Recently named Decanter Man of the Year, Álvaro Palacios is probably the most famous winemaker in this stunning, rugged region located in the Catalan province of Tarragona which has blissfully remained unspoiled. He produces the most expensive wine in the appellation, L’Ermita, but he also helped to boost affordable reds with his Camins del Priorat brand when the recession hit Spain. Over the last few years Palacios has been leaving international varieties behind to focus on Garnacha, which now stands as the sole or main grape in his most acclaimed labels. The wines have changed too; they are less structured, displaying a highly aromatic character and boasting the kind of freshness that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Others are joining this trend. Vall-Llach’s powerful, fully ripe reds are a thing of the past. Located in Porrera, the winery was founded in 1997 by Catalan singer Lluis Llach and notary public Enric Costa. Since Enric’s son took over, the shift towards balance has been notable. “I make wines that can be consumed right after bottling”, says Albert Costa, who is working hard to reflect the distinctive character of Porrera’s old Carignan. Another, more subtle example of second generation renewal comes from Viticultors Mas d’en Gil in Bellmunt, where Marta Rovira is now in charge of this winery established in 1998 after his father purchased the Masía Barril estate.
One could speak of a new fruit quality. Most wines have got rid of the heavy, cooked-fruit character that was rather common in the past and have given way to fresher, juicier and definitely more drinkable styles. Minerality —usually associated with ink, charcoal, earthy notes or hot stone aromas— is still there, but it doesn’t reveal aldehydes or, even worse, those annoying levels of acetic acid. Contrary to what one might think, alcohol remains high. Take the renewed Vall-Llach, for instance; even if wines are more approachable and balanced, alcohol levels still reach 15,5% —it is unusual to find a Priorat with less than 14% alcohol.
It is still too early to know how far Priorat will take this trend. Young winemaker Josep Mas from Costers del Priorat (Bellmunt) advocates for a style that many would consider rather light for the area. "When I arrived here, I thought that such a bright, colourful region should not be synonymous with overripeness”, he explains. At L'Infernal, the winery founded by Rhône and Provence producers Combier-Fisher-Gerin in Torroja, we tasted subtle and balsamic reds which didn’t lack minerality, but were airy and smooth. “Would you tell this was a Priorat if tasted blind?” I couldn’t help asking winemaker Pep Aguilar.
There’s a world of difference between these new Priorat styles and brands like Clos Mogador, which catapulted the region as a world class producer of red wines in the 1990s based on foreign grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to add structure, high extraction levels and wine aging in new 225-litre French oak barrels. As well as René Barbier (Clos Mogador), other pioneers who notoriously fermented together the 1989 harvest and continue to produce wines around Gratallops include Alvaro Palacios (Clos Dofí), Josep-Lluís Pérez (Clos Martinet), Carles Pastrana (Clos de l'Obac) and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus).
Before the emergence of Priorat in the early 1990s, wines ranged from robust and alcoholic reds sold in bulk and destined to blends to rancio-style wines made in an oxidative style popular in many Mediterranean areas. In this article by Víctor de la Serna published on Tim Atkin’s website, the Spanish journalist turned winemaker speculated that the confluence of geological (schist/llicorella soils retaining sun heat), climatic (the Little Ice Age between the 14th and 19th centuries), social (wine was an integral part of the diet which provided strength) and even religious reasons (apparently monks forbade to harvest before the day of its patron saint, San Bruno, held on October 6) explain the powerful character of Priorat reds.
As in other wine regions, religious orders helped to develop wine growing in Priorat. Carthusian monks arrived at the area in the 12th century as part of the repopulation drive in the Iberian Peninsula brought by the land gains obtained from the Muslims. The considerable power wielded by the monks is reflected in the name of the region itself: Priorat was the domain of the prior of the Scala Dei monastery, which encompassed the villages of Poboleda, La Morera, Porrera, La Vilella Alta, Torroja, Gratallops and part of Bellmunt. The wine growing strategy included the creation of farms (locally called “mas”) that were managed by different families.
Since the Carthusians observed the vow of silence, the monastery was built in an isolated spot at the foot of the Montsant mountains. The area had previously been inhabited by hermits and the legend says that a shepherd dreamt of angels descending a mythical stairway to heaven (scala dei in Latin). After the Spanish government’s confiscation of religious properties in the 19th century, five local families took control of the monks’ legacy and bottled the first Priorat wine in 1878. But the devastating effects of phylloxera brutally impoverished the region in the following years and marked a vast parenthesis for winemaking until the winery was reestablished in the 1970s and the first modern Priorat (1974 vintage) was bottled at Cellers Scala Dei. Nowadays, it is known that these wines were fermented with stems in cement tanks and were aged in oak vats. Masia Barril, which also pioneered bottling in the area, wrote on its labels that Priorat wines were naturally mature and didn’t require wood ageing.
Producers like Terroir al Limit have followed this approach in order to develop a completely different style in the 2000s. Starting with the 2007 vintage when barely 12,000 bottles were produced, changes included picking grapes earlier, fermenting wines with stems moving from extraction towards a new infusion concept and minimizing oak flavours by aging wine in old barrels or big wood vats. Despite the high prices and a style that some wine lovers may find extreme, this winery has been a turning point in the area. Their wine Les Manyes (€175 in Spain) also introduced the idea that Garnacha would better express itself if grown on non-schist soils.
The "Garnacha project" developed by Cellers Scala Dei over the last few years follows the same idea. The new range of Grenache single-vineyards wines explore different soils in the Montsant mountains including schist, chalk-limestone and red and yellow clay. Among them St. Antoni and specially Mas Deu, a high altitude plot near Les Manyes, are some of the most exciting new Priorats. Winemaker Ricard Rofes has recovered techniques from the 1970s, but he only uses stalks from non-schist soils since he is convinced that phenolic and stem ripeness happen together on this ground. Other producers using stems in order to gain freshness include Sara Pérez at Mas Martinet and Esther Nin.
Fermentation and aging tanks are enormously varied today. It’s not uncommon to combine stainless steel, cement, wooden vats, foudres and barrels with various sizes. Since everyone seems to be avoiding oak flavors, terracotta is being increasingly tested in the area. Many of the wineries we visited during Espai Priorat, a three-day conference for sommeliers and journalists from around the world organized by the region’s Regulatory Board at the end of May, were already working with them or had just received their first amphora. Results are mixed though. I tasted a juicy, seductive 2014 Garnacha made by Marco Abella, but also a disappointing example from a different producer: the same grape variety aged in clay jars buried in the ground had acquired an unpleasant earthy flavor. We also tasted an experimental vin de paille, saw a growing interest for whites despite the little more than 100 hectares in the area planted with white grapes, an even tasted and ancient white grape called Escanya-Vella which literally translates as “old women’s choaking”. Many exciting things are going on in Priorat.
Priorat is officially described to visitors as a huge donut: the hole is a compact mass of llicorella (schist) which corresponds to the DOQ Priorat while the surrounding edible ring is the DO Montsant. The explanation proves ineffective once you are in the "hole" surrounded by mountains and steep slopes, often disoriented unless you spot the imposing Montsant mountain pointing north. If you climb up the mountain, however, you’ll be able to identify three valleys that stretch from east to west.
The central valley is the largest with the Siurana river flowing from Cornudella in the DO Montsant through and/or along Poboleda, Torroja, Gratallops and Bellmunt (DOQ Priorat) to El Masroig, again in DO Montsant. There is a smaller valley formed by the Cortiella river, which passes through Porrera and flows into the Siurana, but the narrowest of all is found just below the Montsant mountains around Escaladei. The road that runs through it marks the boundary between schist and clay and limestone soils which are always located on the periphery.
As expected, altitudes and exposures provide an almost infinite set of possibilities for producers. Wine geeks will surely enjoy the wide range of maps (rainfall, climatic areas, vineyard exposures, picking dates, etc.) provided by Priorat’s Regulatory Board, some of which are shown above. Schist is not uniform either. L’Infernal produces single-vineyard wines coming from brown slate, grey slate and gneiss.
When it comes to grape varieties, there’s a clear shift towards indigenous Garnacha and Carignan —awkwardly called Samsó given that grapes cannot be called Cariñena because it is the name of an appellation in Aragón. Not many wineries rely completely on them, though. Most wines, and specially entry-level wines, include varying quantities of Syrah or Cabernet in the blend. Previously seen as rustic, Carignan has undergone a remarkable comeback and is now essential to obtain freshness. Top producers working beautifully with it like Mas Doix, Vall-Llach, Ferrer Bobet or Cims de Porrera have propelled the trend.
Valentí Llagostera from Mas Doix is committed to making “wines that raise people from their seats”. He argues that Carignan has lost ground because quality and acidity are only present in old vines. The key to obtain freshness comes from the combination of high altitude and the influence of dry and cool northwest winds, he argues. This is the reason why he picks grapes one week later than in Gratallops.
Variations between different areas led to the first village classification ever in Spain in 2009. The vi de la vila category applies to nine villages (La Morera de Montsant, Poboleda Porrera, Torroja, Gratallops, Vilella Alta Vilella Baixa, El Lloar and Bellmunt) and three specific areas: Escaladei, Solanes in El Molar and Masos in Falset.
Legal conditions require winemaking facilities to be located in the village stated on the label; producers wishing to make vi de la vila from other villages must own the vineyards. The quantity of native grapes in the blend is also regulated and must account for 50% if just one of them is included and 60% if both Garnacha and Carignan are used.
With roughly 40 vins de la vila currently on the market, opinions still differ. A frequent complaint (already expressed by the late Spanish expert John Radford when the category was established) is that it is difficult enough to explain where Priorat is; why make consumers learn the names of all the villages? On the other side of the argument, his colleague and Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans, who attended Espai Priorat, is an enthusiastic supporter of the category. This is why she was surprised to find producers with wines eligible to be labeled as vi de la vila who were reluctant to enter the category.
Valentí Llagostera from Mas Doix thinks this is a step that should have been taken at later stage. Others believe that quality levels should be defined within the vi de la vila category. In fact, some producers use it as an entry-level wine, such asMas d'en Gil or Terroir al Limit, although this one retails for almost €30 in Spain. Others attach greater importance to it: Álvaro Palacios’ Gratallops comes between Terrasses and Clos Dofí; Vall-Llach’s Porrera ranks second after its top Mas de la Rosa; and Cellers Scala Dei uses the category for its new single-vineyard Garnacha. Oddly enough, small producer Celler Ripoll Sans only makes vi de la vila wines, both in Gratallops where the winery is based and in neighbouring Torroja, where they own a small plot.
To what extent does the character of each village arise in vi de la vila wines? It is arguably easier to distinguish cool areas like Porrera, Poboleda, La Morera or La Vilella Alta from the warmest vineyards located in Bellmunt or El Lloar —specially given the stylistic turning point in which the region is now immersed. It’s not so easy to tell which aspects have to do with terroir and which ones with picking dates or winemaking styles. Perhaps the Finques i Pobles blind tasting, when only village and single-vineyard wines are tasted, and held since 2001, can provide more conclusive data in the future.
Moreover, many producers blend grapes from different areas. Torres sources most of its Priorat grapes from their base at El Lloar, but they still look for old Carignan in Porrera to give extra freshness to their wines. From a stylistic point of view, Mireia Torres is determined to pursuit balance and to keep the style of her Salmos and Perpetual wines somewhere in-between.
Priorat is a relatively small appellation with roughly 1,900 hectares and one of the most fascinating landscapes in the wine world. Vines have traditionally been planted in costers, right on the hillside (some growers are going back to it) although recently terraces have been built to ease working practices. Regardless of the model used, vine growing is hard and requires a lot of manual labor. A mix of romanticism and an interest to go organic has pushed some producers to plow with mules or horses. As yields are very low, total production accounts for barely 4 million bottles —not far from the output of just a single winery in Rioja.
Wines are not cheap either. The average price of grapes in the 2015 harvest was €1.6 per kilo and the current average price for a 75 cl. bottle is around €20. Despite the trend towards affordable Priorat priced between €9-15 as a result of the severe Spanish economic downturn that may have helped to attract new consumers to the category, Priorat is a region for connoisseurs. Only those who are aware of its uniqueness will be willing to pay for it.
Most wine experts that attended Espai Priorat were happy to find more drinkable and approachable wines —I too share that feeling. But they were also concerned that the appellation might lose its identity. “Priorat must produce big wines which are also balanced; don’t go too far on the light style”, said Britsh wine writer Tim Atkin.
In my opinion, landscape is Priorat’s greatest asset and its future is highly dependable on the ability of wine producers to reflect a sense of place (meaning grapes, altitude, soils and specific areas) in their wines. Getting people to visit and know the area is also part of the experience. Wine lovers will hardly forget the breathtaking scenery, the rattle of the off-road vehicles as they climb up to the highest vineyards, the spectacular views (Ferrer Bobet’s winery and the tasting room are indeed a must) or the simple and perfect pleasure of sipping a glass among the vines as we did with French winemaker Franck Massard. It is the perfect plan while the appellation works out the variety and diversity of its wines. Ultimately, and despite its almost millenary winemaking tradition, the region has been regularly bottling wines for just over 40 years.