Priorat was ripe for change when René Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, Daphne Glorian, José Luis Perez and Carles Pastrana got together and set about making their first wines in the small village of Gratallops in 1989. Jo Lory spoke to Daphne Glorian, owner of Clos Erasmus one or the original Priorat crus, about how the revolution began and how the region continues to evolve.
Wine wasn’t part of Daphne’s upbringing, her first real experience was when she started working for Kit Stevens, a British Master of Wine, based in Paris: “I was butchering the names of the wines, so I took a tasting course at Steven Spurrier’s Académie du Vin”. When Kit went to New Zealand to get married, suddenly Daphne was meeting producers in Burgundy to taste and choose the barrels to reserve for his customers. “These old guys were looking at me wondering what I was talking about”. But she persevered and fell in love: "I started tasting those Burgundies and I thought wow this stuff is pretty good!"
Daphne met René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios at a wine fair in Orlando. They hit every bar in town that night and in Daphne's words: "That was it, we were friends for life"! They started telling her about a project they were thinking about, René had seen potential in Priorat, and she decided she would go to see for herself. The region was beautiful, she was immediately swept off her feet and decided she was in: "When you're in your 20's everything is possible".
The five of them all still had day jobs - only René was based there full time - but they pooled their experience and resources across their vineyards. Daphne travelled down every six weeks: "Each of us had our own vineyard, and we shared a winery, but we had separate vats"
I asked Daphne what wine was being made in Priorat when she first visited:
"This was a completely forgotten region. In the 70s people were wondering how to revive the economy”. They felt ashamed of their Grenache wines. They thought that by planting international grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, even Pinot Noir - that would be a way to reach the market.
But the problem was that the vineyards weren’t being farmed well and winemaking didn’t suit the grapes. Daphne and her group started to pay more attention to the vines, aiming to produce lower yields of higher quality grapes. They harvested earlier for lower alcohol in the wines. They sorted the grapes before fermentation, controlled the ferment, and pressed the grapes softly to avoid chewy tannins. They also started to age the wines in new barrels.
By the late 90s the Priorat wines were starting to be recognised. The Catalan government elevated the region to DOQ (Qualified Denomination of Origin) bringing it up with Rioja to the top of Spain’s wine pyramid.
With a new confidence in the region growers started to reconsider Priorat’s traditional grapes Grenache and Carignan, which cope better with the hot dry climate. Grenache had got a bad reputation from the productive clones which were planted in the Rhone, which gave large crops of soft characterless wines. But if you plant carefully with good stock in the right place: “It can produce amazing wines, the great wines of Chateauneuf had been forgotten”.
"Grenache can produce amazing wines, the great wines of Chateauneuf had been forgotten”.
Daphne hasn’t planted Carignan: “It’s a variety I’m not comfortable with, on a personal level, it’s not my buddy”! She thinks it can make austere wines in her village of Gratallops, but other producers such as Celler Família Nin-Ortiz (co-owner Ester Nin is winemaker at Clos Erasmus and Daphne’s ‘eyes’ when she’s not in Spain) are making excellent wines with Carignan in nearby village Porrera which has a cooler climate and north facing slopes.
Daphne converted her vineyards to biodynamics converted in 2004. Does she notice a difference in the wines?
“I would be the first one to say I don’t think [biodynamics] makes my wines better, but I’m comfortable working that way, being more respectful of nature... Analytically you don’t see it, but there is a perception [in the taste of the wines] of a higher acidity. They’re fresher, there’s a finer texture, but this could also be the fact I have learned and become a better winemaker, there are a lot of factors in winemaking”.
“I would be the first one to say I don’t think [biodynamics] makes my wines better, but I’m comfortable working that way, being more respectful of nature".
How has her winemaking changed over the years?
“Our taste evolves like our taste in music… It sounds like a cliché but I’ve learned to be patient”. Moved away from heavy extraction during fermentation, you don't need to push for it with the ripe grapes of Priorat, you get hard tannins and massive wines. “I now move in a very soft way, gentle pumping over, and no stepping on the grapes”.
It’s not just Daphne, increasingly producers in Priorat are using a lighter touch. Dominik Huber at Terroir al Limit also moved away from a heavily extracted and oaked style and adopted gentler extraction, or infusion as he refers to it. Which he believes showcases the region’s unique vineyard sites better.
The new quality ladder
There’s a new vineyard classification that you will see on the labels of Priorat wines. It’s called Els noms de la terra - The Names of the Land – and follows a Burgundy-inspired pyramid model. With regional wines at the base, and moving up through Vi de Vila (from 12 village zones), then Vi de Paratage (equivalent to a single location or Lieu-dit), and finally single vineyard Vinya and Gran Vinya classificada (equivalent to premier and grand crus).
Daphne won’t use these classifications as she just makes two wines: her top bottling Clos Erasmus; and her second wine Laurel, from barrels which don’t make the Grand Vin cut. But I asked her if she thought it would help drinkers understand the region.
“It might be complicated for the consumer… but it gives them an idea that Priorat isn’t a monolithic place that everyone thinks of, with one wine”. It’s also good for growers “it’ll give them competition; they will want to go up in the hierarchy”.
And does she think the villages have unique characters? “I keep saying to them let’s not forget Burgundy has been doing this for a thousand years, before they can differentiate… it’s [more] complicated, red Burgundy is one variety, here there is Grenache and Carignan, and international varietals in the mix. It’s not that simple”.
“I keep saying to them let’s not forget Burgundy has been doing this for a thousand years, before they can differentiate"
And finally, what about the 2018s?
“They’re fresher wines [than the 2017s], we had plenty of rain in spring, they’re not as opaque and dense. You could drink the 2018 earlier, it’s more open”.
Watch out for the 2018 vintage of Laurel coming to the Sourcing Table very soon.