I meet René at the flower shop, beside a bucket of yellow daisies shying away from the August sun. I recognise him instantly: I had seen a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the Frenchman in the Priorat’s wine museum yesterday. René Barbier is legendary: he came to Spain in the 1970s amongst a group of winemakers referred to as ‘the famous five’, transforming disease-stricken vineyards into one of Spain’s most celebrated wine regions.
‘Rose?’ I assume he means Ruth, as he addresses me from behind a large, greying beard, with a thick, French accent. He is dressed casually in T-shirt and shorts, with tell-tale winemaker’s espadrilles tied across tanned legs.
‘René?’. We kiss cheeks, continentally.
Last month I had spoken by phone, and in limited French, to René’s wife Isabelle, arranging a tasting at their family-run cellar, Clos Mogador. We agreed that I would be collected from ‘le fleuriste de Falset’– I hadn’t realised, or understood, that it would be René himself.
‘Venga, vamos’. With a display of chivalry, he opens the door to his dusty jeep, indicating that I climb up to sit beside him.
We drive for thirty minutes, winding through valleys and villages: Marca; La Viella Baixa; Gratallops. I see the dry remnants of the Siurana river below, and the Montsant mountains ahead. Conversing in Catalan, interspersed with English and French, I think I have understood that the harvest season has started early this year, due to the heat.
As we slow, a hand-painted sign, flowers intertwined with lettering, welcomes us to ‘Clos Mogador’. Stepping into the cool cellar, René indicates that I wait, patting me on the arm. I linger by a silver machine at which workers are sifting grapes with wine-stained hands, chatting to one another in Catalan. From where I stand, I see tall, oak barrels lining the walls and an old fashioned wine press. He returns, handing me a basket for collecting grapes and a pair of muddy boots, which he helps me to pull on.
‘Vamos’. I thought I was here for a tasting, but can’t argue with René Barbier as he leads me outside and down a steep, sloping terrace, feet meeting brown slate, green vines reaching our knees. I hear other grape pickers singing and spot trucks carrying crates. He shows me how to cut into the bunches of deep purple, expertly disregarding some, keeping others. ‘Syrah pour Clos Mogador’, he reveals, holding out a handful for me to taste: these sweet grapes make the critically acclaimed vintage, which I was hoping to taste.
An hour later, a car pulls up. I stop to watch as a man steps towards us, smiling across the vineyard. René turns to me, ‘mon fils, Anderson’.
‘Ruth? Hello, I’m Anderson. Have you been able to understand my father?’ he jokes in almost fluent English.
‘Don’t worry, even I can’t understand him through his beard’. We laugh. ‘It’s time for the tasting – are you ready to try the wine?’.
‘Yes, Venga, vamos!’.
This article was written in memory of Rachel Ritchie, who introduced me to the Priorat’s beautiful wine and landscape, and the Barbiers, back in 2008. Rachel was a talented artist, wine expert and linguist, who sadly passed away this year. I will toast Rachel every time I drink a glass of wine from the region.
To find out more about Clos Mogador, you can visit the cellar’s website here.