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.
It was one day July 1997 that René Barbier showed Christopher and his wife Charlotte an abandoned vineyard just north of Gratallops called “Figueres”. The same day the entire Cannan family jumped into their car and followed René to Barcelona. It was on a pavement café beneath Gaudi’s “La Pedrera” building on the Paseo de Gracia that we met a charming widow and school teacher, owner of the vineyard. Negotiations were rapid and easy, land values being very reasonable at the time. By October 1997 the purchase was completed and the hard work commenced. At the outset René Barbier and his vineyard team agreed to take care of the estate which we called Clos Figueras. (“Clos” because it consisted of 10 hectares all in one piece and the prefix to most of the new wines on the Priorat scene and Figueras in honor of the two magnificent fig trees on the property).
Initially the terrain had to be prepared for planting. Having been abandoned for 8 years there was much work to do on the terraces. A grove of centuries old olive trees and a few rows of mostly 20 years old Carignan vines were recuperated but most of the remaining hectares had to be replanted.
Christopher travelled to the Southern Rhône valley to visit a specialized nursery and select the vines to be planted after grafting onto American root stock. He privileged the local Grenache Noir, also the Syrah, Mourvedre, a few Cabernet Sauvignon vines and a little Viognier to complement the Syrah as in Côte Rôtie.
An amusing anecdote related to the purchase of these vines occured when two years after planting the vines in March 1998, Christopher received repeated phone calls from René Barbier asking how many Cabernet Sauvignon and how many Viognier vines were purchased. Indeed the grapes on the supposed Cabernet vines were not changing colour ! After careful examination of the leaves it was discovered that nearly all the Cabernet was in fact Viognier ! What to do ? On consultation with the nursery, who admitted a mistake, they sent 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon vines free of charge saying all that needed to be done was to cut down the Viognier at the base and graft the Cabernet on the root stock of the Viognier. In this process one year’s production would be lost but compensated for by the nursery. However when the Cabernet vines arrived, the Viognier looked so healthy it was decided to leave the vines where they were and plant the Cabernet elsewhere. As a result Clos Figueras now has an excellent dry white wine, Font de la Figuera Blanco, composed of 85% Viognier complemented with Grenache Blanc and Chenin Blanc planted at a later date !
In early 2000 a handful of owners of adjacent vineyards proposed to sell their holdings to Clos Figueras. The transaction took place without difficulty and gave the estate access to some old Grenache and Carignan vines which have since been an important ingredient for the prestigious Clos Figueres , the principal wine of the estate. Furthermore the acquisition brought 8 more hectares to the estate, making a total of 18 hectares all in one piece of which 12 are planted. The remainder being olive trees, a small forest and slopes too steep to plant.
Initially the wines were made in the Clos Mogador cellar outside Gratallops. The first wine was just 1200 bottles of our second wine, Font de la Figuera 1999. It was a light wine which was sold and consumed quickly. It was with the 2000 vintage that the first serious wines were made, the Clos Figueres 2000 and Font de la Figuera Tinto 2000 were highly rated by the specialized press and sold well. With the 2001 vintage, Clos Figueres was awarded 96 points by Robert Parker, putting the estate rapidly in league with the top names of the fast emerging Priorat appellation. In the following years Clos Figueres was awarded no less than 94 points for every vintage with the exception of the 2005 with 96 points.
In early 2002, with space running out at Clos Mogador, an independent vinification cellar was purchased in Gratallops. A disused chicken barn was converted and ready for the 2002 vintage. To help with the costs part of the cellar was rented out for vinification to two new producers : The Trio Infernal from France and the Osborne family. For ageing the wines in cask space was rented in an ideal humid underground cellar under the adjacent building.
Throughout the decade the reputation of the estate became established in numerous export markets. Clients outside Europe are taken care of by Europvin with a strong presence in the U.S.A., Canada and Brazil as well as smaller quantities in Japan, Australia and Singapore. In Europe sales are made directly from the bodega with Switzerland and Sweden being the principal markets and a presence in Germany, Poland, Holland and England. In Spain there are numerous local customers, especially at top rated restaurants in Barcelona, and a presence in Madrid.
Today three red wines and one white wine are produced : Clos Figueres from the old vines, Font de la Figuera Tinto from the vines planted back in 1998 and the recently launched Serras del Priorat, a more fruit driven wine for early consumption while maintaining all the classic Priorat characteristics. Finally the Font de la Figuera Blanco from the “mistaken” Viognier. A total of between 25000 and 30000 bottles are made with single minded passion and commitment to the highest quality possible. To assist in this achievement Clos Figueras has enlisted Alain Graillot of Crozes Hermitage fame in the Rhône Valley to help with the blending and other welcome advice.
In 2011 Clos Figueras was finally able to purchase part of the neighbouring building , including the underground cellar for ageing the wines. Furthermore in August 2011 the remainder of the building was purchased. This was initially a restaurant owned by René Barbier’s son called “Les Irreductibles”. Today it is a restaurant named “Les Figueres” and is the enotouristic outlet for Clos Figueras offering simple but high quality local cuisine and wine tastings for the numerous visitors to the area. A kitchen garden is producing vegetables for the restaurant and six hens produce the eggs when they feel like it!
Clos Figueras also produces an exceptional Extra Virgin Olive Oil with the Siurana Control of Origin from 135 olive trees of the celebrated Arbequina variety. Many of the trees are more than 300 years old. The oil is packaged in an attractive 50 cl. bottle with a dark green canister.
The vineyard has always been farmed with ecology in mind and is currently in the process of obtaining the official certificate from the authorities. The vines are planted at various altitudes stretching up from the Montsant river valley in cool locations chosen to slow down the maturing of the grapes. The views over the wide Ebro valley to the mountains beyond are stunning with the famous Hermita hill and Montsant mountain to the rear, protecting the site from the cold northerly winds.