Priorat, the hidden phoenix

In the 70’s, when I was in my teens, my father would sometimes bring home a demijohn of Priorat. It contained a dark, strong, sweetish red wine. In a nutshell, that was the definition of Priorat in those years: wines were rough, very alcoholic (perhaps 16 – 19 %) and usually unbottled. And in many cases, exported elsewhere to give body to less muscular wines.

Priorat boasts a long tradition in winemaking; indeed, the name itself comes from the Carthusian Priory at Scala Dei that fostered winemaking in the area since the 12th century. And before that, wines from the Tarraconensis had been on high demand at Imperial Rome’s best tables.

However, Priorat villages, once rich and prosperous when French wine production all but disappeared due to Phylloxera, were sinking steadily into nothingness due to the high cost of vine growing and low prices of the final product, as it was then. Population had shrunk by half in 100 years.

Suddenly, at the end of the 80’s, a small group of pioneers (Barbier, Glorian, Palacios, Pastrana, Pérez), with great winemaking know-how and even greater faith in Priorat’s potential, started 5 tiny cellars and spawned a handful of wines (Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, l’Ermita / Dofí, Clos de l’Obac, Clos Martinet) blending grapes of old Garnatxa and Carinyena vines with younger ones of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

With their winemaking prowess they created wines that were dark, big and strong, but also mineral, well rounded, with the alcohol (13.5 to 15%) well integrated in the structure, and showed that Priorat could supply world class reds that, additionally, had a distinct personality.

Just a remark: I said “world class reds”. Curiously, while in most languages red wine is called red (rouge, rosso, rot...) in Catalan it is called black (negre). Has it something to do with Priorat’s rich colour? Who knows...

After the pioneers others came, mostly following their pattern, which was further blessed with excellent ratings from the international wine gurus.

Twenty years later the initial wines are still among the best, and with the bonus of consistency throughout these years and the fact that the first vintages have aged well. In the meantime, new stars have appeared: for instance, Cims de Porrera, Clos Dominic, Ferrer Bobet, Mas Doix, Mas Sinén, Nin, Terroir al Límit, Trio Infernal, Vall Llach, to name only some of those whose wines I have tasted. And a number of outsiders to be followed with care.

Apart from the reds, some whites are available, usually based on Garnatxa Blanca with the addition of Macabeu, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatell. And a few winemakers produce natural sweets and rancis, reds oxidized for long years in their casks to a golden, complex finish.

The quality factors at work are several:
  • poor soils of llicorella (slate pieces that reflect light and give good draining)
  • old vines growing in costers (steep slopes in the rocky hills), with optimal sun exposure
  • Mediterranean/continental climate with lots of microclimates due to the hilly countryside, but in general with hot summers with big differences in temperature within the day, very cold winters (for the area), and low rainfall

All this combines to yield very low quantities (around of or less than 1 kg of fruit per plant) that have to be harvested by wholly manual methods. Indeed, some growers still use mules for some of the steepest properties.

With this quality potential and the high costs associated with such kind of vine growing, the best value is found, as I see it, in the upper levels of quality, where production cost is not so critical in final price. However, in the lower quality ranges, although Priorat offerings are excellent, their price makes them comparable to medium-high quality wines of many other regions.

All in all, the development of Priorat has been astonishing for anybody that did not know its potential. My father would have liked to see it now…

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