Exploring Priorat: A Panoramic and Visceral Journey Through Place

By | 9 February 2024

Ethos Priorat by Elizabeth Hecker—a book that takes the reader to the heart of the Catalan wine region.

By David Williams

Elizabeth Hecker’s Ethos Priorat is a labor of love filled with evocative words and pictures, says David Williams.

The idea that a wine can have a sense of place is, if not entirely uncontroversial, certainly widely accepted in contemporary wine circles. Quite how literally we should take this notion, however, is another matter entirely. The more skeptical among us might ask just what kind of information we are being given about place when we taste: Can a wine be said to describe a place in the same way as a piece of descriptive prose or poetry, a painting, or a photograph? Is wine’s evocative power confined to reminding us of places we already know, or can it take us somewhere we’ve never been before?

Elizabeth Hecker firmly believes that certain wines from specific regions have the unique ability to vividly express their backstories. She shares the original inspiration behind Ethos Priorat early in her book, reflecting on her first experience of the Catalan region’s wine that later kindled a deep fascination for her.

Hecker narrates her initial exposure to Priorat wine in 2003 during a festival in Telluride, Colorado. Despite being unfamiliar with the region, she distinctly remembers that her first impression was not about the smell or taste. Instead, it was as if she was visually transported into an enigmatic darkness which suddenly illuminated by sunlight reflecting off steep, glowing slopes. This exceptional experience gave new depth to her understanding of the term sense of place.

Several years later, on a trip to Spain, Hecker had the opportunity to validate her perceptions of Priorat formed through the wines. In her own words, she wanted to “discover if the images that pervaded in her mind were indeed a reality”. To her astonishment, her imagined Priorat turned out to be true, sparking a deep love for the land and its ancient vines as if they had summoned her through that initial taste of Priorat wine.

Ethos Priorat is the fruit of enduring passion and dedication following an initial exposure and tour. Situated in California, being a graphic designer, Hecker devoted years to research, interacting with a massive local populace and knowledgeable individuals in the region; ceaselessly traversing the glowing, steep llicorella inclines; and scrutinizing the vineyards and hamlets in Priorat’s 12 zones. Over time, her bond with the area deepened, reaching a level of intimacy where even the wild herbs and bushes are more than mere scenery for her.

Hecker’s work wasn’t to create a mundane guide for regional wine; this book is not the one to pick for wine ratings and producer profiles. Organized into three thematic facets—”Nature,” “Spirit,” and “Wine”—the heart-touching pieces of text collectively narrate a brief history of the region, employing language that elucidates its geological, climatic, faunal, and floral aspects, as well as its social and cultural heritage. Of particular note are Hecker’s discussions with local elders. However, everything said, without Hecker’s strikingly vivid color photographs, these elements would be hardly more than a booklet.

Undeniably, Hecker claims herself to be nowhere near the “professional” level of photographers with whom she works in her daily job. However, her images possess an unparalleled natural charm. Be it capturing misty fall landscapes or the scorching, dusty over-bright environment of a terraced vineyard in summer, close-ups of aged Carinyena or Garnatxa vines, or everyday moments of winemakers; her photos along with the prose of Ethos Priorat bring forth a powerful—or as per Hecker’s choice of words, “visceral”— sense of place and time.

Ethos Priorat

Elizabeth Hecker

Published by the Académie du Vin Library

334 pages; hardback £60

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