Although the phrase ‘living legend’ is often flung about with the hyperbolic abandon of wedding confetti, it is genuinely hard to find a more apt title for René Barbier. Few wine regions in the world owe its success to one winemaker more than Priorat does to the founder of Celler Clos Mogador.
Despite the Agricultural Ministry recognising it as having potential in 1932, a combination of phylloxera in the 19th century and political upheaval through the 20th saw most Priorat vineyards abandoned and the area heavily depopulated.
Coming from a long line of winemakers, René Barbier arrived in Priorat in the late 1970’s when the region was producing little more than bulk jug wine for the Barcelona market. Determined that it had huge quality potential, René convinced seven* other winemakers to experiment on this parched, baked llicorella (local slate) soil. These early pioneers formed a winery producing one wine from their collective grapes, but released under their respective names.
Their powerful wines quickly gained international attention for the concentration, minerality and purity of fruit. They went on to become some of the best known wines in Spain: l’Ermita, Clos de l’Obac and Clos Mogador. Old, abandoned vineyards were snapped up as investment poured in to Priorat, tripling the area of land under vine in 35 years.
This oenology revolution culminated in 2000 when Priorat was awarded DOQ status by the Catalan government; one of only two Spanish regions (Rioja the other) to achieve this premium accolade.
Despite his global recognition in the wine world, René Barbier is an immediately hospitable, approachable and likeable gent. On a recent visit to the Clos Mogador winery he gave me a private tour of his vineyards in an old Mitsubishi 4×4. He told me in his dulcet, deliberate manner (so even my elementary Spanish could keep up) that Clos Mogador was the first wine awarded Vi de Finca staus, recognising it as a single vineyard wine of unique character. Using no pesticides or herbicides these steep terraced vineyards are teeming with insects, wild flowers and grasses; the oldest vines producing as little as 250g of exceptionally concentrated fruit per year.
Back in the winery I was entrusted to the next generation of Barbier winemakers, René IV, whose perfect English gave my miniscule Spanish a welcome break! Working with his father for over 20 years, René Jr is as affable in manner and as he is passionate in winemaking. Unwilling to simply grasp his famous sire’s coattails, René Jr is continuing to innovate with his wines, both in Priorat and neighbouring Montsant; full-bodied whites, ageworthy rosé, natural wines, and the use of large local amphorae are just part of his experimentation.
Drawn to wine styles of unique character- sherry, aged Rieslings, Tokaji- René makes a lot of wines that wouldn’t have mass market appeal. Instead he makes the wines he likes to make and drink; a fortunate luxury when your name is René Barbier! Luckily for us he is incredibly talented at what he does. A morning (and well in to the afternoon!) spent trying his wines shows his impressive range of winemaking skills. Each wine unique and crafted with consummate skill; the Barbier family, synonymous with quality, is in very capable hands to continue their impressive legacy of innovation.
* Although we now refer to them as the Big 5, René Jnr assured me there were originally 8!