Every two years, foreign wine journalists and critics, importers and wine professionals are invited to Espai Priorat, a four-day immersion in the most rugged Catalan wine region. The programme, which includes visits to wineries and vineyards, dinners with producers and a major tasting at the Scala Dei ancient monastery (over 40 winemakers were pouring their wines this year), is a great chance to keep up with what’s going on in the area.
Two years ago, the main trend we saw at Espai Priorat was the shift towards fresher and more drinkable styles, leaving behind heavy extraction and favouring indigenous grapes on premium wines. On this edition, there was unprecedented diversity with more and more producers defining their particular styles. As the evolution continues, the good news is that there is more and more to choose from.
Nevertheless, winemaking and personal styles seem to have more weight than terroir in the glass. Paradoxically, this comes at a time when new categories for the area are set to be approved by the Regulatory Board. Pioneering a Burgundy-like quality classification, Priorat was the first region in Spain to adopt village wines –vi de vila in Catalan. Other new categories like vino de paraje (similar to Burgundy’s lieu-dit), vino de viña calificada (Cru) and gran vino de viña calificada (Grand Cru) will predictably come into force this year. All of them will co-exist with vino de finca, the single-vineyard designation granted by Incavi, the Wine and Viticulture Catalan Institute, for the whole of Catalonia. Two red priorats, Clos Mogador and Mas de la Rosa from Cellers Vall Llach, already show this category on their labels.
As I wrote two years ago, among producers the vi de vila category has supporters as well as opponents. Boundaries are not an issue —geography and soils have been taken into account and demarcations differ from administrative borders; instead, disagreements arise because it has failed to become a high quality category.
While some producers use the vi de vila label for their wines just below their top single-vineyard wines, others have used it for their entry-level bottlings. As Spain debates zoning and quality classifications (last week, Rioja approved the new single-vineyard “viñedos singulares” category), perhaps the question is to what extent the future subareas or crus ought to be linked to quality criteria (yields, grape varieties…) or whether excessive regulation constrains producers’ freedom and efforts to improve the image of the region as a whole.
Regardless of this, the quality and diversity of the wines that I tasted at Espai Priorat and over a couple of days later was really outstanding. This is a selection of some favourites within a wide range of styles and price tags.
Considering the standard low prices of Spanish wines, Priorat is a unique case in the country. The region experienced a revival in the 1980s as a source of middle-range and premium wines; bottlings under €15-18 were only released after the economic troubles of the Spanish economy in recent years. Today, a majority of entry-level wines from Priorat are more fruit than terroir-driven, they are sourced from young vineyards and tend to be blends of local and international varieties. Of course there are exceptions: some producers only work with indigenous grapes and others make 100% fruit-driven Garnacha wines with little or no oak contact.
Among the latter, I enjoyed the new 4 Gotes 2015 (€11.95 at Decántalo or via Wine Searcher) made by architect Alfredo Arribas (Portal del Priorat). A blend of red, grey, and peluda (furry) Garnacha and some Alicante Bouschet, fermentation takes place in concrete vats with some stems and the style is really unusual in the area: light, almost electric and with citrus (raspberry) acidity. It feels almost tart when tasted side by side with the young Scala Dei Garnatxa 2016 (€11.20 at Vinissimus) which displays sweet fruit and Mediterranean herbs.
At around €13, the Priorat Classic 2016 made by Galician-born, Switzerland-bred Fredi Torres also displays a lighter style with red fruit and lots of freshness. Due to be released by the end of July, it’s a blend of Garnacha, Cariñena (20%) and Syrah (20%) and a small amount of white grapes. Grapes are sourced from granite and sedimentary soils found on the valley bottoms; yields are higher than usual to avoid hydric stress and to keep alcohol levels low, grapes are picked early and it is fermented with very little extraction.
For just a little bit more Franck Massard’s Humilitat 2014 (€16.05 at Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher) is a blend of Cariñena (60%) and Garnacha (30%) aged for a year in 500-litre barrels. The wine is savoury and expressive with a really nice palate; a gentle Priorat displaying a colourful, lively label and an excellent first approach to the area. Terroir Historic 2016 (€16.4 at Alforins or via Wine Searcher), which is one of Terroir al Limit’s new affordable range, uses a similar blend but the style is somewhat rustic with restrained fruit and a mineral character. Inspired by the traditional reds made in the area in the 1970s, grapes are fermented with stems in concrete vats in the old cooperative in Torroja.
Priorat’s middle range (roughly wines from €22 to €35 in Spain) offers many consistent reds. Again, international and indigenous blends are quite common except for those producers who go 100% local. The surface under vine for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot stands at 234, 228 and 100Ha respectively out of 1,850Ha in the entire appellation —that’s almost a third of the total area.
Font de la Figuera 2014 (€23.50 at Decántalo) by Clos Figueras reflects the combination of a relatively accesible international style with the area’s trademark minerality underpinned by clean ripe fruit. Priorat pioneer Daphne Glorian (Clos i Terrasses) goes for a rather different style with Laurel 2015 (22,000 bottles, €33.50 at Decántalo). Although 2015 was a warm vintage, this blend of Garnacha with 25% Syrah and 5% Cabernet is highly fragrant and herbal. The palate also feels different given that it has been aged in foudres, barrels and amphorae, and some stems were used during fermentation.
Generally speaking, Garnacha contributes to rounder and more savoury palates with generous fruit, although managing alcohol and deciding how ripe you want your grapes can be tricky. Cariñena is more austere, herbal and structured with high acidity, so they complement each other perfectly. The late ripening Cariñena is usually planted on southern exposures; cool, north-exposed areas are preferred for Garnacha.
Salanques 2014 by Mas Doix (16,000 bottles, €28.40 at Gourmet Hunters) proves how well suited are these two varieties. A blend of 65% Garnacha and 25% Cariñena with 10% Syrah, it shows the distinctive depth and concentration of Priorat’s extremely poor soils together and its sun-drenched grapes mixed in with Cariñena’s vibrant acidity on the palate. The widely available Salmos 2014 by Torres Priorat (€23.20 at Decántalo or via Wine Searcher, 120,000 bottles produced) is a blend of Cariñena (60%), Garnacha (25%) and Syrah (15%). The fruit is darker with a forest-like (pine nuts) character; the palate feels mouth-watering with good acidity adding balance. With up to 70% Cariñena blended with Garnacha, Ferrer Bobet Vinyes Velles 2014 (22,000 bottles, €31.50 at Bodeboca) displays ultra-ripe fruit (kirsch) and pronounced minerality, but Cariñena adds definition and length on the palate. Despite its power, the wine is balanced and elegant.
In general terms, the 2014 vintage is pretty consistent. Perhaps it lacks the expressiveness and wonderful definition of 2013 but it can certainly be included among Priorat’s freshest years. In contrast, the few 2015 I managed to taste felt warmer.
While blends propelled the rebirth of Priorat in the 1980s, attention over the past few years has been on single varietal wines made from Garnacha and Cariñena, specially premium wines. Cariñena in particular is the new, unexpected star —it is now up to Priorat to prove that world class reds can be made from this unsung hero.
My list of top Cariñenas starts in Porrera, one of the villages with the coolest climate in the appellation. At Vall Llach I was lucky to taste samples from the 2015 and 2016 vintages with outstanding depth and tension. Among the wines they served at the Scala Dei tasting, my favourite was Porrera Vi de Vila 2014 (5,000 bottles, €43.50 at Bodeboca, or via Wine Seacher). Even with 20% Garnacha, it reflected all the concentration, freshness and, yes, elegance that can be found in very old vineyards grown in this particularly rugged area of Priorat with dizzying slopes. Ferrer Bobet Selección Especial Vinyes Velles 2013 (€52.90 at Ideavinos) comes also from Porrera but it has more ripeness, extraction (dark chocolate, kirsch) and oak notes. Its acidity is capable of lifting the palate to the point that the stewed fruit character fades away. This wine is certainly worth cellaring.
Manyetes Vi de Vila Gratallops 2014 by Clos Mogador (4,600 bottles, €49.90 at Vinissimus) is extremely dark and mineral, It comes from a very hot, sun-drenched area with extremely low yields. Other varieties that were previously planted here have been uprooted or grafted with Cariñena, the only variety that is capable to perform adequately in such extreme conditions.
Back to a cooler area, in the village of Poboleda, those with deep pockets should experience the amazing Cariñena Centenaria 1902 from Mas Doix (only 980 bottles, €199.5 the 2013 vintage at Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher) with maximum levels of concentration, minerality and length and not even a hint of rusticity. Made from vines planted in 1902, hence the name, this is a real treat which ought to be tasted at least once in a lifetime, although I would lay it down for a few years.
A gentler, less concentrated expression of Cariñena but boasting balance and depth can be found at Terroir al Limit. Arbossar is a fresh, almost light version; Les Tosses, although outstanding, is almost out of reach at €180 a bottle. The Dits del Terra 2014 (4,500 bottles, €54.05 at Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher) I tasted from a magnum bottle sits perfectly in between both styles, with lovely ripe cherry fruit and lots of Mediterranean herbs –it comes from a southern-exposed vineyard in the village of Torroja.
Also from a plot in Torroja, my top newcomer at the tasting was Clos Alzina 2014 by Costers del Priorat (1,500 bottles, €39.95 at Petit Celler or via Wine Searcher). A single-varietal Cariñena, grapes were formerly destined to Clos Cypres, the winery’s premium red. Planted in 1939, the vineyard has a northern exposure and stands at 600m of altitude. The wine is much more fragrant and subtle than you’d expect from this variety with integrated acidity and terrific texture. Winemaking also defies the norm: fermentation took place in amphorae and the wine was later aged in foudres.
When it comes to Garnacha, it is important to distinguish between those grown on schist soils and others planted on red clay up on the Montsant mountains. Among the latter –and this is a truly amazing expression of Priorat despite the price, the two stars are the aerial, evocative Les Manyes 2014 from Terroir al Limit (1,500 bottles, €172.65 at Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher), this time with no affordable version within its range of wines; and the deep, juicy Masdeu 2013 from Scala Dei (€89.25 at Vinissimus). Both vineyards are almost bordering, are fermented with stems are shisting from oak-aging to concrete. The big difference rests on picking times: while Les Manyes is harvested almost at the beginning of September, at Masdeu they wait until the second half of October.
Undoubtedly, the finest Garnachas grown on schist soils are those from Álvaro Palacios who dropped international grapes to focus primarily on his beloved Mediterranean variety. With only 6% Cariñena, Finca Dofí 2014 (€76,20 at Vinoselección) was one of the most delicious, captivating wines I had the chance to taste. Its power is evocative (cherry fruit, orange blossom, sweet spices) with wonderful finesse and lovely texture.
It was great to discover that Ester Nin and Carles Ortiz have released a new single-varietal Garnacha. Grapes are sourced from a very old, southeastern-exposed vineyard they have recently acquired in Porrera. Carlos said that it took them almost five years to obtain real freshness from it, but it was worth the wait: Nit de Nin Coma d’en Romeu 2015 (€68.50 at Vila Viniteca) is a great addition to Priorat’s lighter styles. While Mas d’en Caçador, their powerful blend of Cariñena, Garnacha and Garnacha Peluda (downy-leaved) does need cellaring, their Garnacha can be enjoyed right now thanks to its lovely pure fruit, Mediterranean herbs character (rosemary, thyme) and freshness.
Perhaps Porrera’s best known single-varietal Garnacha is the one made by Cims de Porrera. Following their particular philosophy of releasing their wines with some extra cellaring, the 2013 they were pouring at the tasting (1,500 bottles, 12 months in 225-litre barrels) won’t be released until 2020. It offers a combination of earthy nuances and Mediterranean forest backed up by the distinctive freshness of the 2013 vintage.
Another Garnacha to bear in mind is Sara Pérez’s Els Escurçons. The 2015 vintage poured at the tasting reflected the smoke, cinder notes of the fire that sadly devastated the vineyard on that vintage. The 2014 (€71 at Gourmet Hunters) I had the opportunity to taste a few days later was a pretty different story: forest fruit, wild herbs and lavender aromas followed by a refined palate showing the expression of an almost wild, high altitude vineyard.
At Sangenis i Vaqué, one of the most traditional family venues in Porrera, they love to lay down their best red Priorats. Although they are not advocates of the Gran Reserva category, they use it to bottle their best Garnacha and Cariñena with tiny yieldd of 500g per vine with the Clos Monlleó ultra-classic looking label. Núria Sangenís brought a fantastic 2000 (2,500 bottles, €50 at Vinum Priorat) to a dinner held at Hostal Sport in Falset. A powerful, comforting red with restrained tannins and all the dour, hard part of the area’s landscape expressed through nutty, tobacco, esparto grass and spicy aromas.
Cims de Porrera, a real specialist in releasing old vintages in big-sized bottles, brought a Clàssic 1997 Mágnum (€150 at Vinum Priorat) to the Scala Dei tasting (see cousins Adrià and Marc Pérez holding their trophy in the pictures). A blend of 65% Cariñena, 30% Garnacha and 3% Cabernet, it is classic innstyle with ripe liquor fruit, peanuts and nutty aromas. Alcohol offered its warm side but Cariñena was also there providing enough acidity to keep it alive and kicking and with plenty of life ahead.
Not very far from there, Valentí Llagostera (Mais Doix) was pouring the first Doix vintage (1999) which was all soil and landscape: dry, earthy notes, high ripeness with some rancio aromas but lovely complexity (bay leaf, tobacco, undergrowth).
May I suggest having more of these at the next edition of Espai Priorat? Specially after I discovered that Vall Llach has been laying down several hundred bottles of all their wines so far.