Scala Dei is one of the 12 ‘villages’ of appellation Priorat.
Now, technically, it’s not a village – it lacks some ‘thing’ that makes a place a town: a pub, post office, fountain or some such (although there is a fountain as I recall …). But it’s an historically critical place in DOQ Priorat’s history, and I’m just fine with it being an honorary village.
[Note, there are two different wine business which use the place’s name on their labels, la Conreria Scala Dei, and this one, Scala Dei as such - both are nice, but not to be confused.]
The place is home to the fabulous historic ruins of the Cartoixa of Scala Dei, since partially restored. Here, in 1194 French monks built a monastery, established farms, gardens and wine culture. Hundreds of years later, it remains the ‘spiritual’ centre of the contemporary wine appellation, DOQ Priorat (Prior-at derives from Prior-y).
For 600+ years, the monks whole-heartedly expropriated from the local peasantry. Then, in 1835, the network of monasteries was disbanded throughout Spain, and historical misappropriations were returned to the folk. A collection of families bought the Scala Dei estate, which failed after the double blows of phylloxera and the civil war, and was later re-founded as Celler Scala Dei in 1974. The 1974 Scala Dei release was the first bottled Priorat wine to be released in the contemporary era.
From the small main town square, you look north past the old monastery, up to the towering flank of the Montsant, an edifice of noble rock, promoted by those canny distributors of cant as the ‘Scala Dei’ or Stairway to God. This is genuinely remarkable country.
Here in Scala Dei, way up in the north of the valley, is a markedly different Priorat. The climate here is fresher and more moist, and while llicorella is still a feature, much of the terroir here is limestone alternating with brilliant red-hued clay. There is far less blue steel and licorice minerality; the wines are lighter and more transparent, very nimble compared to the power found further south in pure-slate-soiled villages like Gratallops. Here, Garnatxa is queen, with very little Caranyena evident. The wines have freshness, bright fruit, spice and tension, growing at as much as 800m of altitude.
Celler Scala Dei’s winemaker is Richard Rofes, who has been making in the region for more than 20 years and at Scala Dei since 2008. Richard trained under local legend, Joan Ausens at the viti school in Falset (Joan was Alvaro Palacios’s head man for many years). Richard also credits our own Stephen Pannell for alternative understands of working with Garnatxa in its Aussie guise as Grenache, gleaned during the 2008 southern harvest. [CSD is owned by the Cordoníu groups … sssshhhhh.]
7,000 litre open tanks are used to group pickings of distinct ripeness, fermented with indigenous yeasts. After 15 days’ maceration, the wines spends 8 months resting in tank before selection and blending. It’s a blend of fruit from mature/maturing vines in five different vineyards (Pregona, Parada, Closos, Pla Saqueta y Forsans). 2019 was a very dry year and had two incredible heat waves in late June and again in late July. The run in to harvest was incredibly benign, however. Thus, yields were down 25%, and wines of good concentration and balance were the result.
Bilberry, currant and fresh mineral earth. A line of herbal balsam opens to vegetal red florals - rock rose, gardenia, geranium and mint. The palate comes together in a sour red tea line, almost like a gum-leaf tisane, with a touch of dark make spice at back. It’s fluid, low glycerol and gentle with easy run. A quiet and quite lovely little thing with a slate hint waiting out back to bring it all home, where a bracken flush of local balsam joins in a finish that is the wine’s best part.
Nicola’s take:Fragrant nose of redcurrant, maraschino cherry, red plum skin, violet and rose petal. Lovely red dirt earthiness with a touch of potting mix. It’s surprisingly light-bodied, but with that lovely spicy lift of Garnatxa. Well-integrated, fine-grained tannins. The way the acid thread weaves its way through the wine is sensational, really bringing all the wine’s elements together. Wholesome, balanced and really easy-drinking. What a lovely thing!