Most folks admire a good comeback, and among the greatest revivals in the wine world has to be that of the Priorat region in northeastern Spain.
Desolate, barely populated and hard as hell to farm, Priorat over the past two decades has risen from lost and forgotten to the top of the heap, a source for some of the most sought-after red wines on the planet. Yet when you set your eyes on this chunk of Tarragona province located 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, with its steep, parched hills, spiny cacti and tiny stone villages, "atypical" is the first word that comes to mind.
"This is not Côte Rôtie or anyplace else," points out Alvaro Palacios, one of Spain’s top winemakers and a leader among the new wave in Priorat. No, it certainly is not.
Priorat (also called Priorato) is probably the most rugged, hardscrabble wine region anywhere. The soil, if you can call it that, is basically decomposed slate and schist, what the locals call llicorella. It is 100-percent inorganic, but it offers incredible drainage and is porous enough to allow the roots of the grapevines to reach deeper than just about anyplace else on earth. Not coincidentally, you can taste a rousing mineral element in almost every good Priorat red.
Another building block to the Priorat DNA is the preponderance of old Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan) vineyards. Most were planted in the early 1900s and then abandoned later in the 20th century, when the region fell almost entirely out of favor. Reclaimed, starting in the late 1970s, and now well tended by the likes of Palacios, René Barbier (Clos Mogador), Sara Pérez (Mas Martinet and Cims de Porrera), Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) and a host of others, these vines, often arranged willy-nilly on precipitous slopes called costers, offer tiny amounts of supercharged fruit.
Heat and dryness are more factors that impact how the vines are grown, and hence what Priorat wines smell and taste like. Unlike most wine regions, the best Priorat vineyards face north so that they are not roasted by the late-afternoon warmth that blasts down on the thirsty countryside from late June through September. And with almost no summer rainfall and zero irrigation, yields are incredibly low—as little as four or five fist-sized bunches per plant. As a result, intensity of flavor is maximized.
To call a serious Priorat red "powerful" would be an understatement. These are wines that are chock full of forward fruit along with aromas and flavors of licorice, graphite, mineral, spice and tar. Yet the best, which are aged predominantly in new French oak barrels but not necessarily small barriques, maintain elegance in addition to tannin and raw strength.
As a whole, they are expensive wines, often on par with Bordeaux and top Napa Cabernets, because production is low and demand is high. And they are monolithic compared to what the rest of Spain is making. Even the extracted, highly polished modern wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro, while often delicious in their own right, do not stack up to Priorat in terms of sheer power and verve. Which isn’t to say Priorat wines are better; just different.
Perched atop Palacios’ L’Ermita vineyard in the town of Gratallops, and looking north to the massive Serra de Montsant bluff, we take in an amazing vista. The land is barren and brown in March, the vines not yet in bloom. The only color on offer is the pinkish-white of the blossoming almond trees, while the wind and cold are harsh, giving no indication of the hot growing season that surely lies ahead. "This has always been a mysterious place; respected but never easy. Which is why I came here against the advice of many," says Palacios.
Mysterious and never easy—Palacios’s comments are astute regarding Priorat’s rich history. Carthusian monks from France first settled here in the 12th century, building the priory of Scala Dei on the spot where a shepherd boy purportedly had a vision of a staircase to heaven. For centuries the monks made wine from vines grown in various villages, and they controlled this part of Spain into the 19th century. But in 1835 the Spanish government closed the monasteries and the monks were expelled.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the monks’ vineyards were taken over by French winemakers eager to escape their country’s phylloxera scourge. Not long after that, however, phylloxera worked its way across the Pyrenees, wiping out all but the highest-planted vineyards.
The middle decades of the 20th century, including the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Fascist reign, did nothing for Priorat. Terraces built by the French as well as the surviving costers fell into disrepair, and by the 1970s, only a winery called Scala Dei, now 25 percent owned by the Codorníu Group, was making wine in the area, and word has it that it wasn’t all that good. Priorat was moribund.
Fortunately, help was on the way. By the 1980s, René Barbier led a group that included Palacios, Glorian, José Luís Pérez (father of Sara) and Carlos Pastrana (Costers del Siurana) to get the ball rolling toward what Priorat is today. As a fivesome, they believed Priorat could be revived to its days of lore, and they sourced what fruit they could to make a collective wine, in 1989. Subsequently they began acquiring their own parcels, which led to them making their own wines shortly thereafter.
Following Barbier’s lead, Palacios and the others planted modern terraces, which today are home to younger Garnacha and Cariñena, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and some Merlot.
"During the early 1990s, one of the first journalists to come to Priorat was a Frenchman," explains René Barbier Sr., whose son of the same name is now deeply involved in Clos Mogador as well as several of his own projects, including the up-and-coming Vinya del Vuit label. "He called us ‘un projet fou,’ a crazy project. But he rated our 1989 vintage 18 out of 20, so he must have liked it."
And what’s not to like about the more evolved Clos Mogadors of the past several years? The 2001, for example, is a wine of incredible style and complexity. It’s made from basket-pressed grapes, and only 2,500 cases were made. In addition to Clos Mogador, other power-packed reds from the group continue to set the pace for Priorat, especially L’Ermita, Clos Erasmus and Clos Martinet.
Meanwhile, others have followed into Priorat with fine results. Most notable are Pasanau Germans in La Morera, Mas Doix in Poboleda, and one of my personal favorites, Vall Llach, which is owned in part by the Catalan pop singer Lluís Llach. The singer was raised in the village of Porrera and felt a calling to come back to his home town to start a wine project. Also, Rotllan Torra, which began in 1984 in Torroja and has in recent years found its groove, deserves praise for its chewy, rich wines, led by a bottling called Tirant.
A few larger names have also come to Priorat in recent years. Codorníu bought its stake in Scala Dei in 2000, while the Ferrer family that owns Freixenet—like Codorníu a large producer of cava—has been backing Morlanda in the town of Bellmunt since 2001. In addition, Miguel Torres is planting grapes in the area but has yet to produce any wine.
Doubtless Priorat is on the upswing, but fans and followers need not fear a surge in production or an influx of dumbed-down, commercial wines. The land, or lack thereof, simply won’t permit it.
"There is only so much llicorella. And Priorat is by far the most expensive region in Spain to make wine," says Mari Carmen de Francisco, winemaker at Scala Dei. "There will never be big commercial wineries here."
Big wines, though? Count on it.