“The best way to enjoy wines is to share them with the people you love.” says Jaume Balaguer, a third-generation vigneron in charge of “Balaguer i Cabre” in the village of Grataillops. We wind through the hilly roads Priorat, surrounded by “costers,” the Catalan term for steep copper-colored hillsides. We head to Mas de Dalt, the site for vines for Jaume’s “Luna Vella” Garnatxa Tinta and “Parhelia” Garnatxa Blanca vineyard plots.
As we climb to 500m elevation, I am briefly pulled away from gawking at these mesmerizing, extreme terroirs to ponder Jaume’s simple yet profound statement. It would be easy to say that Jaume’s wines- single-site expressions of their rugged llicorella terroirs- are “pensive, profound, and philosophical” to be savored. That is indeed the nature of Balaguer I Cabre Grantxa. However, Jaume’s multiple projects (the winery being just one of them) extend beyond the organoleptic qualities of Priorat’s wines toward sharing the culture, tradition, passion, and joy that made the region one of the most iconic in Spain.
The Journey into the Hills
It is not simple to get to Priorat. The scenic yet hidden locale is three hours away from Barcelona by car, and there is no easy way to reach the villages by train or bus. The roads climb up the hillsides as you approach the villages, gaining steepness. And yet, the final destination is worth the journey, as the idyllic towns are gorgeous. Upon arrival, the area felt almost uninhabited, sleepy, and quiet. Much like when visiting Ex-Occidente in Western Catalunya, there was a sense of serenity, a pause in the time-space continuum. Or maybe it was just siesta, who knows.
After a hearty lunch at Brots restaurant in the village of Poboleda, experiencing the best of Priorat cuisine, we arrived at BonViure, Jaume’s wine store. Jaume is a cheerful, hospitable man who is quick to laugh and humble about his roots. After ten years working for an American company in Barcelona, Jaume returned to his hometown to help his father manage Balaguer I Cabre Cellar, Bon Viure Wine Shop and Pire restaurant.
From the way Jaume talks about the land, the soil, and the climate, it is immediately apparent that he is passionate about his region and helping his village thrive. Jaume embodies the humility, passion, and desire of a Spanish vigneron. His excitement to share his region with the world is palpable. After all, much like the roots of Jaume’s Granatxas, the Balaguer family roots run deep in the village of Gratallops.
The Balaguer Family Tree and the History of Priorat
Though considered a 3rd generation grape-grower/winemaker on his father’s side, Jaume estimates that on his mother’s side, his viticultural heritage extends into Priorat’s infancy. The region- founded by Carthusian monks in the 12th century- has long been recognized for its quality.
Massively impactful events in the late 19th century, like the Phylloxera epidemic and an urban migration away from the villages and into the cities, have hindered the region’s progress. Since those destructive days, Priorat has seen a steady rise, with DO status coming in 1932 (one of the first regions in Spain to attain such an accolade), a modern revival in the 1980s, and the award of the pinnacle DOQ/DOCa status in 2009 (only Rioja and Priorat hold this designation in Spain). Jaume recognizes the importance of the preceding history but is aware of the ever-evolving viticultural landscape as he continues to elevate his family’s ancestral home of Grataillops and the greater region of Priorat.
The Rise of Priorat
“Forty years ago,” Jaume explains, “famed pioneers of Priorat”- such as René Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, Carlos Pastrana, and Jose Luis Perez came to the area. They brought with them Bordeaux varieties and blended them with the local grapes to produce high-quality wine of high recognition in the market. They had confidence in the quality of the land, but not in the regional varieties [Garnatxa/Grenache, Samso aka Carignan] grown here” Though Jaume is good friends with many of the named iconoclasts who elevated Priorat to such great heights (and carries their wines at BonViure), the Balaguer I Cabre ideology is more traditional, reminiscent of that of the monks who worked the land in the 12th century.
Parhelia, the changing of the “temps”
We arrive at the site of Jaume’s Garnatxa Blanca vineyard, labeled Parhelia, in the upper reaches of Priorat at 500m elevation. The story behind the site is as charming as the wine itself.
“There is a phenomenon here called Parhellia, or “the two suns,” Jaume explains. “When the water droplets are in the sky, they refract the sunlight and create an illusion of the two suns. This[phenomenon] represents the changing of the weather. However, in Catalan, the word for weather and time are the same; “temps,” thus, the two suns on Jaume’s Garnatxa Blanca represent the changing of time, the coming of a new generation, and a movement towards more conscientious, sustainable winemaking.
The “New” Old Philosophy
“My friends in Burgundy told me my approach is similar to theirs,” Jaume acknowledges. Balaguer I Cabre focuses on just one variety, Garnacha/Garnatxa/Grenache (and its pale-skinned mutation, Garnatxa/Garnacha Blanca). This grape considered the local variety of Priorat, thrives in nutrient-poor soils and capably reflects the growing environment, the terroir. Jaume selects the Grenaches from single-vineyard sites around the village of Grataillops. To simply describe the ideology, one can borrow from the Balaguer I Cabre’s unofficial motto “One grape, one vineyard, one wine.”
In 2019, Priorat recognized the change toward a single vineyard “Burgundian focus” with a new “Els Noms de la Terra” Classification. This pyramid-shaped ranking system favors local Garnatxa and Samso (Carignan) grapes, old vines, and low yields. Read more on the classification here.
The Parhelia vineyard was the first that Jaume planted, and unlike the vineyards of his father, he farms entirely organically. The other lots of land are also transitioning to organics, an initiative led by Jaume Balaguer Jr, heralding the change of the time.
All of Balaguer I Cabre vineyards are dry-farmed. The focus is establishing well-developed root systems and concentrating the flavors of the grapes in these nutrient-poor llicorella soils.
“We believe that if you irrigate the vineyard, it changes the character of the vintage. We try to convey the pure essence of the vineyard, the vintage, and the grape [grown in these conditions].”
Dry farming also helps concentrate the yields, reducing average production to about three tons per hectare. The vineyards are tilled between the rows to break up any roots migrating upwards. This process ensures the vine roots continue their downward path. The vineyards of Balaguer I Cabre are trained “en vaso” or goblet trained, without trellis. The fruiting zone is kept low to protect it from the fierce Cierzo and other winds that sweep through the area.
Like in the vineyard, the winemaking of Balaguer I Cabre is built upon the belief in the singularity of the Grenache grape and the representation of the diverse sites of Grataillops. This ideal means that Jaume practices “a light touch” in the cellar. The Grenache Blanc is aged in tanks on fine lees for six months, allowing for lees stirring. Jaume ages his red wines consistently for twelve months in once/twice used 500-liter barrels. This elevage (aging method) mitigates oak influence while allowing the Grenache to express vineyard character. This simple yet evocative winemaking method drives the singularity of Jaume’s wines.
Additionally, Jaume allows his red wines to spend around 36 months in the cellar, ensuring release at the optimal time for drinking.
The wines we tasted overlooking the llicorella [metamorphic quartz-rich slate] “costers” at Parhelia are pure yet powerful examples of what Grenache can be. Suppose some of the best Spanish Grenaches (like Comando G’s terroir expression of the Gredos Mountain Range) express near-Pinotesque elegance. In that case, the “Luna Vella” and “Guinardera” wines from Balaguer I Cabre are more reminiscent of a transcendent Spanish Barolo. “La Guinardera” (a “Vi de Paratje, or single-vineyard classification in Priorat) was more akin to a Barolo, with darker fruit, tar, and rose flavors and more garrigue-like intensity and minerality. In contrast, the “Luna Vella“, showing Grenache’s signature pure red fruit and elegance, drew parallels with Barbaresco. All wines, including the “Parhelia” Garnatxa Blanca, the softer-fruited “Ruella,” and the premium “Cercol Dorat”[Golden Circle], displayed immense weight and excellent midpalate grip.
Returning to the winery, we tasted “La Guirardera” and” Luna Vella” out of the barrel. I was even more impressed by how the flavor precursors in the barrel samples and the signature of the wine did not change between barrel and bottle.
Though these wines have immense structure, Jaume insists that he crafts the wines to drink, not for cellaring purposes. Luckily, Jaume’s cellar at BonViure already had a few aged examples of his wines. I ensured to dip into the library before leaving to purchase some of the older wines. I am happy to report that the Balaguer I Cabre wines I have drank since my visit developed incredibly well. This was not surprising in the least.
“Carrying the Flag” of Priorat
Jaume Balaguer is not just a winemaker; his impact extends beyond the Balaguer I Cabre bottlings. Though now closed, the Balaguer family restaurant- Pire- was a community staple in Grataillops. Now, through BonViure, Jaume curates a portfolio of Priorat wines representing the diverse styles made in the region. His shelves are stacked with wines from both new-wave and traditionalist vignerons. Both the wine store and the cellar see visitors from around the world. Jaume believes in sharing the Priorat experience and the wine with everyone and is a big advocate for wine tourism.
“Tourism is important. And I think Priorat needs to understand this. Sometimes, with some cellars, finding people who speak different languages is difficult, which may cause visitors a problem.” Jaume states. It’s often easy to forget that Priorat, a region that found global fame only in the 80s, is still developing. However, there are hardworking vignerons- Jaume included- who are making strides to improve visitation experiences.
Just recently [October of 2023], Balaguer I Cabre became one of the founding members of the Grataillops Cellars Association, the organization aimed at promoting the wines and tourism of the village.
Arrels del Priorat
As if making wine, running a wine shop, and promoting tourism is not enough of an undertaking, Jaume also contributes to the “Arrels del Priorat” [Roots of Priorat] project with his father and René Barbier, the man behind Clos Mogador and one of the pioneers of the region in the 80s. Their mission is to revive the ancient “Rancio” style, an oxidative method of winemaking fractionally blended through decades in solera. The style is similar to Sherry but without fortification, with late-harvest Grenache grapes naturally reaching 17% ABV.
The first embers of the idea came 39 years ago, in a classic Catalan fashion, over the dinner table [with a bottle of wine, of course]. René confided in Jaume’s father that he was concerned that the deep-rooted tradition of Rancio was disappearing from Priorat. So, the two men set out to discover local families that still maintained rancio soleras. The project, Arrels del Priorat, works with seven families in multiple villages around the area. Every year, they bottle two soleras that are, on average, 100 years old, one 60 years old, and a 30-year multi-village blend. The output from each singular solera is only 60 bottles per year and 1,200 for the village blend.
“We didn’t set out to make money [with Arrels del Priorat]; it is more a passion project. And it is important to keep the tradition alive,” Jaume ponders.
The Place of Priorat in the World of Wine
When we returned to Bon Viure, the sun was setting, and the village was coming to life. The first visit to Grataillops was a revelation, yet left many things to be pondered. Wine is an ever-changing industry, with “fads” and “trends” coming out every year. Can the serious, pensive, high-alcohol wines of Priorat thrive in the market more and more inundated by low-alc “glou glou” wines?
After pondering my question, I believe that the products that truly withstand the test of time are unapologetically authentic. Wineries must stay true to what makes their region so unique while focusing on quality. In that regard, “Balaguer I Cabre” and “Arrels del Priorat” embody Parhellia, the “change of the times.”
It may be a paradox of wine, but Jaume keeps one foot in the past while moving his home region forward.