Art of listening to wines

Mr Ricard Rofes, head wine-maker at Spanish winery Scala Dei, looks after 41 different vineyards spread across 70ha of land in the Priorat wine-making region of Spain.
Mr Ricard Rofes, head wine-maker at Spanish winery Scala Dei, looks after 41 different vineyards spread across 70ha of land in the Priorat wine-making region of Spain.PHOTO: CODORNIU

Attention to detail is key for Mr Ricard Rofes, the head wine-maker of Spanish winery Scala Dei - and that involves "listening to the wine".

This is because "each vineyard has a different personality", he says. He would know, considering that he looks after 41 different vineyards spread across 70ha of land in the Priorat wine-making region of Spain.

Not only are the vines located at different altitudes ranging between 400 and 800m above sea level, but the grapes also ripen at different speeds depending on whether they face east or west.

The high altitude is what gives the oldest winery in Priorat its name. Founded in 1163 by Carthusian monks, who introduced vine-growing in the region, Scala Dei is Latin for "ladder of God" or "steps to heaven".

"We can say that we know every individual plant," Mr Rofes, 42, tells The Sunday Times.

By the time the harvest season comes around in September and October, he and his team of 15 to 18 wine-pickers would have passed each vine seven or eight times, doing jobs such as pruning or tasting grapes.

But listening to the needs of the wine does not end in the vineyard. It continues after the harvest.

"Each vine requires a different moment of picking and a different way of processing in the winery, which is why it's important to taste each tank and listen to what the wine wants every day," says the Spaniard.

Each day of the harvest season is spent tasting what is fermenting in the tanks. There is also the process of "pump-overs" where fermenting red wine is pumped from the bottom of the tank to cover the cap (comprising grape skins that float on top) to extract colour, aroma and flavour.

"For example, there are wines that ask you for three pump-overs a day, or ones that ask you to do nothing at all, because they only need to rest," he says.

However, this was not always the way wine was made at Scala Dei.

While the Grenache grapes predominantly grown on the property "can compare with top grapes in terms of finesse and elegance", they are less tannic.

Before he joined the company in 2007, the winery adopted what he calls a "global or Bordeaux style of wine-making", says Mr Rofes, referring to the French wine-making region, which practises techniques such as destemming grapes and ageing in barriques, or smaller oak barrels, to introduce tannins.

But he cautions that "there is a risk of hiding the wine behind the wood", where the oaky flavours overwhelm the palate.

"Then the wine in Scala Dei will be no different from Grenache wines from Chile or Australia," he adds.

Instead, he wanted to bring it back to its roots, preferring instead to adopt a style of wine-making popular in the 1970s. Hence the winery ferments the wines with stems to "build up the wine" and then age them in large foudres, or large wooden vats.

"That way, it's so much easier to preserve the typicity of each vineyard," he says.

"It's a way to connect the way we are making the wine nowadays with the tradition and heritage of wine-making from centuries ago."

In turn, the full-bodied red wines reflect the different soils and altitudes in which they are grown. Grapes used to make the St Antoni are grown in clay, while grapes harvested for Mas Deu are grown in chalk-limestone.

Both are the most premium single-vineyard wines from Scala Dei, with Mas Deu yielding 2,000 to 4,000 bottles a year and St Antoni yielding even fewer, at 1,500 to 2,200 bottles, depending on the harvest.

The wines have officially launched in Singapore in selected restaurants such as Salt Grill & Sky Bar at Ion Orchard and VLV in Clarke Quay, as well as wine retailer, Cellarbration.

Ultimately, Mr Rofes says, "we try to put all this heritage and all this landscape inside the bottle".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Art of listening to wines'. Print Edition | Subscribe