Clive Platman assesses the spiritual allure of Spain’s Priorat wines, enjoying renown after 800 years.
The paradox of Priorat is that it is both Spain’s oldest and newest fine wine region.
It was first settled by Carthusian monks as long ago as the 12th century in an attempt to introduce Christianity following the expulsion of the Moors. They established a Priory (hence the name Priorat), and called it Scala Dei (God’s Ladder). According to winemaker Alvaro Palacios, there is still a spirituality and mysticism that makes it special.
Naturally, vines were planted, but no one seemed to take much notice, at least for the next 800 years. The grapes, or wines, were mainly sold to co-operatives or used for bulk blending. But nonetheless, in 1979, one man, Rene Barbier, spotted the potential.
It took him 10 years but in 1989 he was able to create a “gang of five”, who each would launch five new “Clos” wines. His was Clos Mogador. At the inception, they shared the grapes and the wineries, but following some inspired marketing in the early 1990s, their reputation was established.
Each has now been able to go their separate ways, but the success has attracted a great deal of excitement and investment from outside the region. Today there are now 84 wineries.
Priorat is a savage and rugged landscape with dense garrigue interspersed with olive groves and vines. Enjoying a Mediterranean climate, it is sheltered by the Sierra de Montsant to the north. Annual rainfall is low, but at a height of between 500-600 metres there are substantial day-night temperature variations, which improves aromas and acidity.
So far, so good. What makes Priorat so special is its unusual soils, known locally as “llicorella,” a schistous slate. Mineral-rich, the soils act as a reservoir for the winter rains and through a myriad of tiny fractures the vines are able to thrust their roots deep beneath the surface in search of moisture. Yields, though, are impossibly low.
The net result is a grape that achieves high sugar levels, but simultaneously attains freshness and minerality. It was this winning combination that initially attracted the “famous five”.
At the outset, the indigenous Mediterranean varieties, grenache and carignan, were thought to be too rustic to make great wine. The solution was to introduce “noble” French varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot and even pinot noir.
The winemakers wanted to innovate and the steep slopes were bulldozed into terroirs to enable working by machinery rather than mules. In the winery, they introduced French-oak barriques for ageing, abandoning the use of large vats. Having established their reputation, though, a few of the leading winemakers are regretting these decisions, and returning to the old ways and methods.
As a relatively young and dynamic region, there is a great deal of flexibility afforded to winemakers regarding the permitted varieties. At Finca Dofi, Alvaro Palacios believes old-vine grenache is by far the noblest, particularly as it benefits from the stress of the intense summer heat. His L’Ermita is arguably its greatest expression.
Newcomer Dominick Huber, of Terroir al Limit, a biodynamic “garagiste”, expresses a different view. For him, it’s the carignan, once regarded as the “ugly duckling” that should be most revered.
Meanwhile, Carles Pastrana, of Clos de l’Obac, wants to stick to his original formula, using a greater percentage of international varieties.
The latest development, though, is to introduce village names into the appellation, very much in the Burgundian or Barolo style. The idea, championed by Rene Barbier and Alvaro Palacios, is to return to a time when wines were sold by commune rather than region. They believe this will help protect their heritage, and some 11 new village names will shortly be introduced.
Inevitably, the downside will be to introduce yet another layer of complexity and confusion to the consumer. Carles Pastrana, for one, is hostile to these changes, for reasons of practicality and policing. Due to the terrain, the vineyard parcels are small and fragmented, so who’s to say whether the grapes are from one commune or another? The best guide to quality, as ever, is the brand name of the producer.
With a minimum ABV of 13.5º, these wines are not for the fainthearted, nor is the price. The low yields and difficulty of working the land mean costs are high, and there is little of value for less than £20.
Priorat, though, does have a little brother called Montsant, which, geographically, is like an egg-white clinging to a yolk. While it doesn’t share the llicorella soils, it does possess similar grape varieties and climate, breaking away from the Tarragon DO in 2000 to form Spain’s newest appellation.
As for recommendations, Tanners list the Finca l’Argata Montsant (£16.60), which has bright, cherry fruit, and the junior La Planella (£11.20), from the same stable. Showing darker black cherry and more concentration, Mas d’en Gil Coma Velha Priorat (Waitrose c£19) is good value, and I’m also impressed by Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses (c£20 Waitrose, Tanners & Berry Bros).