Find out why it has legendary status...
Alvaro Palacios, L’Ermita 1993: The Facts
Bottles produced 500
Composition 90% Garnacha, 7% Cariñena and 3% white grapes
Release price N/A
Current price £203
A legend because…
This was the first vintage of what was rapidly to become Priorat’s most famous wine. Although the region had been producing wine for many decades, with Carthusian monks in the forefront of vineyard owners, the steep and rocky terrain made it difficult to cultivate profitably, and many vineyards were being abandoned. It took the vision of a handful of winemakers in the late 1980s to recognise the extraordinary potential of the region.
The revival of Priorat began as recently as 1989, when René Barbier recognised the potential of the amazing, steep, schist soils that give Priorat its typicity. By then the area under vine had dwindled to 600 hectares and appeared to be in terminal decline. Barbier was joined by other pioneers, such as José Luis Pérez and Daphne Glorian. They were joined by Alvaro Palacios, who soon began producing exceptional wines from a number of single vineyards such as Finca Dofí, which he acquired in 1990. It soon became clear that the L’Ermita vineyard was the finest of them all.
Palacios was born into a Rioja winemaking family. But as one of nine siblings, he found it prudent to focus on other historically great vineyard regions; in particular he was keen to rediscover abandoned vineyards. After working with Christian Moueix in Bordeaux, he travelled to Priorat in 1989. At the time the region was not well known, but L’Ermita and a handful of other wines soon demonstrated the fabulous quality of which Priorat was capable.
1993 was a fine vintage in Priorat. Growers had a scare in early October when abundant rain fell, but the L’Ermita grapes were still not ripe thanks to an exceptionally dry summer. After another shower on 17 October, Palacios decided that the grapes had reached optimal ripeness, and harvested over the next two days. The 1993 vintage has not had the recognition it deserves, overshadowed by the excellent vintage in 1994.
The very steep L’Ermita vineyard, near the village of Gratallops, was planted with bush vines in 1910 and 1940. In 1993 it occupied 1.7ha, and though in 1996 it was expanded to 4.5ha, those newer plantings are still not used in the L’Ermita blend. The soil is schist (known locally as llicorella) and the vines grow in an amphitheatre at an elevation of 400m to 520m, facing north and east. The exposition is not ideal, but its relative coolness accounts for the wine’s fragrance. Cabernet Sauvignon was a more recent planting here. The blend is 90% Garnacha, 7% Cariñena and 3% white grapes. The vines, now 73 years old, are farmed biodynamically. Horses and mules are used to cultivate the site, due to its extreme steepness.
The grapes are often picked by selective harvesting, with up to three passages through the vines to ensure that only the ripest, best fruit is harvested. There is a further sorting at the winery. The bunches are destemmed by hand, then fermented in wooden vats with punching down of the cap; after 45 to 50 days on the skins the wine is pressed, and malolactic fermentation takes place in barrels. The wine is aged for 18 months in new oak, and is bottled after egg white fining, but there is no filtration. Around 500 to 1,800 bottles are produced today.
Because of its tiny production and limited renown, reviews on release of L’Ermita’s first vintage were scarce. In 1998, the late John Radford enthused that L’Ermita was ‘arguably Spain’s finest red wine, and certainly its most expensive.’ US wine critic Jeff Leve noted in 2013: ‘Dry, overly oaked, with fresh, bright, wild strawberry, cherry and wet earth characteristics… Perhaps this was better in its youth.’ Indeed, Ferran Centelles, former sommelier at El Bulli, which listed the wine, recalls the 1993 as ‘very classical, with lots of forest floor, very ripe fruit, a mature nose, already at its peak’.