and 96 bodegas are shipping their wines all over the world.