Priorat’s distinctive soil gives its wines an unmistakable character, freshness and staying power, as evidenced by its stunning performance in a recent Decanter panel tasting . Stephen Brook heads to Spain’s most exciting region
From Priorat region valley floor it is a tortuous drive up to the vineyards that Sallust Alvarez, manager of the Vall Llach winery, wants me to see. The hairpin bends are bad enough, but his four-wheel drive is so elongated that it takes a number of manoeuvres to negotiate each one. If he miscalculates it will be a long slither down the steep slatey slopes to the valley floor.
It is worth the trip. Up at 500m, the views are stupendous, but it is the vineyards that I have come to see. All around me the slate glints in the autumn sunlight, and here and there a few gnarled vines are somehow dragging nutrients out of the impoverished soil. Alvarez shows me a neighbouring vineyard too: ‘This is owned by a woman in her 60s, who walks up here whenever she has to tend the vines. She doesn’t own a car.’
Twenty years ago, he explains, the Priorat region was on the verge of extinction, with grape prices so low that this was one of Spain’s most impoverished regions. The revival of Priorat in the 1990s has rewarded the growers, many of whom are now too old and frail to enjoy their relative prosperity.
The story of Priorat’s revival is well known, but it bears re-telling. In the 19th century there were about 15,000ha (hectares) under vine in this mountainous region, but by the late 1980s there were a mere 900ha, mostly old vineyards high on the slopes, hard to get to and punishing to work. The decline seemed irreversible, until a few visionaries realised Priorat’s potential. These included René Barbier, now the owner of Clos Mogador and Manyetes; Alvaro Palacios, owner of Finca Dofí and L’Ermita; Josep Lluís Pérez of Mas Martinet; and Dafne Glorian of Clos Erasmus. Barbier had sensed the potential in the early 1980s, when Priorat was dominated by the Scala Dei winery and various cooperatives that mostly produced bulk wine, but each year vineyards were being grubbed up and replaced by olive and almond groves.
The revivalists worked together, buying small parcels of mostly venerable vineyards, restoring stone terraces and access roads, and producing a single wine together at Clos Mogador. In 1992 they went their separate ways, all dedicated to quality but pursuing their own hunches. It took until 1994 for the wine press and international merchants to realise that Priorat had been reborn. Outside investors such as Torres and Freixenet began acquiring land, and the number of producers has risen from 10 in 1989 to about 80 today; the surface under vine now stands at around 1,700ha. It is unlikely to increase much further.
What drew the pioneers to Priorat was the abundance of old vines and the remarkable terroir. The soil, except on the fringes of the region, is pure slate or schist, known locally as llicorella, with virtually no topsoil. Yet there is no shortage of subterranean water, so the vines, though their parched roots must descend many metres, can always find sufficient moisture to keep them alive. Certain vineyards are up to 100 years old; most of these veterans are Cariñena, but there is a good deal of Garnacha too – it varies from village to village.
Other grape varieties planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. René Barbier Jr notes, and my own experience confirms: ‘In Priorat, terroir reigns supreme over variety. Sometimes in a blind tasting it is difficult to identify the varietal composition of a wine.’ Another feature of the best wines is their freshness. Alcohol levels can be high – up to 15.5%, especially for Garnacha-based wines – yet they are rarely heavy or overbearing, thanks to their enlivening acidity.
Josep Lluís Pérez’s daughter, Sara, the winemaker at Mas Martinet and the wife of René Barbier Jr, tells me: ‘On average the wines I make have about 14.2% alcohol. But at the same time the pH is around 3.4 or less, compared with 3.9 or 4.0 for a Napa Cabernet for example. Our llicorella soils retain freshness and disguise the alcohol. When my father and father-in-law were starting out here in 1989, they didn’t know any of this, but it soon became apparent. Here in Priorat the soil speaks.’
In the winery, Priorat is a hotbed of innovation, with many variations in practices such as retention of stems, maceration times and use of new oak. There is some over-extraction and excessive alcohol – defects shared by numerous wines worldwide – but the overall standard of winemaking seems remarkably high, with little dilution or astringency. What is striking and unusual about the wines of Priorat is the ease with which Garnacha in particular takes to new oak. In the southern Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, ageing Grenache in new oak has to be done with great care, because of the ease with which the variety oxidises. Yet in Priorat this doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Joan Asens, winemaker for Alvaro Palacios, has an explanation: ‘Yields in Priorat are lower than in Châteauneuf, for example, and the berries are small. That means the fruit has greater concentration. Our vineyards also have less direct exposure to sunlight than those of southern France. So the fruit has a different structure, with better acidity and lower pH, and it’s far less prone to oxidation.’
The source of old-vine Garnacha and, especially, Cariñena, will gradually shrink as vines die off, so it is understandable that growers are planting international varieties too. Unlike Merlot or Syrah, Cariñena needs to be at least 15 years old before it has a chance of becoming expressive and interesting; consequently, growers are reluctant to plant it, and those who do, such as Sara Pérez, are wary of productive clonal selections and prefer the more complex massal selections from old vineyards. Significantly, the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards is probably diminishing. Clos Mogador used to have as much as 30%, but today there is far less, and at Mas Martinet, Sara Pérez is courageously grafting over both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Garnacha. She worries that the gradual disappearance of old-vine Cariñena will alter the typicity of Priorat for good.
Yet llicorella stamps its personality on the wines, whatever their composition. The profile of Priorat may change somewhat in the 21st century, as, for example, Syrah increases in importance, yet it’s safe to predict that the grandeur of the wine, its minerality and staying power, should remain unaltered.
Key players in Priorat
Genial, bearded René Barbier still presides over this pioneering estate, but his son, also René, is gradually taking over. The 20ha property occupies three amphitheatres, so there is up to a month’s difference in maturation between sectors. Cabernet Sauvignon is being reduced in favour of Syrah. The Barbiers like to age part of the crop in two-thirds new oak. In style Clos Mogador is full-throttle, with sweet black fruits and luscious oak and a long fresh finish. There is also a delicious white called Clos Nelin, but production is tiny.
Another Priorat pioneer, Palacios, and his winemaker, Joan Asens, make three wines. Les Terrasses is from purchased fruit. Finca Dofí is a single-vineyard half-Garnacha, half classic French varieties. The wine is aged in 80% new oak. Palacios’ most celebrated offering is L’Ermita, one of Spain’s most expensive wines. Made from mostly old vines planted at up to 520m, yields are tiny and the grape selection fanatical. It is aged in new oak, and only about 3,000 bottles are made. It’s a great wine, but Finca Dofí, at a fifth of the price, runs it close.
Cims de Porrera
In 1996 Josep Lluís Pérez told the members of this former coop that he would buy their entire production at a good price; in exchange he would improve viticultural practices. Today it is run by his son Adria. Adria’s sister Sara took me 550m up into the hills to visit their most precious vineyard. ‘Cims means summit in Catalan,’ she explained, as we drove higher. ‘The vines yield 200g of fruit per vine, but we hope to get production up to 400g – still feeble compared to the 1,500g one would expect from a healthy young vineyard. But this vineyard gives our best wine every year.’ It’s blended with batches of old-vine Cariñena and Garnacha to form the Cims de Porrera Classic, arguably Priorat’s most elegant wine.
The Doix family and their cousins, the Llagosteras, sold their grapes to the coop until 1998. They have some young vineyards planted to a high density, as well as older Garnacha and Cariñena, which is aged in new barriques. A quarter of the production goes into the sumptuous Mas Doix, the remainder being consigned to the second wine, Salanques.
Mas d’en Gil
In 1998 Penedès wine merchant Pere Rovira bought the former Masia Barril estate in Bellmunt in southern Priorat. About one third of his 45ha of vines are old, and the terroir is varied, with red stony soil as well as slate. ‘The environment is very important to me,’ says Rovira, ‘so we have olive and almond groves and woodland among the vineyards.’ The second wine, Coma Vella, contains some Syrah and Merlot, as well as traditional varieties. The main wine, Clos Fontà, has more old-vine components. Coma Blanca, from old-vine Garnacha Blanco and Macabeo, is one of Priorat’s most delicious whites.
Run by Sara Pérez, who also consults at other wineries in Spain, the organic Mas produces the impeccable Clos Martinet from 8ha of vines, with the younger vines going into the second wine, Martinet Bru, which is more one-dimensional. Clos Martinet is aged in 60% new oak, and combines flamboyance with elegance. Josep Lluis Pérez loves to experiment, so this is a property in a constant state of evolution. There will be a white wine in future, and a sweet Macabeo made from dried bunches.
Lluís Llach, who grew up in Priorat, is one of Catalonia’s best-known singers. He was initially involved with Cims de Porrera, but in 1998 formed his own estate. Embruix is a bottling from young vines, Idus comes mostly from old-vine fruit from contract growers, and Vall Llach is made from estate vineyards and aged entirely in new oak. All three wines are very powerful and heady, representing a heavyweight style of Priorat that has a strong following.
New faces in Priorat
The Sangenis family matriarch sells jug wines from cavernous cellars in Porrera, but it’s young Joan Sangenis who has driven the estate to higher quality. The basic range is Cal Pla, but Mas d’en Compte is the more serious, oak-aged line, with a fine red marked by liquorice and pepper, and a superb mineral white. Planots is the top wine, but I prefer the less overtly overripe Mas d’en Compte.
Small production, but worth seeking out. Vi de Guarda is Garnacha-dominated; Selecció a blend of Garnacha,
Cariñena, Syrah and Cabernet. Both are exciting, but for me
Vi de Guarda has the edge.
Francisco Castillo and his wife Dominic Bairaguet divide their vineyard into upper and lower sections. Vinyes Altes has 100-year-old vines, and the wine is aged in new barriques. Vinyes Baixes has a lower old-vine content and is Merlot-dominated. Both are excellent, though the Baixes is more opulent and chocolatey.
Founder Daphne Glorian lives in the United States, so most of the wine is exported there. The wine, Garnacha-dominated and aged in new oak, is sleek and elegant but very expensive.
A joint venture between Bordeaux-based wine merchant Christopher Cannan and René Barbier, who makes the wine.
A blend of Garnacha, Cariñena, Syrah and Mourvèdre, it is fermented in new barrels. More accessible is the juicy and exuberant second wine, Font de la Figuera.
Dits del Terra
South African superstar winemaker Eben Sadie also makes wine in Priorat, revelling in old-vine Garnacha and Cariñena. His wine is intense, sleek, beautifully textured – and expensive.
Celler de l’Encastell
Ramon Castelvei’s 7ha property produces a fine, oaky, if reticent wine, Roques de Porrera, from a steep hillside of old vines; and the less structured yet delicious Marge from younger vines.
Another project from René Barbier in collaboration with the Sabado family, focused on very hot slopes dominated by Cariñena. The 2003 was porty but the 2004 is superb.
Josep Serra’s property, rich in low-yielding old vines, produces two red wines: the fruity if tarry Perinet, and the majestic Perinet+ from the oldest vines. This is partly barrel-fermented and aged in new oak barrels of various sizes.
Ricardo Pasanau left the coop in 1995 and developed his vineyards and wines in La Morera, in northern Priorat. The soils are flint and clay as well as slate, and his main vineyard is planted at 800m. Ceps Nous is his young-vine bottling. More complex is La Planeta, atypical as it’s 80% Cabernet Sauvignon; blackberry-scented, lean, tannic, and peppery. ‘Soon I’ll introduce an old-vine Cariñena,’ Pasanau says, ‘which I’ve fermented in barrels.’
Other names to look out for: Cal Grau, Cellers de la Cartoixa, Fra Fulcó, Mas Romani, Nit de Nin, Sine Nomine, Trio Infernal.
Priorat Know Your Vintages
2005 Excellent, but some unripe tannins
2004 Excellent. Dry autumn gave small berries and high concentration
2003 Extremely hot so some blocked maturation as well as baked flavours
2002 Not a great year but the wines have much freshness and appeal
2001 Excellent, well balanced
2000 Powerful tannic wines
1999 Inconsistent but many good wines