A Hidden Gem in Spain.
Priorat has my heart. Not as renowned as the classic Rioja, or the much acclaimed Ribera Del Duero, Priorat is located southwest of Barcelona, Spain – a region with an extensive history of wines. It is by no means the perfect place for viticulture, as the terrain being abrupt, “cataclysmic” and “violent” in the words from the Catalan writer Josep Pla. The climate here is remarkably continental, with hot and dry summers, and it is probably the most arid area in Spain. One will surely be amazed by the “enormous staircases” – that’s how steep the terrain is, making machine harvests impossible.
Wine production here dates from as early as the 12th century by the monks, yet when phylloxera hit in during the 19th century, it completely devastated the vines, steered people’s attention away towards almonds and olives. Only until the past a few decades have vast swaths of land been devoted to vineyards once again. It was René Barbier who believed in the potential of the land. He brought ten other passionate winemakers here, five quit in two years, and the rest have become the well-known five hippies today: Clos Mogador, Clos Dofí, Clos de L’Obac, Clos Martinet, and Clos Erasmus.
Priorat is all about its slate: llicorella (Catalan name for slate). These red/copper color slate consists small particles of mica, and absorbs heat during the day, keeping the roots cool during hot summers. It favours the soil drainage and urges the roots to grow deep into the terrain in search of water and nutrients. The vines hence result in low yield, gifting the fruits great concentration and a unique flavor profile.
The dominant grapes in Priorat are Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan), as well as some international varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. When tasting wines from Priorat, the first thing you’d notice is the remarkable intensity, with black plum, black cherry, and licorice dominating the aroma profile, normally high alcohol level(14% +), big chewy tannins and moderate acidity on the palate. What makes the wines stand out is the refreshing minerality that comes from the llicorella – to me it is the backbone of Priorat wines as it holds up the big bold fruit flavors and alcoholic heat. Furthermore it offers wet clay and minty notes, making the wine even more layered in structure.
Priorat wines are never cheap. Low yields, intense manual labor, extensive use of new oak, all contribute to the highest price tag of wine in Spain. Easily asking for over $50 on average, a Priorat bottle can go much higher in price if made by a top producer. I certainly won’t claim this should be your “everyday” wine (e.g. I would prefer a cheaper chilled Rose on a hot summer afternoon), but indeed it is something you don’t want to miss when exploring wines.
Best Wines from Priorat
Priorat is one of the only two DOCa in Spain (the other being Rioja). I was fortunate to explore a couple of wineries there earlier. Although I had some priors about the region’s excellence and set my expectation fairly high, Priorat still impressed me!
One of the big names in Priorat! Daphne Glorian, the owner, originally from Switzerland and moved there in the 1990s after being persuaded by his friend Rene Barbier. It is one of the five classic labels and oldest wineries in Priorat. Clos Erasmus 2004 vintage was scored 100 points by Robert Parker and its average price is ~$900 per bottle! The wines are generally exotically perfumed, expressive and powerful followed by a lengthy aftertaste. Although I did not get a chance to taste the legendary 04, the 08 I tried was memorable and could certainly age for another decade or more!
A typical family-run winery in Priorat founded in 1995. Located in La Morera de Montsant, one of the highest altitude areas here, the views are breathtaking (and a great spot to view the “enormous staircases”)! The owner and winemaker, Ricardo, showed me the vineyards, oak barrels, and walked me through the history of his family-style winery. It was amazing to see how much he knows about the soil, the climate, the different pruning methods and vineyards management. Has devoted many ages in the area, he was one of the first a few to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Priorat. The wines are made from old vines on slopes, dominated by Mazuelo (Carignan), normally being aged in french oak, and needless to say – powerful and chewy, with concentrated dark fruits and hints of slate and mushroom. One would not disagree that they have great cellaring potential.
Another family business – husband-and-wife team! Purchased by Paco and his wife Dominic in 1998 when they began to fulfill their dream of producing their own wines, and to this day manage and harvest their vineyards with the help only from their family and friends! All the bottles here are corked, capsuled and labeled by hand. Don’t be afraid to try their wines even if you are not a fan of the “big, bold” style, because these are probably the smoothest yet powerful wines you would ever taste. The scenery is spectacular as well – when you walk in the vineyard you can actually observe the evidence of the roots pushing their way through the terrain. Oh and, you don’t want to miss those over 100 years old vines!
How can I not mention Clos Mogador while we are talking about Priorat? It is fair to say there will not be a Priorat region without René Barbier, and Clos Mogador is named after the single vineyard that René Barbier started to cultivate in the 1970’s. Among all the amazing wineries here these days, Clos Mogador still stands at the top of the pyramid. The flagship wine is a blend of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cariñena, with the use of best oak in Europe. And I heard was that you can easily bump into those famous winemakers at the local restaurants and wine stores!
Once again, Priorate has my heart. It is not just about the wines, but about the people here as well. Priorat rose from anonymity on the international market, to one of the most pricey and premium quality wines in merely a few decades! People here strive together to put the region on the map. The most unforgettable thing is to see how personal these famous winemakers and owners are, and how relaxed and intimate everything feels. You don’t have to put on your most expensive dress and sit in a Michelin Star restaurant to pair your wine – simply grab a glass, sit in the vineyard and enjoy the great wine with an outstanding view!