Scala Dei translate as “Ladder to God”. In the 12th Century, Carthusian monks from Grenoble, France, built a monastery here in Priorat, Tarragona, Spain. Although they led a hermetic, reclusive life, the Carthusians loved wine.
Stairway to Heaven
Scala Dei translates as “Ladder to God”. Tracing those figurative footsteps, I see Scala Dei also as a “Stairway to Heaven”.
The name is a bridge to god if you believe in the divine, or wines of a higher order if we are more secularly inclined. Wherever we pin our faith – grape or god – the quality of the wine is not in doubt. Scala Dei soars into the realm of the ethereal. The hills and mountains of the area are the inspiration for the name. One after another, they resemble steps that reach to the sky. Here are also some of the high altitude vineyards that produce wines of intense pristine fruit.
Scala Dei is located 450 metres above sea level. The winery is only a few cork’s throw from the ruin of the same named Carthusian monastery. Each year, about 30,000 people visit. More than half are Catalans and the rest from throughout Spain, Europe, and North & South America. The Carthusians had arrived from Grenoble, France. In the middle of the 12th Century, Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, led a crusade and conquered southern Catalonia where Priorat is located. Then in 1194, his son, King Alfonso II of Aragon, gave the Carthusian Order dominion over the land surrounding Escaladei.
Although they led a hermetic, reclusive life, the Carthusians loved wine. They planted vines and soon, the Priory became a centre of wine production. Priorat, the name, refers to the prior. The appellation is entirely surrounded by the larger appellation of Montsant which has a different soil. Barcelona to Priorat is about 120 kilometres in a southerly direction.
St Antonin has red clay soil and is 650 metres above sea level. The ruin is from ancient times. The monks had hired two families to tend the vines. St Antonin yields a single-vineyard wine and its fruit is also use to blend into Scala Dei Cartoxia.
The soil of vineyards located at lower altitudes is composed of a dark slate. Although in smaller pieces than the slate of the Mosel, its deep colour is quite identical to that of the German region. Most of the vineyards of Priorat has this type of soil.
The Carthusians stayed until 1835. In that year, the government decreed the confiscation of religious property. And put them up for auction. Four families bought Scala Dei. Today, their fifth generations are still proprietors. The Priorat appellation was created in 1954. But, for 20 years after that, Priorat’s production was sold as bulk wine. They were useful for blending as grenache gives high alcohol and body, while carignan contributes high acidity and freshness. In 1974, Scala Dei became the first winery to bottle a wine under the Priorat appellation.
Most of the region’s vineyard is planted to a dark slate soil which also contains some iron. The slate is not unlike that found in the Mosel. The remaining 5% is high altitude vineyards on limestone and clay. Summers are hot and dry while winter, although cold, is also dry. Rainfall, 400 to 450 mm a year, is low. Girona, just 150 km north of Priorat, enjoys twice as much precipitation.
Ricard Rofes is winemaker at Scala Dei. His first vintage was 2007. Born in Priorat, the Catalan is helped in his work by the Carthusian monks who first planted vines there when they came over from France. A document from 1629 informs of the best places to grow grenache (and mataro or mouvedre). Today, the two varieties most planted in Priorat are grenache and carignan. At Scala Dei, grenache dominates their vineyards. Carignan struggles to ripen which is why the winery only has 400 carignan vines. Yields – already naturally low because of the poor soil and lack of water in Priorat – are even lower at Scala Dei because of their quest for quality.
The winery holds a particular place in Priorat. Planting vines in the same places the Carthusian monks did more than 800 years ago, Scala Dei is both direct descendant and custodian of the first wine ever produced in Priorat. It continues to do so in the very village where the monks lived and worked. Every day, Ricard Rofes and his team climb the same ladder to reach the highest vinous standard. Is it any wonder that “Exceptional” only begins to describe the wines.
Scala Dei Cartoixa 2016
Cartoxia has the distinction of being the first wine bottled under the Priorat appellation in 1974. The label also depicts the Carthusian monastery that is near the winery. A blend of 80% grenache and 20% carignan, about 35% of the fruit comes from vineyards that have slate soil and the balance from high altitude vineyards with clay, limestone, and calcareous soils. They range between 450 and 800 metres above sea level and the oldest vines are over 70 years. Manually harvested, each plot is vinified separately. Floral, including violets. Intensity of red and blue fruit. Stems, which were included in the vinification, help give the wine extra richness of tannins, backbone, and freshness. Balanced and with good ageing potential.
Scala Dei St Antoni 2014
Planted 650 metres above sea level, St Antoni is an historic terraced vineyard first planted five centuries ago. There is a ruin from ancient times to testify to that. This was built by the monks to house two families they had hired to tend the vines. The soil is vivid red clay. The present vineyard – resembling an amphitheatre – was planted in 1945. Apart from being used to blend into Cartoixa, St Antoni is also a single-vineyard wine. Floral with ripe cherry fruit and a whiff of autumn leaves. Balanced and freshness. Medium-plus bodied.
Scala Dei Masdeu 2014
Masdeu is another historic terraced vineyard, the highest terrace around 800 metres above sea level. The day I visited, the weather was not conducive to going up there from St Antoni. The lower part of the vineyard has red soil but as it gets higher, this changes to limestone with the top terrace completely calcareous. The present vineyard was also planted in 1945. As with St Antoni, Masdeu is fermented in cement tanks of 3,500 litres with wild yeast. The immediate impact is the richness on the palate from the fruit and the tannins, particularly from the stems which are included in the vinification. Also as with St Antoni, this is a 100% grenache or garnacha tinta. Rich, intense red/blue fruit and herbs. Richer, and tight, than St Antoni. Very fresh.