March 21, 2014 6:32 pm

Priorat wines: a Catalan love story

‘Clos Erasmus’s maker and its US importer met years after they began their commercial relationship, and by 1997 they were married’
Illustration for Jancis Robinson's 'A Catalan love story'©Ingram Pinn

Wine importer Eric Solomon admits that the story of how he met his wife, winemaker Daphne Glorian of Clos Erasmus, “sounds like something off a Hallmark card”. “I will never [again] have such an intimate relationship with a supplier,” he says.

Although they are both based in his native North Carolina, their stories began in London and Paris respectively. The son of clinical psychologists, Solomon came to London in the mid-1970s as a rock drummer and sometime pupil of the London Symphony Orchestra percussionist. To make ends meet during his five years in Europe, he worked in a London wine bar, Ruby’s, whose owners let him taste the samples left by sales reps and encouraged him to learn. He and I were probably doing a Wine & Spirit Education Trust course at the same time, though I feel sure I would have remembered a rangy, impossibly youthful-looking American drummer.

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Jancis Robinson

Solomon did the harvest in Burgundy, then a stage in Bordeaux, visited Tuscany and went back to the US more confident of making his mark in wine than in music. He ended up in his late twenties the youngest-ever vice-president of Heublein, an enormous drinks company then in its prime and building up its fine wine division. Solomon had a ball. At Heublein’s expense he toured the vineyards of Europe and educated his palate further. He found offbeat wines such as Val Joanis in the Lubéron and Château Capion in the now-famous Languedoc village of Aniane.

With the money saved while travelling Europe on Heublein’s dollar, he started his own company, European Cellars, in 1989. Ever since, he has made a successful living sniffing out unusual wines for the US’s burgeoning army of open-minded wine lovers. “I had no employees for the first three years,” says Solomon. “The company wasn’t just lean; it was anorexic. I used to do all the travelling myself so when I got back from a trip to my little office in Chelsea there’d be a wall of hundreds of samples waiting for me. Although I’d specialised until then in French wines, some time in the early 1990s I tasted this Clos Erasmus from Priorat in Catalunya that just stopped me in my tracks. It gave me goose bumps. I fired off a telex – telex! – to Daphne, who had sent it in. She’d forgotten she’d sent it and had gone off travelling but eventually she realised I wanted to import her entire first vintage, the 1990 – all 100 cases.”

Even today, only 3,000 cases of Clos Erasmus are made each year but its maker and its American importer did finally meet, several years after they began their commercial relationship, and by 1997 they were married. Today, Solomon is best known for his Spanish portfolio.

Glorian is Swiss-German by birth. “I like to make lists of what needs to be done each day,” she says, and “In Spain I’m happy if I manage a quarter of it.” She trained as a lawyer in Paris and, in her early twenties, was hired by the late British Master of Wine Kit Stevens to look after his sixth-floor walk-up office in Paris while he went off to New Zealand to get married. “I didn’t know anything about wine then so I was really thrown in at the deep end,” she admits.

In the late 1980s she went to a wine fair and met René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios, both sons of established Spanish winemaking families keen to do their own thing. “There was something crazy about René,” Glorian says dreamily. “It was all peace and love and naked in the vineyards.” Priorat, a historic wine region in the hinterland of Tarragona, was virtually unknown then. “Barbier wanted a commune, really. He saw there were all these great grapes in Priorat that were being sold to the local co-op. So he was approaching friends like Álvaro and it ended up with five of us able to buy a small piece of land for not much.”

The rest is wine history. The original investors were Barbier at Clos Mogador; Palacios, who went on to produce a wine called L’Ermita from his steepest, rockiest vineyards; Glorian, who named her company Clos i Terrasses – with her top wine Clos Erasmus; Costers del Siurana (Clos de l’Obac) and Mas Martinet (Clos Martinet).

From a standing start L’Ermita commanded some of the highest wine prices in Spain. The current, 2011 vintage is retailing at an average price of about £600 a bottle – which makes Glorian’s outstanding Clos Erasmus 2010 (not available in the UK unfortunately) look a snip at not much more than £100 a bottle.

I ask her how she felt about the stratospheric pricing of Palacios’s wine; it doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with a commune in the vineyards. “Álvaro is very marketing-minded,” she corrects me, “and he wanted to make a noise. He had had a difficult time with his family in Rioja and wanted to put the spotlight on Priorat as soon as possible.” Nowadays peace has broken out in the Palacios family. But in 1990s Spain, an affluent wine culture was bubbling up and the timing was perfect for the emergence of trophy wines from a recuperated region that were very different from soft rioja long-aged in old American oak. Priorat is a super-concentrated wine typically made in new French barrels from ancient Grenache and Carignan vines.

Glorian still spends four months a year in Priorat making Clos Erasmus, now joined by the bigger-production Laurel, which can be picked up for a mere £30 a bottle. It contains some foreign interlopers, mainly Syrah and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon she can’t quite bring herself to pull out. Isn’t it difficult to make wine from across an ocean? She depends heavily on a lab in the southern Rhône that she trusts for absolute accuracy and, importantly, confidentiality. This, neatly, is the region that set her husband and European Cellars on a course for commercial success.

Solomon confides that his “big discoveries” in the early days were Domaines de la Janasse and de Marcoux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape before that appellation commanded the prices it does today. He claims Janasse’s special Chaupin bottling as his creation – another famous, and expensive, wine dependent on ancient Grenache vines.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

Stockists from winesearcher.com

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Some worthwhile Priorats

Camins del Priorat 2012 (£13.95, The Wine Society)

Camins del Priorat 2012 (£13.95, The Wine Society)

Álvaro Palacios’s basic bottling is the region’s bargain, and Palacios is making more and more of it at the expense of volumes of his iconic but fiendishly priced L’Ermita.

Priorat today is suffering something of an identity crisis, with wines available at a wide range of concentrations and price points. All stockists below are in London unless otherwise stated. Online retailer Christopher Keiller (finewineservices.co.uk) has one of the best ranges of Priorat in the UK.

• Mas Martinet, Martinet Bru 2010, £12.50 in bond Justerini & Brooks

• Álvaro Palacios, Camins del Priorat 2012, £13.95 The Wine Society

• Torres, Salmos 2011, £18.99 Waitrose

• Clos i Terrasses, Laurel 2011 (the only wine produced in 2011 so a relative bargain), £27.50 Hacienda Co, £27.90 bottle apostle.co.uk, £29.99 R&H

Fine Wines of Liverpool, £31 Theatre of Wine, £138 per six in bond Marc Fine Wines

• Familia Nin-Ortiz, Selma de Nin white 2009, £44.10 Hedonism Wines

• Familia Nin-Ortiz, Nit de Nin 2011, £50 The Sampler, £54.70 Hedonism Wines, £54.95 Vagabond Wines, £55 Hacienda Co

• Clos i Terrasses, Clos Erasmus 2001, £322.80 Hedonism Wines

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