Priorat is complicated. If you want to drive from a to B – no chance. You’ll need to go round via F and Q. There’s scarcely a straight line in the place. It’s the same with the soil.

PT PrioratPriorat is all about the slate: llicorella. it’s what gives the minerality. Yet look at any geological map and you’ll be dazzled by the contrasting selection of soils. Then there are the dizzyingly different vineyard aspects; the slopes, which range from 5% to a precipitous 95%; and the average rainfall, which varies from 450mm to 750mm across the DOQ. (DOQ? That’s the top rating for any DO in Spain, only shared with rioja, where it’s known as DOC

There’s nothing consistent about the place. except perhaps its isolation and glorious mystery. Partly as a result of this isolation and abandonment, Priorat has lived through times of serious impoverishment. ‘as recently as the early 1990s’, one producer told me, ‘pensions were the basic source of income.’
a quarter of a century ago the new era of Priorat was sparked by five pioneers.

Around the millennium another era began, with a new generation of businesses starting up and winemakers reviving family wineries and old vineyards. José Mas of Costers del Priorat is typical: a ‘newcomer’ who has settled in and earned his reputation: ‘Some people work in wine because they have family vineyards. I’m part of Generation Zero. I don’t have any inherited obligation to work; it’s just my passion.’

Fresh approach

Given the diversity of the land, there is no likelihood of him or anyone producing a textbook or recipe wine. Yet the best Priorat wines share a clear identity, usually with an inky colour and a dense, rich texture. There is often a distinct freshness typical of Garnacha grown at the highest altitudes on red clay. as Valenti llagostera of Mas Doix, puts it: ‘These are wake-up wines, not sofa wines.’

Cariñena needs to be handled with care. Says Mireia Torres of the eponymous winery: ‘We love Cariñena – it gives lower alcohol, and ages well. But it does need poor soil, so doesn’t work so well in our Penedès vineyards.’

With its tiny vineyards and the difficulty of working them, Priorat will never be cheap. Hence the wines can be slow to sell, and there are some less likeable older vintages around. So do check the vintage when you buy.

Also check the label for the name of the village or vineyard. ‘Vi de Finca’ denotes a wine marketed under the same single vineyard name for at least 10 years. There are only two at present but more will appear.
More contentious is the much debated ‘Vi de Vila’, an attempt at a Burgundian approach to a village wine. it’s a pity it’s still undecided – Priorat could take the lead with its 12 identifiable villages capable of producing ‘Vins de Vila’. We wait for good news.

Priorat: the facts

The DOQ is 17,629ha in area, of which 1,887ha are under vine. There are 600 growers and 99 registered wineries Total reds 1,800ha, of which: Garnacha 710ha; Cariñena 483ha; Cabernet Sauvignon. 250ha; Syrah 224ha; Merlot 105ha Total whites 99ha, of which Garnacha Blanca represents more than half Total production (2014) whites, 341,306kg; reds, 5,618,658kg

Know your vintages

2014 an atlantic vintage with a vengeance: rain, hail and rot. Yet many wines show promising freshness. early for a final verdict, but one to watch.

2013 like 2014, an atlantic vintage: cooler, and promising more elegant, fragrant wines. Many producers are talking of an ideal vintage, with easily 10 years’ ageing capacity.

2012 The hot, dry summer – the third dry year in a row – was relieved by some rain. Some wines suffered from low acidity, but the best (highlighted overleaf) show good balance. Drink now and over 10 years.

2011 a very hot year, except in July, the wines are, in style, somewhere between 2009 and 2010. Buy carefully.

2010 While this was a hot and dry year, Priorat produced some great wines (see overleaf for the tasting results) with freshness. Drink now or enjoy over five to 10 years.

2009 rated excellent; a powerful, ripe, bold vintage. Drink soon.