Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier
April 13, 2020
For those of us with long careers in wine, there are plenty of embarrassing predictions we’ve made, prognostications we’d rather forget. I never thought wine coolers would amount to much; they started selling about ten million cases a year a few years later, then those were monthly sales. And I remember when in the late 80s a few new producers in Priorat started getting some press. After launching their vineyard and winemaking efforts in the early 80s, they offered up wines for sale a few years later. I shared with my colleagues’ hilarity that those poor Spanish fools believed they could charge twenty dollars a bottle for these Priorat wines. They must think we’re fools!
Actually, I was the proven fool. My expectations reflected the prevailing wisdom about this obscure place in Mediterranean Spain; it’s hot there and the wines produced are overripe, if not Port-like, oxidized and without character. Why? Well, because many of the wines of Levante Spain were then, and some even remain today, of that ancient style of wine. Ancient Spain made wines that embraced the impact of oxygen; such wines bear no resemblance to wines of modernity: youthful and exuberantly fruity. Instead of temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters and tanks, wineries were open to ambient weather conditions. In older times, tinajas and other traditional giant clay jars were most likely to be deployed. Stainless steel was adopted in 1962 by the pioneering Miguel Torres, Sr.; in this, he preceded almost all winemakers in Bordeaux and California.
But Torres was special, unusual, and had demonstrated that his home vineyards in Catalunya were a remarkable case. Even decades later, there was no reason to believe that some backwater amongst the mountains that hover over Barcelona would be able to rival Torres, or even to make modern wines. Skeptical? No, we were incredulous and frankly uninterested in such nonsense.
But Priorat is a unique place, once you go there and see. The famed Scala Dei, “God’s ladder”, the steps by which angels ascended to heaven, that was a vision people had a long time ago. It seems likely that wine was involved. In the 12th century, King Alfons el Cast sent two knights to find a great spot for a new site for the Carthusian Order, moving from Provence to Catalunya. The monks built their priory in 1194; a beautiful stone arch opens onto the remarkable facade of the Montsant Mountains. That dramatic vista is built from granite, and the land under the vines is based upon schistous rock, a particular version called llicorella, slate slabs that resembled a toppled and collapsed fence belonging to some gigantic race of drunken farmers.
While in some quarters, it’s trendy to treat soil differentiation as having little material impact upon the character of any particular wine, those who believe in the quality of these wines strongly differ. It’s reflected in the rules; today the boundary between Priorat and Montsant is determined by that llicorella; the second you see it, you’ve entered Priorat.
Are Priorat and Montsant so different? Yes and no. The grapes are the same; the intensity of fruit the same, along with robust alcohols and ever-present tannins. Miraculously, both carry higher acidity than they ought to, considering those alcohols. For that, thank the nearby Mediterranean Sea breezes (it’s only about twenty to thirty miles from any vineyard). Montsant has more limestone soils, so acids can be even more racy at times.
But Priorat is llicorella, and there is a mineral feel and flavor to it for many of us. While minerality remains a source of controversy to some, if you’re comfortable with the concept, Priorat (like the Mosel, Chablis, Douro, Martinborough, Piedmont, Santorini, the Canaries and many other such regions) will fulfill your need to taste its presence. It can offer that grainy texture, that pop, that dryness that cannot be wholly explained by the phenols or the acids.
Priorat’s vineyards have been a consistent source of wine since the 12th century, and while the wine had a reputation, it may have been more politically or economically based than founded upon excellence. The all-powerful church ended its reign over the place during the Carlist Wars (1833-76). The citizenry’s disregard for the clergy is best exemplified by its pillaging of the property for all manner of building materials for the next century or more. The wine suffered a similar fate at the hand of phylloxera a few decades later. But in the 1980s, Priorat was championed by a cohort of twenty- and thirty-somethings (René Barbier, Dafne Glorian, Alvaro Palacios, Carles Pastrana and José Luis Pérez). For them, even more than their energy and ideas, llicorella has been the driving force behind the region’s rediscovery.
If the overarching personality of Priorat is its soil, according to Alvaro Palacios, “It is time to respect a more specific origin.” Generic Priorat no longer suffices. The consejo regulador and the vintners have spent a decade or so drafting new boundaries, based upon vineyard delineations of the mid-20th century, in hopes of creating something closer to the classic vineyard borders. As Palacios says, “It is about naming a certain wine as it should be, according to the place it is from.“
So now paratges, or vineyard names, will be the new labeling norm for Priorat. Here’s the problem: there are 459 of them. Pity the aspiring Master Sommelier candidate, if nothing else, but pity too the consumer who must somehow accept on faith that each is worthy of being named. The motivation is clear: existing law allows only the name of the village nearest any the vineyard. If Priorat includes great vineyards (and to many of us, it does), and if the world’s greatest vineyards are known and named, then Priorat should do the same.
In creating a new classification system, Priorat is taking a risk, and many decisions are yet to come. The system includes:
DOQ Priorat wine – the existing nomenclature regards generic Priorat as one of the top two DOQs in Spain (the other is Rioja).
Vi de Vila – any producer can label a wine with any of the primary villages in Priorat (Escaladei, Poboleda, Torroja, La Vilella Alta, La Vilella Baixa, El Lloar, Gratallops, Porrera, Bellamunt, Masos de Falset and Solanes del Molar)
Vi de Paratge – this is any one of the 459 individual vineyards or paratges.
Vinya Classificada – only four paratges have been awarded this status - Mas de la Rosa (owned by Vall Llach), Clos Mogador and Mas d’en Gil’s two vineyards, Coma Blanca and Coma Vella. The language describes a wine of “exceptional virtues, which needs to be bottled separately”.
Gran vinya classificada – only Palacios’ famed L’Ermita vineyard is granted this status at present. As the consejo says, “These are very rare samples of natural and historical talent…” Meanwhile, Velles Vinyes (old vines) are officially defined as vines planted before 1945.
With nearly 5000 acres of vineyards, 575 winemakers and 109 wineries, Priorat is not the sparse vineyard region it was only a decade or two ago. Success has been hard won and the region is demanding its status as a peer to the world’s greatest vineyard areas. This new system may give Priorat a voice loud enough to command such attention, or it may devolve into hundreds of separate voices each shouting a different message.