“All of them left after the frost,” said Réne Barbier Jr., standing in his family’s vineyard. The tiny mountainous region of Priorat saw nearly 75% of its population leave their hometowns for the city. A combination of depression, civil war, fascism, and unfortunate weather throughout the 20th century caused many towns in Spain to empty out for better opportunities. They left behind many vineyards, like the one we were standing in.
René’s family was one of the few who saw something special here. René’s father and a group of several families moved back to a depressed, empty region. The old family photos from the early 1980s told a story of shared vision. Children and pregnant mothers carrying terracotta bricks, teenagers dirtbiking through vineyards, and wiry bearded dads with cigarettes digging foundations. René Sr. looked the part of the the rangy revolutionary, with a full-face Che Guevara beard and an intense hunger for perfection. The Barbiers and several other families moved back to Priorat because they saw something no one else did. The gold in those hills was locked up in the ground, and they were determined to get it out.
It was old vines that brought them back. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the old residents of Priorat and Montsant had planted vines of Garnacha, Cariñena, and many other grapes. They repaired some of the terraces that had originally been built by Roman hands, dating back to before Christ. Some of these vineyards were built above caves with Paleolithic paintings, from before Egypt had a Pharaoh or Abraham heard a voice. Priorat is older than dreams, older than stories, older than memory.
René Barbier Sr.’s dream was to resurrect this forgotten region’s past. Finding 100 year-old vines in Spain wasn’t especially unheard of, but René knew that Priorat was capable of greatness. The Barbier family had made wine back in the 1940s, but at some point things went south. When Franco the dictator died in 1975 and the economy began to turn around, opportunities began to look better. They moved to Priorat/Montsant in 1981 and got to work.
It took a lot of gumption, strength and vision to come to this depressed place and see the potential in it. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Barbier family and others got recognized. Even some of the original families who moved back with the Barbiers abandoned ship, yet René and his family persisted. When wine critics started to notice the incredible wines coming from Priorat, and consumers responded, the vision was validated. When I started studying wine I had assumed this success all happened overnight. Instead, it was the product of blood, hard work, and passion getting noticed. It took more than ten years of laboring in obscurity to convince the world it was worth it.
When René Jr. cracked a bottle of Espectacle in the terraced vineyard high above Montsant and shared it with us, we were quiet. All we could hear was the voices of the wind in our ears and the whispers of the bones under our feet.