PRIORAT GETS PUT BACK ON THE MAP
Clos Figueras confirms the idea that good wine is a direct result of the storied people of its past and present. The identity of this modern winery would be nothing without hundreds of epic years spent investing in the region. In this particular case, that’s the family trio of Christopher, Charlotte and Anne Cannan, the faces behind the scrumptious spanish fruit.
The region of Priorat has a lengthy winemaking history that certainly deserves plenty of recognition. The ancient Romans first planted vineyards there over 2000 years ago and it’s believed that they are responsible for many of the existing terraces. With its high altitude and rugged terrain, the Iberian capital Tarragona (known today as Priorat), was a perfect location for grape growing. The land was later completely dominated by the Cartheusian monks (yes, the very same order who developed the liqueur known as Chartreuse). These monks established the first winery called Scala Dei in Priorat in 1194, as well as a Prior with authority over seven local villages, which is how Priorat came by its name.
The region has undergone plenty of tumult over the course of the past few centuries. Call it Priorat’s “historical terroir” if you will. Often overtaken by bandits, the region went through a period of decline leading up to the 19th century. Aside from the lack of protection, the area was difficult to settle as not much grew there beyond grape vines, hazelnuts, and olives in the poor schist soil.
Wars of the early 19th century gradually lowered profitability of the region's wines, with the 1893 phylloxera (the pesty enemy of grape vines) outbreak practically destroying Priorat’s commerce structure entirely. Local vines were replanted with American ones, and Priorat suffered 100 dark years due to drought coupled with the increasing demand for urban labor during the textile boom. The location of Priorat was far from the roads during the early 20th century which led to further regional decline due to its inaccessible location. The region, once lauded for its exquisite wines, was rapidly diminishing.
In 1979, everything in Priorat changed. Rene Barbier and three other winemakers arrived in the desolate region of priorat with a plan to revitalize the wines of the region to their former glory. Barbier established a winery called Clos Mogador which was dedicated to showcasing the region's terroir at its fullest potential.
It was around this same time that Christopher Canaan entered the scene. During the 1970s, he began Europvin, a portfolio of the best estates wines of Europe with the mission to present the wines to both importers and those whose opinions were of interest in the wine world. It was during the mid-80’s that he tasted a wine from the historic Scala Dei winery, one of the only estate wineries who exported to the US in those days. He soon began exporting Scala Dei wines. Later on, Rene visited Christopher in Bordeaux, bringing some of his Clos Mogador wines for him to taste, and ultimately export. The plan worked and Robert Parker, an influential American wine writer, tried and raved about these wines. The world was beginning to grasp the seriousness of the wines of Priorat.
It was in 1997 that a friend showed him the vineyard known as “Las Figueras.” He and his wife, Charlotte, fell in love with the property and decided to put down new roots with the old vines of Gratallops, the old village. The property was purchased and their first wine was bottled in 2000, a direct reflection of their beliefs in the potential of Priorat. In 1999, Christopher received the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, a French republic award to those who’ve given outstanding contributions to agriculture.
Priorat is one of only two wine regions in Spain to qualify as DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada), the highest qualification level for a wine region according to Spanish wine regulations, alongside La Rioja. It’s much like saying Priorat is the Champagne among all the sparkling wines in France. Though Rioja remains distinctly more well known and available, Priorat is gradually returning to its former glory largely due to the work put forth by the Cannan family.
So why 'Clos Figueras?' An homage to tradition, 'Clos' is often included in the name of Priorat wineries referring to protective walls enclosing the vineyards which in this case, refers to the vineyards 10 enclosed hectares. “Figueras” is in honor of the two beautiful fig trees on the property. Interestingly enough, some of their red wines take on the nuances one would expect from this fruit. It’s all seemingly intertwined.
Clos Figueras is entirely a family affair. Christopher teams up with his wife, Charlotte, and his daughter, Anne, who has certainly made a name for herself in Priorat. She keeps her mind busy with her hands in multiple projects. Her responsibilities include winemaker at Clos Figueras, as well as a passion project called Poblets del Montsant in the appellation next door with a similar mindset. Her passion for wine extends locally in her support for a local Priorat-based group called “Mujeres del Vino” and a yearly fair featuring female Priorat winemakers.
In regards to women in the Spanish wine scene, “it’s a bit like we’re saying, hey, we’re here and we’re making wine,” Anne says. “People don’t realize that there are so many women making wine… But when you say, let’s have a women-only wine group, there are those who say, ‘oh no, I’m not a feminist,’ because they worry about what people will think. We’ve got a long way to go in Spain before women really have confidence in themselves.”
Grenache, (otherwise known as Garnacha, or Garnaxta locally), dominates the blends you’ll find in Priorat. They like to say that the wines are “French in style, but very Priorat.” Other varieties seen here are Carignan, or Cariñena, as well as the international varieties of Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
White wines are often Grenache Blanc dominated and blended with other Catalan varieties, though Christopher seems to have made a new accidental trend by utilizing Viognier in his white wines. As with the success of anything, Clos Figueras came with a mistake or two. Early into planting, Christophe noticed that the 3000 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon he had ordered from France weren’t changing color; after much confusion the grape was identified as Viognier, a white grape native to the south of France. Realizing that Viogner acted as a great blending grape with some of the other more traditional regional white grapes, other vineyards followed suit, and began planting the varietal. Later the DOQ of Priorat even accepted it as part of its repertoire and identity. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, (or wine!)
It’s difficult to pinpoint one factor as to what makes Clos Figueras so intriguing. Perhaps it’s their idea of “la familia.” It may be their honest approach to the land of Priorat, or versatile price points with abilities to reach various markets. And even still, maybe it's the capabilities of the Cannan family of putting an iconic region back on the map for the entire world to adore.
by Brittany Marsh - the Cru - HART & CRU