Winemaking in Priorat, a small district in Spain's Catalonia region, is a centuries-old tradition. In the late 19th century, however, it fell victim to the phylloxera scourge, languishing for decades.
By the 1970s, Priorat’s vineyards and wines had fallen into obscurity. Then a group of outsiders, led by René Barbier, a wine merchant from Tarragona, and Carles Pastrana, a Spanish journalist, dedicated themselves to restoring the region’s formerly proud winemaking industry, planting new vineyards and luring investors. They triggered a renaissance. By the late 1990s, Priorat was back on the world’s wine map, using both indigenous and international grape varieties to make powerful red wines marked by intense structure, bold fruit flavors and minerality.
In the 1990s, Ricard Rofes, a Priorat local, was just beginning his winemaking career. Driven by a deep understanding of his native land and inspired by his winemaking predecessors, Rofes eventually landed a dream job as winemaker at Priorat’s most historic winery, Scala Dei. Founded by Carthusian monks in the 12th century, Scala Dei essentially started Priorat's journey into wine production. It was also the first modern bodega in Priorat to bottle its own wines, beginning in 1974.
Scala Dei is now owned by Codorniu, Spain’s oldest winemaking company, which purchased the estate in the early 2000s; Scala Dei now produces about 17,000 cases a year. Wine Spectator associate editor Gillian Sciaretta talked to Rofes, 45, about his journey to Scala Dei, his winemaking philosophy, and learning to love Garnacha.
Wine Spectator: Why did you want to become a winemaker?
Ricard Rofes: When I finished my secondary school, I wanted to work in forestry … but after two years, I didn't like it. Then my parents decided I should go home and work in construction. And I didn't like it either. I had a friend who was working with Álvaro Palacios, and he told me [about a winemaking course]. During the day I was working and in the evening I was studying [wine]. And I liked it a lot! I had three very good teachers, and I like everything related to wine, viticulture and winemaking. I found very good teachers who made it into a passion for me.
WS: What brought you to Scala Dei?
RR: I was at the [winemaking] cooperative Masroig, and in 2007, the president of Scala Dei—I had known him from some years—texted me, "Do you know somebody who would want to be a winemaker at Scala Dei?" And, look, it was like, Scala Dei is Scala Dei. It is the beginning of everything about the wine in Priorat. And I responded to him, "Yes, I know somebody. And that somebody is me."
WS: What was it like to start working at Scala Dei?
RR: To go to work for Scala Dei when you are somebody that is born in Priorat is something that's really special. I was really excited. But the thing was that I was used to working in the southern part of Priorat, where you get the most sun. I was used to making all the wines that we were making based on Cariñena. Garnacha was a grape I didn't like to make, because normally it was always overripe. The acidity would fall down very fast. It was a grape that I didn't like.
During my second day at Scala Dei, one of the owners at the time took me on a ride to see some of the vineyards. So he started showing me the vineyards, and we looked at Pla Paradet, which is Garnacha. We went to the next vineyard, and it's Garnacha. Then another vineyard, and it's Garnacha. Everything was Garnacha. I thought "Oh, no. Where am I?"
After some 15, 18 vineyards that he showed me, and everything was Garnacha, I asked, "Sorry, but where do you have the Cariñena?" and he said, "Cariñena? We don't have Cariñena." And then I felt completely lost and thought. "Oh no, everything is Garnacha? No Cariñena? What am I going to do here?"
I started on the 2nd of August of 2007, and we started the harvest in the middle of September. And when the first grapes of Garnacha came in, I realized that what I knew as Garnacha in my previous life was nothing like the Garnacha in the north, the high-altitude area. The first Garnacha grapes that came in had a high acidity and were so bright. Something completely different from what I was used to.
In Priorat as a whole, 95 percent of the vineyards are slate soils and 5 percent are on red clay and limestone soils. But Scala Dei’s vineyards are at high altitudes, and are mainly clay and limestone soils. Our wines have a little bit less body, a little bit less structure [than those from elsewhere in Priorat]. But our wines have a lower pH, with more fragrance, with more tension and with a good balance between tannins and acidity. And that makes the wines from Scala Dei a little bit less full-bodied, and easier to drink the wines young.
WS: Did you make any changes in the winery?
RR: We started making wines plot by plot, and there are vineyards where we have to pass through picking two or three times because [the individual plots] ripen differently. We own around [170 acres] of vineyards. In 2019 we finished harvest with 72 different fermentations. So [the winemaking is about] trying to know what you have in the vineyard and knowing the potential of what each one can do.
WS: How has working at Scala Dei changed your perspectives?
RR: When I started working for [Masroig], I was 21 or 22. And Priorat was rising really fast in the wine world; it was in the news every day. And when you're young, what you want to do is become famous. So I was trying to make winemaker wines. I was trying to make myself famous, but it's not about the people, it's about the vineyards. I found that out when I started at Scala Dei.
Now I was working with vineyards that were recognized at least 350 years ago. You see in front of you that lots of people have worked in that vineyard, lots of people have made wine from it. You'll be there for only maybe 15 or 20 years. The best thing you can do is to leave the vineyard at least as good as you found it. And when it happens, it makes you a lot freer and opens up your point of view. And the only thing you have to do is to let it happen—let each vineyard express itself for what it is.
A great wine is to show the place where the grapes came from. It's trying to show what it means to be Scala Dei.