Elegance from a lunar landscape

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 1999, 12:00am

The interior highlands of Catalonia are an arid, harsh and hard land. It takes guts and strength for both men and plants to claw a living out of the flint ranges. Gnarled vines cling to the poor soil, sending roots snaking an incredible 75 metres through tiny cracks in unforgiving earth. Only if they track elusive underground moisture can the plants survive.

In this unlikely setting, a group of determined vintners are making some startling new wines, combining old methods of working the land with modern technology and imported vines to create New World-type vintages in ancient Spanish vineyards.

The results are stunning. In Hong Kong, we can buy one example of this new wave of wines, the 95 Clos Mogador made by Rene Barbier on an exposed high crest in the Priorato region. It is sold through Spanish Fine Wines (Fax: 2687 4431) for $530.

As the hawk flies, this is about 40 kilometres inland from the Costa Brava, with its hordes of ice cream-licking tourists. But stand on Mr Barbier's exposed hillsides and you could be on the far side of the moon.

The wine is surprisingly elegant, a blend of garnacha (grenache in French) with small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. It has immense power and feeling.

Desperation and religious zeal forced men to plant vines in this inhospitable region. In 1163, a peasant told King Alfons I that he had seen a parade of angels in full heavenly regalia floating in a rocky ravine. It was the height of the reconquest in Tarragon, and such visions were taken seriously by those battling the Moors.

The King promptly dispatched a squad of Carthusian monks to the rocky battlements of the high country to find this stairway to heaven. Their prior planted grapes while he made the region safe for king and God.

That sturdy fortress monastery stands today, and the prior gives his title to the Priorato wine region. Although covering hundreds of square kilometres of high country, there are scarcely 1,000 hectares of vines.

The tiny scraps of flat land in the ravine floors are irrigated. Most vines grow as thick bushes, with heavy leaves offering shade to tiny clumps of grapes. The vines look like clumps of thick weed, with surprisingly luxuriant growth in this dry landscape.

So steep are the terraced fields that only man and donkey can work them. From freezing in winter to a constant 35 degrees Celsius of blazing sun in summer, the climate condenses the essence of the berries. The lack of water packs the grapes with sugar and flavour. It also makes for tiny crops. Only 60,000 bottles from the entire region are available for export; we're lucky to get a few of them.

Not far from Mr Barbier's estate at the hilltop town of Gratallops, Clos l'Ermita now sells what is the most expensive wine in Spain.

The results of what's happening in the harsh hinterland behind the Mediterranean beaches are helping change the world's perception of the upmarket wines of Spain.