Andrew Jefford discovers the other face of Priorat.
Winegrowers tease a landscape into performance … then ask questions of it. The answers are always provisional, though they may not feel so. Grape varieties adapt and evolve; climates modulate; over the long term, even the shape of the hills will change. This interrogative adventure should prove one of the most joyful ways in which we can interact, over millennia, with our planet — supposing, that is, that we can find a way of making our sudden and overwhelming presence on earth sustainable.
Priorat’s landscape lends itself to speculations of this kind. You’ve journeyed from some comfortable domestic familiarity; suddenly you find yourself in a wild, lonely chaos of hills, rocks, light and wind. The press of faces and physiques drain away; the roads fall silent; nature’s odours slide from the hills. Sun, moon and stars become actors in your life. The little villages seem almost vulnerable, clinging to their footholds, wherever a trickle of water can be found. The landscape has not gobbled them up yet – but you feel it could, and tracelessly.
The commensurate drama of Priorat’s reds is well-known, and in itself subject to much questioning, as I will be outlining in a feature in next March’s edition of Decanter magazine and on Decanter Premium. Today, though, let’s consider Priorat’s ‘three per centers’: its whites.
One reason for a close look at these is their diagnostic energy. This is something they share with the red wines, derived from a birthright intensity of fruit. Red wines, though, have to wear the polyphenolic cloak which comes from maceration and extraction – and that in turn implies a suite of decisions about élevage, all of which can mark the wines in one way or another. That is less true of the whites, whose energy often seems to emerge without artifice. It’s all the more striking given the fact that the key white grape variety here, with 40 per cent of plantings, is Garnacha (or Garnatxa in Catalan) Blanca, one that is often passive and even torpid elsewhere. Other officially approved varieties include Macabeo, PX and Chenin, but there are rarer varieties too like Picapoll and Trepat. The well-adapted Cariñena Blanca has yet to be approved, though it has been long present here and is admired as a blending component.
A second reason for that close look is the intrinsic balance and finesse of Priorat whites. The stony rubble which passes for soil (usually slate or schist though sometimes limestone, too) and the altitude and its implications for diurnal temperature variations seems to give white Priorat, when sensitively handled, aromatic nuance, a subtle but sustained acid balance, and a beguiling unfruitiness of flavour.
Priorat’s wine-growers, consequently, are beginning to ask whether they shouldn’t be making more white wine and less red. “Many people here,” says Miguel Compte of Clos Figueras, “are beginning to say that white wines might be the future of Priorat.” “Lots more people are now working with whites,” confirms Cokè Bálon Jiménez of Terroir al Límit. “There has been a lot of opening of minds.” “They’re becoming more and more important, but they need time,” cautions the thoughtful Sara Pérez of Mas Martinet, who has made a very fine though as-yet-unreleased white at her home domain for some years now, as well as another white (under the Partida Bellvisos label) with her partner René Barbier Jnr – who says in turn that at Clos Mogador, his own family business, the eventual aim is for 50 per cent white wine.
At the moment, there are a wide variety of different approaches to white-wine making in Priorat, which is exactly as it should be. The avant-garde, like Terroir al Limit and Sara Pérez and René Barbier Jnr, are using low sulphur levels, skin contact and (in the case of Terroir al Limit) whole bunch fermentation. Avant-garde? In fact there is an artisanal Priorat tradition of white-wine production with skin contact called Brisat, and in most ways these new wines reflect those age-old traditions more closely than do the ‘conventional’ wines of our times.
Another approach is that taken by Jordi Vidal Pardenilla at La Conreria d’Scala Dei. La Conreria was always unusual in that it had 70 per cent of white grapes when first founded in 1997, and still produces 40 per cent white. “Garnacha Blanca,” says Vidal, “is in some ways a weak and fragile variety, but it has the advantage of many possibilities. You can do exactly what you want with it if you are prepared to take risks.” He produces two styles – one conventional, but one (Iugiter Les Brugueres) which uses two to three days’ cool skin maceration to produce a white with an extraordinary fresh sappiness to it, as if the Grenache Blanc of Priorat was dreaming of becoming a transgender Sauvignon Blanc. It sounds strange, but it works.
In the final analysis, though, the sites here are so outstanding that you can hardly do better than respect those to the maximum with pure and limpid winemaking in conventional guise. Full notes are given below, but I was lucky enough to taste the fine La Solana Alta, crafted by Bixente Oçafrain at Mas Alta, not in the confines of the cellar but high up in the vineyard itself, looking out in late October sunlight across the valley to the village of Vilella Alta, and the echoing contours of a dozen or more hillside flanks falling away in every direction. Red wines have mass and substance, and in this they seem to echo the earth. Here, though, we stood in the upper air; a rogue gust or two could have swept us off, like awkward fledglings. White wine had the measure of the moment.
Tasting White Priorat
Mas Alta, Artigas Blanc 2015
Mas Alta’s second white wine contains Pedro Ximenez and Macabeu as well as Garnacha Blanca, and is grown on a variety of soil types. Its scent is less refined that the top wine La Solana Alta (see below), with notes of wet clay and cistus; the palate has plenty of cut and edge, with muted but enticing fruits perfectly spliced to the wine’s ample but soft-contoured acidity. 91
Mas Alta, La Solana Alta 2014
This wine is preponderantly barrel-fermented Garnacha Blanca grown on pure llicorella (slate) with just a dash of Cariñena Blanca; malolactic is blocked. A bright gold in colour, with scents and flavours of lemon, cistus, fruit blossom and pounded almond. It’s mouthfilling, stony and plump, with delicious richness yet bright freshness, too; the aromatic elements are very finely drawn and expressive. An outstanding, fine-dining white wine. (The 2015 is just as good, but needs a little longer to acquire full articulacy.) 95
Garnatxa Blanca en Sòl de Llicorella, Partida Bellvisos 2011
A chance to look at an aged though unsulphured version of René Barbier and Sara Pérez’s white wine, made with 20 per cent skin contact. There’s no oxidation, despite the lack of sulphur, with scents of straw and dry grasses and ample, juicy yellow–plum fruit on the palate: it’s a full-bodied, comforting, knife-and-fork orange-white. 91
Les Brugueres, Iugiter, La Conreria d’Scala Dei 2016
This pure Garnacha Blanca wine has fresh, sappy scents with a subtle quince sweetness to them, then long, sappy, vigorous, ripely green flavours, juicy and intense, back up by a stony trace; vinous, ample finish. 90
Font de la Figuera, Clos Figueras 2016
There’s just 35 per cent Garnacha Blanca here (the vines are 100 years old), with 50 per cent Viognier — planted in error after a local nurseryman sold it as Cabernet Sauvignon — and the balance coming from Chenin Blanc. The rather heavy aromas suggest that Viognier may not be happy here, and the palate lacks a little purity and focus. On the plus side, this is a concentrated wine with some stoniness and balancing acidity; it has the ingrained Priorat seriousness to it, too. 88
Vi Blanc des Varietats Antigues, Planetes de Nin, Família Nin-Ortiz 2016
The cork says ‘Carinyena Blanc’ but the label reference defers to the currently anomalous situation of this white variety here. It’s late ripening and retains its acidity – as is amply evident in this version from the Clos Erasmus viticulturalist Ester Nin at the ‘home’ winery she runs with her husband Carles. The wine is lemony, cleansing, finely crafted and long, but flirts with austerity and shows no trace of vinosity or incipient richness at all, suggesting to me that this variety’s potential here might best be as a useful minority blending component. 89
Terroir de Cuques, Terroir al Límit 2015
A very different blend from most of its peers, this is 90% directly pressed Pedro Ximenez blended with whole-bunch fermented Muscat. You wouldn’t necessarily guess this from the aromas, which suggests plants and straw; the palate is fresh, vinous and structured, with more straw and a little delicate yellow plum. 90
Terroir Historic, Terroir al Límit 2016
This white is a blend of 75% Garnacha Blanco and 25% Macabeo sourced from Priorat’s nine historical villages, and made by the Terroir al Límit team in the cooperative of Torroja with no wood influence. There’s some faint reduction on the aromas; the palate is long and chewy, with vivid acidity but muted fruit character (peach and straw). 88
Abracadabra, Trossos del Priorat 2016
This blend of 70-year-old Garnacha Blanc and Macabeu is packed with white fruits: quiety expressive aromatically, but much more exuberant on the palate: chewy, dramatic, reverberative, high focus, pointed up with peach-skin pungency. 90