BY ANNA FIGUERAS (historian and owner of the hotel Cal Compte in Torroja del Priorat)
The Priorat region has been associated with the concept of wine for centuries. The sum of ideal soil, climate, landscape and the toil of men and women who have been engaged in wine making following the techniques of a millennial tradition with the help, today, of technology adapted to the demands of quality has yielded a unique, exclusive product: the wine of the Priorat.
The first people who recognized and exploited the qualities of the land for vine cultivation and wine production were the Carthusian monks from Provence, who at the invitation of the king Alfons “The Chaste”, settled in the foothills of the Montsant range in 1194. The Carthusians almost certainly chose that place by virtue of the fact that it offered the ideal conditions to meet the Order’s requirements of solitude, contemplation and seclusion, while the presence of water guaranteed their subsistence. Even so, in places charged with symbolic value tradition creates its own version of events and history becomes legend…
During the Middle Ages, wine became an essential part of the staple diet and an indispensable element in Christian rites. Consequently, the knowledge of vine cultivation and wine-making was greatly improved and reached its zenith in the lands occupied by religious orders.
As the years went by, the Carthusian monastery of Scala Dei grew and became consolidated as a feudal estate and farms were built on strategic sites that would constitute the nuclei of the present-day villages of Gratallops, Poboleda, La Morera, Porrera, Torroja del Priorat and La Vilella Alta. The Priory lands also gave name to the modern day county of Priorat.
The Eightieth Century saw a further expansion of vineyards in the Priorat. The outcome of the international demand for wine and brandy caused that the Priorat began to specialise in vine cultivation. Brandy was a solid exchange asset since, unlike wine, it was a stable product which did not spoil and was the most popular strong drink among sailors as they made their long ocean crossings.
By the Nineteenth Century grapes were Catalonia’s main crop and in the Priorat vineyards continued to encroach on woodland and wasteland. The abolition of religious communities by the liberal regimes led to the end of the Priorat as a feudal district and the destruction of the monastery of Scala Dei which in turn gave rise to private enterprise and consequently, the “Golden Age” for the wine industry.
The end of the Nineteenth Century also spelt the end of prosperity of The Priorat; the recession in the wine-producing sector with a drastic drop in prices, a drastic drop in exports, loss of colonial markets and last but not least the Phylloxera plague.
The Twentieth Century brought a steady decline to this once thriving area. Ruinous policies on the part of the Spanish government in combination with bad harvests caused by persistent drought brought the sector practically to its knees. Although the recession in the wine-producing sector affected Catalonia as a whole, its effects were most bitterly felt in areas such as the Priorat, given the low productivity of its vineyards, low profitability due to the high harvesting costs, particularly in terms of labour and the expenditure involved in transporting grapes or wine in a mountainous region lacking in adequate communication networks. Civil War, two World Wars and massive depopulation further aided the decline and turned the Priorat into a legend of once upon a time great wine region inhabited by die hard Prioratins.
Those very people fought for decades to protect their name and reputation. A local publication in 1922 said: “Priorat wine enjoys great renown; Priorat is a name of repute; Priorat wine is of such superior quality by virtue of its taste, proof grading, characteristic bouquet and consistency, that it does not spoil. The older it is, the better, and it is perfectly able to compete with the best vintages from elsewhere. Properly matured, bottled and labelled, this wine would be a source of great wealth, and yet we totally ignore this potential treasure. Our wines are sold to be mixed with and improve the low-quality product of other regions, and yet we are paid the same price as if it, too, were just an ordinary wine. This explains why the Priorat is in such a state of destitution”.
After many years full of setbacks on July 23 1954 the Consell Regulador de la Denominacio d’Origen Priorat, with its head office at the Estacio Enologica de Reus, was at last approved and the lands that coincided with the lands formerly owned by the Cartusian monks became the DO Priorat.
At the end of the 1970s the sector was still in decline, and the situation was further aggravated by constant emigration from the land, the ageing of the population, low production and technical difficulties involved in harvesting. The number of people belonging to cooperatives fell, installations had become obsolete, opportunities for investment were practically nil and some vinicultural concerns were practically forced to close due to the lack of available work hands.
The situation seemed to have reached a point of no return when in the early 1980s a group of wine connoisseurs convinced of the potential of the Priorat radically changed the prospects of the area, although they were not overly aware of the effects this would produce. In the space of little under a decade, the size of vineyards, wine-production figures and the number of cellars increased astonishingly. Nobody, not even the most optimistic, could have foreseen such an turn-around in circumstances.
The D.O.Q. Priorat has gained merited prestige that together with the international recognition of its wines, but above all the proven high oenological quality of the area, has attracted major interest both from the vinicultural sector of Catalonia and from abroad, all eager not to miss the opportunity to produce top-class wines.
PRIORAT WINE REGION: BIBLIOGRAPHY
ANDREU, Jordi, “Creixement demografic i transformacions economiques al Priorat (segles XVI-XIX)”, in Penell, no. 3, Reus, 1989.
ANGUERA, Pere; ARAGONES, Manuel, “El Priorat de Ia Cartoixa d’Scala Dei,” Santes Creus, 1985.
CIURANA, Jaume, “Els vins de Catalunya,” Generalitat de Catalunya, Barcelona, 1980.
FIGUERAS, Anna; CALVO, Joaquim, “El Priorat, la vinya i el vi,” Carrutxa, Reus, 1996. GORT, Ezequiel,”Historia de Ia Cartoixa d’Scala Dei”, Fundacio Roger de Belfort, Reus, 1998.
JUNCOSA, Isabel, “Tractat d’agricultura. Manuscrit anonim de Porrera. Segle XVIII”, Reus, 1998.