The D.O.Q. Priorat

The Spanish wine region of Priorat is a well-hidden diamond in the rough located only an hour and a half south of Barcelona and east of Tarragona, Catalunya’s southern-most province, nestled at the base of the Montsant mountain range. The name “Priorat” is derived from the first Carthusian monastery founded on the Iberian Peninsula, located in the town of Scala Dei (or “Stairway to God” in Catalan), right in the heart of modern-day Priorat. This monastery, which still bears its original name of “La Cartoxia,” had a leader known as a “prior” who ruled over his territory (called his “priorato”) with absolute control. Although “La Cartoxia” was the center of wealth and power in this region for hundreds of years, it was also the object of severe jealousy by many of the local townspeople and in the mid 1800’s the resident monks were forced to abandon the monastery. Due to the extreme looting that took place upon the monk’s departure, all that currently stands as proof of this era is the original entryway of the monastery.

It is generally accepted that the history of winemaking within Priorat consists of three “etapas,” or stages of evolution. To fully understand the first stage, we must think back to pre-post Roman times, when the area was scarce of water but abundant with wine production. The vast quantity of wine produced during this era is evidenced by the numerous “murros,” or ancient rock-lined terraces, which still cover the hillsides of this area for as far as the eye can see. During this era, because water was scarce and wine was plentiful, the latter substituted the former not only as the normal accompaniment to a meal, but also as the common beverage to satisfy thirst. Indeed, wine was served with breakfast, on bread with sugar for children and produced in vast quantities in almost every cellar throughout the region.

A few hundred years after the Roman reign in Spain, the Muslims took over and the regular vast consumption of wine declined rapidly. The local market for wine decreased accordingly and people who resided within what is now known as Priorat were forced to turn to other agricultural crops to makes ends meet, where almonds, olives and hazelnuts replaced the vines on all but a few murros throughout the region. In 1153 the Muslim reign ended in Spain with one of their last stands in the north of the country occurring in town of Siurana. Siurana, which is located within the D.O. Montsant, is located on the highest and end-most point of the Montsant mountain range. It is here where the Queen of the Moors is rumored to have thrown herself to her death, ending the Moorish rule in the north of Spain.

In 1163 “La Cartoixa” was founded in the town of Scala Dei, spearheading a period of great prosperity throughout the region. During this second stage of wine production within Priorat/Montsant so much wine was produced that by the middle of the 14th century, more wine was exported than was consumed locally. Vine crops remained almost a monoculture and prosperity continued to fill the region until the introduction of phylloxera in 1879. With the invasion and spread of phylloxera the economic stability of the region wavered, then crashed, and there was nothing short of a mass exodus as the once prosperous culture, based solely on viticulture, had now come to an end. To show how dramatic this change really was: In 1887 the population of the “comarca” Priorat was listed as 27,958 inhabitants and the area was considered to be the 14th most populated region in all of Catalunya. Regular censuses have since been taken every 10 years or so and the highest population the region has since reached was 10,432 inhabitants in 1981.

Following the introduction of phylloxera the region remained quiet for several years then slowly but surely the people who stayed behind in their beloved Priorat replanted their land with vines and other agricultural products. “Granel,” or jug wine, was once again made in every cellar and every basement, and soon neighbors of the region began to trade their jugs and blend different varietals together. With time, these primitive wine making practices produced wines with such notoriety that in 1954 the comarca Priorat was labeled as an official “Denominación de Origen”(see definition below).

In 1974 the first winery to bottle wine in the D.O.Q. Priorat was opened in Scala Dei and the days when highly “oxidized and alcoholic wines were the rule,” soon came to an end. At the turning point year of 1974, our third stage in the evolution of wine production in Priorat/Montsant, the FAO published an extensive report that detailed the viticultural and potential economic attributes of the area. It was concluded that the area assembled all the conditions to produce one of the best wines in the world and people took notice. Based on this report, a group of young wine enthusiasts from outside the area set their eyes on this land and by “recalling authentic cooperativist attitudes inherited from the sixties, sharing ambitions and equipment, (they) decided to elaborate new and vigorous wines from both local and foreign grape varieties” (Dawes, G. The Wine News, 02/05). These young grape growers most notably were: Alvaro Palacios, Rene Barbier (of Clos Mogador), Josep Lluís Perez (of Mas Martinet) and Carles Pastrana (of Costers del Siurana/Clos de L’Obac) and Daphne Glorian (of Clos Erasmus).

With these five distinctive and quite powerful personalities forging the way, Priorat wines began to take on their own unique character and with the addition of a few French varietals blended in with the indigenous Cariñena and Garnacha; Priorat wines quickly increased in popularity and notoriety.

The definition of a D.O.Q/C and a D.O.
The comarca Priorat consists of two Denominación de Orígenes*: the D.O.Q. Priorat (which is one of only two D.O.Q.s in Spain, after the D.O.C. Rioja – the only difference is in the last letter where the word “Qualificada” is written in Catalan and “Calificada” in Spanish), and the D.O. Montsant. Priorat is geographically represented as a small circular body of land located in the center of the newer D.O. Montsant, created in 2001, and forms a ring around its more famous neighbor. The main distinction between the demarcation of a D.O.Q/C and a D.O. is that all grapes must be grown, vinified and bottled within a D.O.Q./C, but one may outsource grapes and/or bottle their wine in another region if it is only demarcated as a D.O.
*(The Denominación de Origen system is controlled by INDO – Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen. INDO, under the direction of The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, and administers the D.O. system for a broad range of agricultural products ranging from wine and olive oil, to cured hams and cheeses.)

The current status of the D.O.Q Priorat and it neighbor, the D.O. Montsant:

The capital of Priorat is the town of Falset, which is probably most famous for its “Bodega Cooperativa de Falset,” a modernist wine co-op built in 1919 by César Martinell, a student of the infamous Antonio Gaudí. Although Falset is considered to be the original “capital” of Priorat, all wines that are produced in Falset are released under the D.O. Montsant, due to the city’s geographical location. A typical wine from the D.O. Monsant primarily consists of the Catalan grape varieties Garnacha, Tempranillo and Cariñena; although Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also used as blending grapes within both Priorat and Montstant.

The D.O. Montsant was founded in 2001 and comprises of >4,700 acres of registered vineyards. While it is considerably larger than its interior neighbor (Priorat comprises of <4,000 acres), it does not have the steep slopes nor the distinct terroir of Priorat that is described in detail below. Montsant’s soil type is made up of a mixture of granitic sand, calcerous soil, large pebbles and shards of slate, which are found in varying amounts throughout the D.O. In addition, although it has a similar climate to Priorat, Montsant receives more annual sun exposure and is therefore less susceptible to the important micro-climates that spring up throughout the peaks and valleys of Priorat. It is important to note, however, that what Montsant lacks in terroir, it makes up for in old vines as it contains as many, if not more, of those low-production centurion vines that are so highly sought after in both wine producing regions.

To the trained or untrained eye, what immediately distinguishes Priorat from other grape-growing regions in the world is its soil type. Many believe the secret to Priorat’s success lies in its amazing compact, granite like soils, known to the Catalan people as “Llicorella” and to the rest of Spain as “pizarra.” The llicorella “soil” resembles vast stands of shale, intermixed with bits of reddish-brown earth, which is rather easy to break apart by hand, but which forces the roots of vines to dig deep, very deep, in search of water. The name “Llicorella” stems from the Catalan word for licorice and indeed the rocky substrate is black, somewhat shiny, high in mineral content and is said to contribute magnificently to quality wine production.

Another important aspect of the unique terroir of Priorat is its climate. The region is extremely arid as it receives hardly any rain whatsoever during the summer months. Irrigation is a very scarce practice as there is hardly any water available, and what is available is typically saved up for the youngest vines and the hottest years. So as one can imagine, with the steep slopes, shale-like earth and hardly any water, the annual production per acre is extremely low. This low production, of roughly 2-3 tons per acre, directly contributes on one hand to the characteristic wines of the region that are concentrated, have great tannins, are high in color and alcohol content (13.5-15%) and as some believe, are ready to drink even at a young age; and on the other hand, also helps to justify the high cost of Priorat wines, which typically are two to three times that of an average wine from the Napa Valley.

It should now be obvious that like many world-class wine regions, the secret of Priorat is its spectacular terroir. Hillside vineyards with poor soils and low yielding old vines are the key to this area’s success; but why has it taken so long for the potential of this region to be unlocked? The terroir has always been there, but the wines now are immeasurably better than they used to be. This is most likely due to the ambition and ability of the producers, coupled with a domestic and international market prepared to pay substantial prices for the best wines. These two co-dependent partners have in turn encouraged investment and quality-minded winemakers to not cut corners in the pursuit of producing the best wines the terroir can permit.

The wines of Priorat and Montsant:
Apart from the characteristic concentrated reds, various producers from the Priorat region are also making a surprising amount of interesting white wines from unusual grapes varieties such as Garnacha Blanca (White Grenache), Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez (the key player in Sherry country, used for “Amontillados” and “Olorosos”). Priorat white wines are also high in alcohol content and regularly reach 13.5-14%. They are often fermented in French oak, have deep golden colors, and are said to be “luscious, powerful, even oily, and cry out for food.” A few worth trying are: Mas d’en Compte “Blanc;” Costers del Siurana’s “Kyrie;” and La Conreria de Scala Dei’s “Nona.”

Apart from the reds and the whites, there is also a very peculiar wine made in both Priorat and Montstant called Vi Ranci, or “rancid wine.” This wine smells and looks like a port, however it is drier and much more tannic. Vi Ranci is typically used as a dessert wine and in cooking, and is aged in barrels at a higher than normal temperature to allow for a natural oxidation process to take place. A few to look out for are the Vi Ranci from the Cooperativa de Falset and Coster del Siurana’s “Dolç de L’Obac.”

Tasting notes on Priorat & Monstant wines:

Whites: made primarily from a blend of Macabeo and Garnach Blanca. Most are light to dark yellow in color, with fruit aromas and hints of mountain herbs. The mouth has Mediterranean characteristics: warm, with rustic notes.

Rosés: Perhaps the least characteristic of the region due to the warm climate that produces very ripe fruit rather fast. The rosés that do come out of the region typically reflect the notes of ripe fruit and also possess warm/rich tones, very unlike a typical rosé.

Reds: This is the star product of the region. Most are made from Garnacha and Cariñena, blended with different percentages of additional varieties brought in form outside the region. The wines are characterized by their intense dark cherry color, and almost look as though they have a thick consistency. The best wines have a very complex nose with notes of ripe fruit and characteristics of “terruño,” an influence from the pizzara soil which reflects the abundant mineral notes. In the mouth, the wines are very voluminous and have great structure. They are strong, meaty, warm and at the same time have a nice acid balance. They are markedly tannic and last for a long time on the palate and leave you yearning for more.

Rancios and sweet wines:
The sweet wines from this region have notes of almonds and mountain herbs. In the mouth they are warm, flavorful and possess a good oxidative evolution. They also are typically deep cherry in color and most are barrel aged. In the nose you will note dark fruit, and berries; in the mouth they are paradoxically pastoral, sweet and fruity, which is balanced by rather nice acidity.