Ricard Rofes: Embracing the past to preserve the future

The Carthusian monks who settled at the base of the Montsant mountains in 1194, establishing the village and monastery that is now known as Escaladei, were certainly onto something. The name Scala Dei, which means “Ladder of God”, denotes the special place they felt it was, and after my many visits there, I can attest to its specialness not only from a wine point of view, but a spiritual point of view. How do you capture such an amazing history spanning almost 900 years? How do you share the special feeling you get when you set foot on the soil? Scala Dei’s winemaker Ricard Rofes has done it by combining the best of the old ways, and the best of the new ways to express what it means to be Priorat.

Rofes sits in the tasting room at Scala Dei, as he shared more about his story. (On the table is Timmer’s favourite Sant Antoni, 2012 vintage)

Unlike many of the other winemakers made famous by fabulous Parker rating press, Ricard grew up in the region. His family had vineyards and some of his earliest memories are of “helping” during harvest when he was four years old. Wine life in Priorat, however, isn’t easy, and after some tough decisions, Ricard’s family made the switch from grapes to hazelnuts, as it allowed the family a better financial opportunity.

Those experiences in nature and working with his family made a huge impression on Ricard. He ended up studying forestry at university, but became disillusioned as its focus was more commercial than on preservation or renewal. By chance, he ended up studying winemaking in Falset in the 90s, and from there he became hooked, and ended up working at Celler Masroig near to his family, rising to the winemaker role  at the cooperative.

When he came to Scala Dei in 2007, it was a new experience for him. While the towns of El Masroig and Escaladei are only 25 minutes apart, it’s a world away in terms of wine. At Celler Masroig, which is in DO Montsant, the primary grape production was Carignan, with a completely different soil composition and at a much lower elevation. Scala Dei, on the other hand could be classified as almost all Garnatxa, all the time, with vineyards rising to 600 metres in the shadow of the Montsant mountains.

Yet, drawing on his philosophy of working with nature by preservation, harmony, and historical respect, Ricard went about immersing himself in the history of Scala Dei rather than trying to bend the winery to his previous experiences and success. He poured over the notes of the previous winemakers and did an extensive analysis and vertical tasting of the wines produced since Scala Dei began production in earnest in 1974.

It paid off when he was given the keys to the kingdom in 2009 by the board of directors of Scala Dei. Ricard has always worked in a collaborative manner, and kept the entire team involved in his observations, research, and best practices for creating quality wines for the company. So when he presented that they should reintroduce what made the highly regarded wines of Scala Dei great in the 70s, there wasn’t any resistance. As he related, it was a natural progression based upon his research and discovery which faced zero opposition.

Ricard revolutionised production at Scala Dei. He reintroduced the concrete tanks for fermentation. He reintroduced fermentation with the stems. He began the movement away from the 225 litre casks to the 600 litre casks. He worked on what grapes brought the best out of Garnatxa, in particular for Prior and Cartoixa, but his greatest triumph, to date, was something new.

For those unfamiliar, the majority of Cellers Scala Dei’s vines are surrounding the monastery property from which it draws its name. In 1834, the Spanish government introduced legislation confiscating church lands for the people of the country. What happened was centuries of pent up frustration spilling over (taxation & tribute being the primary problems), causing the destruction of the Scala Dei Monastery, and the flight of the Carthusian monks who had been there since 1194.

Five families bought it in the 1840s. The descendants of the original owners went about restoring the property throughout the 20th century, and gave the monastery grounds to the Catalunya Government in 1994, while maintaining ownership of the lands and the vineyards surrounding.  There are ruins of villages and settlements all over the slopes, some with incredible history.

My favourite, Sant Antoni, sits 600 metres above the monastery and has one of the most amazing views in all of Catalunya. It was here that local inhabitants had a village called Montalt. The monks managed to persuade to relocate elsewhere, as the village was too close to where they wanted to have the monastery. They say the monks paid off the villagers, but actual documentation show it was officially abandoned in the 15th Century, with the farmhouse eventually designated as monastery property. Garnatxa vines were planted there in 1945 and have been painstakingly cared for since their planting.

After spending time at Sant Antoni, and two other special places – Masdeu (vines planted in 1974) and la Creueta (vines planted in 1965) – Ricard felt the best way to express how special all three places were was to create three single estate wines. So far, Ricard has received critical acclaim to endorse his decision. Masdeu was picked as Catalan wine of the year by the Catalan Wine Guide, Parker has given 95 and 96 ratings to Masdeu and a 94 rating to Sant Antoni (among other high marks for their Cartoixa, Prior, la Creuta and two new wines recently introduced).

However, Ricard does not bask nor encourage this critical acclaim. You won’t see any accolades or awards mentioned on the company website, but instead a focus on the tradition and history, and their mantra of striving to produce the best expression of the terroir to which they tend. His office is located up a catwalk above the steel fermentation vats, and is adjacent to the laboratory used to test current and develop new blends and varietals. In fact, you have to walk through the laboratory to get to his office.

This is the metaphorical personification  to Ricard’s connection to the winery. Some winemakers leave their technical director in charge while they galavant to events around the globe. Others spend their time near the sales office. However, Ricard is most comfortable around the staff, around the tanks, and close to the barrel room, his favourite place at Scala Dei for many reasons.

Vineyards surround Scala Dei, these vines are at 300 metres.
Vineyards surround Scala Dei, these vines are at 300 metres.

Growth and development is also the topic in relation to the Priorat in general. Ricard is on the board of directors for DOQ Priorat, and is part of the communications committee. With the meteoric rise and success of the current Priorat wineries, the region faces multiple challenges with this success. Thankfully for the region, Ricard and the other board members are doing their best to preserve the Priorat way of winemaking, including an application for Unesco heritage status for the region. He feels that respecting the past and the heritage of the region overall is an important mission.

Ricard is a man who loves his family, cherishes his friends and co-workers, and feels he’s fortunate to have found his passion early in life. For him, winemaking is not a job or a paycheque, it’s part of him. You can see the glint in his eye as he talks about the re-introduction of a white wine, Massipa, or their new rosat Pla del Angels, or the history behind the Masdeu wine. You see it when he shifts forward in his chair to explain the difference between Masdeu (like a poem, reminding me of e.e. cummings work “i carry your heart with me”), and Sant Antoni (more of a symphony Pau Casal would be proud).

After meeting Ricard face to face and speaking at length, I now know why their wines are so remarkable and so special. Scala Dei is lucky to have a steward whose first priorities are philosophical and cultural. As Ricard told me, shareholders benefit from long term planning based on a solid foundation. For him, profit is a measure of a job well done, not the basis for making wines. Thankfully for him, Codorniu, who is a major international wine player and part owner of Scala Dei, does not interfere, and rather encourages his philosophy.

What does the future hold for Ricard? Never once did he say he wanted to leave Scala Dei, or talk about creating his own large scale project (he does produce his own wines in low production quantities under the RAR banner).  For him, the historical and spiritual connection to the wine outweighs any potential personal gains. In fact, his symphonic sonnet that is Scala Dei wines may gain a Rofes sister sonnet next year at another monastery property, but this divulgement will be at a later time.

I look forward to each wine line he writes and composes, now and in the future.

Tim Brown (aka Timmer on social media) has been involved in marketing for over 20 years and a wine enthusiast since his first exposure to Duck Pond Winery in Newberg, Oregon, back in 1995. After coming to Europe in 2012, he made his home in Catalunya in 2013 and became enchanted with the wines and winemakers of the region. Now he shares his experiences so international visitors can enjoy the region’s wines, while continuing his work in the marketing world. Sommeliering and wine snobbery isn´t his thing, and he continues to learn more about wine from a Catalan perspective on a daily basis.