The laughter of locals enjoying a Sunday morning bikini and cafe con leche echoed off the courtyard walls, as the sun created a golden path leading us to the Cellers Scala Dei tasting room and store. The moment I walked through the modern sliding glass door framed by walls built in the 14th century, I knew I had reached a destination 15 years after I vowed to make the pilgrimage.
In 1996, a restauranteur friend in Denver introduced me to an incredible “Spanish” red he had found during his travels to Barcelona. He managed to negotiate a case of Scala Dei Cartoixa to be shipped to his wine wholesaler in New York, before it made its way to Denver. It had been the best red I had ever tried to that point, and one I used as a benchmark to grade other wines.
The event led me to research more about Catalunya in the aftermath of the 1992 Olympics; after several aborted attempts to relocate to the region, I finally made it here in 2011. It only took until 2014 to make my journey to Scala Dei, as work contracts and other travel requirements postponed my visit until now.
It was worth the wait.
Escaladei has been the heart and soul of Priorat winemaking since the Carthusian monks began making wine in 12th century. While the monks were dedicated to spiritual ventures, including a 10% tax on the peasants in the region who toiled the soil in their assistance of the monks and their winemaking aims. In its heyday, the Cistercian abbey founded during the reign of King Alfonso I of Aragon featured the church of St. Maria and its original cloister, and additional cloisters in the 14th and 15th century. The monastery was famous for the paintings that were produced at the abbey, along with its legendary winemaking reputation.
In 1835, legislation was passed under Queen Isabel II of Spain, entitled the Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendiazabal. This began the appropriation of monastery lands, largely unused across the country, to help foster an entrepreneurial spirit in an ever-growing middle class. Unfortunately for the architectural marvel that was monastery property, years of taxation and bad blood between the peasants of the region and the monks boiled over. It caused the hasty departure of the monks, who never returned, and the locals razed and destroyed much of the buildings, pilfering the stones and other architectural elements for construction of homes and buildings in the immediate area.
Reconstruction and archeological excavation of the grounds began in 1989, and in 1991, the grounds of the monastery were turned over to the Catalan government, who continues to reformation of the grounds to this day. Visitors can see the grounds for a pittance of €3,50, where you can touch, taste, and smell the now wild fruits, herbs, and vegetables still inhabiting the grounds.
During the confiscations, five families purchased the parcels from Escaladei and leading up the mountain to the base of the Montsant mountains. Vines were replanted, rehabilitated and winemaking recommenced. In fact, the early iteration of Scala Dei is noted as winning a gold medal for their wine at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878 and again in 1888.
Scala Dei is known twice for “first bottling” of wines. The five families who purchased the lands and formed the “Union Agricultural Society” in 1844 bottled their first wine in 1878, and as an homage to the monks who were there for centuries, they emphasised “Priory of Scala Dei” on their labels.
The second time Cellers Scala Dei bottled was in 1974, under the newly launched DOQ Priorat, with their first vintage of Cartoixa, a variety coveted by the Rocas of Celler Can Roca in Girona, one of the best restaurants in the world. You can still purchase a bottle of ’74, for a mere €125,00, a small price for such a spiritually historic wine in comparison to the stratospheric prices for some of the exclusive wines grown in the neighbouring region of Gratallops, made famous by Robert Parker himself.
It was hard to keep my mouth opening in awe as Ferran toured us around the facility. Some of the highlights included the barrel room dating back to the 1400s (the room where the monks collected their taxes from the peasants). Inside, Cellers Scala Dei has the nouveau traditional small oak barrels for ageing, plus newly employed large oak barrels which hold 1400 litres for their more exclusive varietals, like Sant Antoni and Crueta.
Scala Dei has also revisited the past, as they have a renewed focus on the traditional grape of the area, the red grenache. While Scala Dei employs other varieties and blends for their lesser expensive wines, their high end wines are completely focused on grenache including the previously mentioned blends of Sant Antoni and Crueta, plus Artigots. These wines use 100 percent grenache, and only grapes planted in each area identified on the bottle.
Scala Dei has been under the guiding hand of Ricard Rofes since 2007 when he took over as the winemaker, and around the same time, 25% of the vineyard was purchased by the Cordorniu Group. Prior to Scala Dei, Ricard was at Portal del Montsant, and began his status as a winemaker at the fabled Celler Masroig in El Masroig. I can say the winery is in excellent hands, as Rofes has steadfastly adhered to using the stems of grenache in the fermenting process to add more smoothness to their high-end wines, plus beginning experimentation with concrete fermentation vats, and other “renewed” innovations to their traditional winemaking process.
I hiked up the 550 metres with my cohort and Enotrekker, Michael, as we did our own pilgrimage from the monastery grounds to where the grapes featured in St. Antoni develop their story. We bought the wine, and did the climb. Walking through the gift shop to enter the grounds, I was taken by a rosary featuring Santa Maria de Scala Dei, whose beads mirrored the hues of the grapes of the area. After purchasing, and saying prayers in the cloister, we began our trek up the mountain.
After 45 minute hike, we arrived at St. Antoni. There are no words that can describe the reverence, the peace, the tranquility and the sounds of the vineyard. The bees continue to harvest the wildflowers, and the smell of the honey is intoxicating, and after tasting the St. Antoni two hours prior, I could recall the flavours as I sat surrounded by the deep hues of purple and green in the middle of vines.
While Priorat has become known in modern times for the revolution of new vintners, new vines, new innovation, and high numerical scores, one cannot ignore the history and lofty place Scala Dei holds above all, literally and figuratively. Other vineyards can talk about the history, the spirituality, and the legacy of winemaking in the Priorat, and they do. But for them, it is merely words out of the mouth, or one dimensional words printed on paper or on websites.
Ferran’s passion for Scala Dei was as intoxicating as the wines we enjoyed during our visit. Cellers Scala Dei is centuries of living wine history in the Priorat. Sometimes innovation cannot replace the greatness of tradition, and it is hard to top the legacy and current quality from Cellers Scala Dei.
Want to read about the history of wine in the Priorat? Ferran Mestres from Cellers Scala Dei has written a book. A pdf copy in Catalan is available here. My next project is to convince him to allow us to do an English translation!