The slope I’m peering down could be a triple black diamond, gnarly enough to make the toughest boarder cry Mommy. But there’s no snow, only rocks and unrelenting, icy wind. In summer, I hear, the heat is just as searing.
Welcome to Priorato, the newly hip appellation on Spain’s eastern flank. At first glance, the extreme landscape seems virgin and wild. But look closer: beneath the scrub of every hill lie the contours of ancient terraces. Europeans live with ghosts; the constant presence of their ancestors.
Primitive cultures often believed their ancestors walked among them. They also put a lot of stock in dreams. I understand the connection. My dead mother routinely visits my dreams, vivid as life, with no respect for my linear logic.
Eight hundred years ago in Priorato, a shepherd boy woke to see angels descending a celestial ladder. His vision attracted a phalanx of Carthusian monks who formed the monastery, or priory, of Scala Dei, at the center of the appellation. They planted vines, and hung around well into the 19th century, till phylloxera decimated the vineyards and made the place a ghost town.
Ladders are a common theme in hallucinations. In The Cosmic Serpent, author Jeremy Narby of Chateau Giraud in Sauternes contends that indigenous and ancient people in drug-induced trances often described the double helix of their own DNA. Was the scala merely the right vision at the right time, no more significant than the virgin-imprinted grilled-cheese sandwich sold on e-bay for $28,000? Or is there something potently spiritual about Priorato?
Either way, where monks have been, good vines will grow, according to Àlvaro Palacios, most famous of the producers who reclaimed this area in the 1970s. Partly it’s the rock. The minerals here, he says, keep his wines fresh and redolent of local herbs like rosemary, fennel and thyme. Indeed, here, as in Portugal’s best vineyards, schist happens. Its crystalline structure stores precious rainwater and gives vine root tendrils something to cling to. It’s part of what makes this town of bedrock a place right out of history.
There’s also the fruit. I dreamt once of eating peaches canned in the 1800s. It was like grabbing the past, which usually lurks just outside our vision, by the lapels. The time machine in this case is Garnacha, long out of fashion but proving the star grape here, where it’s darker and less candied than in the Rhone. A few pre-phylloxera vines remain amidst the new planting.
Another gift from the ancestors, says Palacios, is drainage. The ancient terraces have it all worked out, but cut into a virgin hillside and half your soil ends up at the bottom after a rain. They knew other things, too. Thirty years ago, Palacios and others designed wide, flat rows to accommodate modern machinery. But they’re returning to tightly-spaced ledges and even the more primitive costeres: planting directly on the precipitous cant of the hillside. They’re gradually kicking their farming back into the Stone Age, replacing awkward tractors with sure-footed mules.
Muleteers, however, are in short supply; everyone in shouting distance prefers growing his own grapes to laboring over yours, thank you. Crazy-hard work, high labor costs and painfully low yields result in hefty prices for these wines. No matter. They are rich and complex with intense character like nowhere else on earth, and people are happy to pay.
Naturally this has lured the big boys of Spanish wine: Torres, Osborne and Freixenet have all bought land. Locals fear they’ll dilute the quality of the appellation and ruin the spirit of Priorato.
But the spirit seems up to the challenge. Something happens when you follow a mule down your ancestors’ tilted, rocky paths. Palacios’s l’Ermita vineyard looks like a cliff-side graveyard, with each vine spread out, crucifixion-style on its own wooden trellis. The grapes, he says, won’t be ready for at least ten or fifteen years. Perhaps not even for this generation. And you get the sense that the steps of this vineyard, aimed at immortality, are Palacios’ own Scala Dei, his personal stairway to heaven.
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