Before modern science there was alchemy, a process that changed one thing into something else and made it more valuable. Although we know that science is at the heart of the transformation, there remains something magical about it — like living in a dream. The vines are cared for all year and their fruit is nurtured toward the promise of the elixir of life that in the Priorat is known as wine.
The relationship of the winemaker to the grape tends to form the criteria used to make decisions about whole or crushed berries; stems on or off; vessel size, shape and form; stainless steel, fiberglass or oak. Pump over or punch down, by paddle or foot — all have the goal of introducing oxygen to help the yeast grow and convert the sugar to alcohol to become wine. When the time comes to separate the juice from the skins, there are still more choices, from basket to hydraulic press, and then it is back to some form of container for more time to evolve.
Wines are often judged by whether they are expressions of the land or the winemaker. But Priorat wines are inextricably both, from the decision to pick through fermentation, pressing, aging and bottling. The moment of truth is when all the answers about the wine’s life, vineyard and cellar are revealed.
The earliest discovered wine residue may have come from the Neolithic Era, but the first actual winemaker might have been a cavewoman. In her rush to follow the migration of her family’s meat source, she might have tossed the wild Vitas vinifera she had gathered into her leather pouch. With wild yeasts aplenty, it fermented. The result was good, so she continued to perfect her methods.
Human innovation and evolution have delivered us to a time when the creator of wine is greatly debated. Ego aside, a combination of nature and man has created wine as we know it today, because it takes both to deliver the grapes from the vineyard and transform them into wine.
Winemaking begins in the spring, when the sun warms the earth and awakens the vine. When the time comes to harvest, the grapes leave the tranquility of life on their mother vine and embark on a great journey. This is the moment when the vines turn over their guardianship to human hands.
The existence of science suggests some systematic structure that is understood by the mind. But there are still things to be discovered, surprises that can occur along the way. A challenging vintage might require a level of intuition, an internal vision into the wine’s evolution, to decide what is to be done. Then again, there are the perfect vintages when the wise winemaker stands back and lets the wine make itself.
The oral tradition of making wine in the Priorat remains intact. Ideas about how and when to pick, crush, ferment, press and age have benefited from new knowledge. Innovations such as refrigeration and methods for managing oxygen exposure have also added to the process, along with an awareness of the importance of cleanliness to avoid unpleasant aromatics. A new era has begun, one that will establish its own oral tradition with time.
Ethos Priorat is vividly panoramic. It is best viewed in landscape format to fully enjoy the experience.