Priorat – the 900-year overnight success story
I’ve just emerged from a week in heaven, or at least, that’s how it seemed much of the time. Great wines, good food and friendly company may not seem that unusual in the world of wine, but the place… ah, the place. Now that is something special.
I’ve just attended an event called Espai Priorat, which is a familiarisation for members of the wine trade and media held in the Priorat region itself – wild country a couple of hours’ drive south-west of Barcelona. Until 25 years ago this region was virtually unknown. Or, perhaps more correctly, forgotten. It has a long history as a wine producing region (it was pioneered by monks in the 12th Century) but after phylloxera all but wiped it out at the end of the 19th Century, and economic circumstances conspired against it, it virtually disappeared as a wine region. Vineyards weren’t replanted after phylloxera and land that once grew vines was planted to almonds, hazelnuts and (more) olives. Even today, the Priorat is one of the poorest parts of Catalonia.
Then, in the late 1980s, French/Spanish winemaker René Barbier catalyzed a renaissance. He began making wine from very old, hillside vineyards and excited by the quality, talked other people into coming to Priorat and making wine there. Soon, people like Alvaro Palacios (tastings), a Rioja winemaker, joined in. Barbier’s winery, Clos Mogador, and Palacios’s vineyards, especially l’Ermita (tastings) and Finca Dofi (tastings), began producing wines that turned the wine world’s heads – especially, and most importantly, that of American critic Robert Parker, who loved the wines and gave them very high ratings.
These were very full-bodied, powerful, richly complex red wines mostly made from grenache (local name garnatxa – pronounced garnatcha) and carignan (local name carinyena or samso), often blended with small percentages of cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah. Soon the world, excited by the wines and mesmerised by the scores, was knocking on Priorat’s door. Barbier was correct: the potential was extreme and by the late 20th Century, there was once again a market for such wines. A big, thirsty and wealthy market.
Today, Palacios’s top wine l’Ermita costs $2,500 a bottle, and the other top wines, Clos Mogador, Clos Figueres, Clos Erasmus, Finca Dofi, Mas Doix 1902 Centenary Carignan, and Terroir al Limit’s Les Manyes and Les Tosses, are several hundreds of dollars a bottle. These are the flagships, but Priorat also has many excellent wines at more affordable prices. They are great wines, and there are many more where they came from.
What’s the secret?
Answer: a unique combination of soil (llicorella slate), climate, topography and grape varieties. In other words, an exceptional terroir.
This is the first instalment of a series of articles in which I’ll explore the modern-day phenomenon (900-year overnight success story?) that is Priorat.