The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Priorato – the best Garnacha in Spain ~ Saturday, February 4th, 2012
Home to some of the best wineries in Spain:
Listing Spanish winegrowing regions by fame, few would deny that Rioja, continuing to reinvent itself, retains top spot. Next on the list? Probably Ribera del Duero, home to two of the most prestigious wineries in the country, Vega Sicilia and Pingus. In both cases, the star grape is Tempranillo, the most famous, noblest red grape of Spain.
And then, there’s Priorat. Granted DOCa status in 2003, Priorat, or ‘Priorato’ as it is correctly spelled, arguably ranks third, some would even say second, on any list of Spanish winegrowing regions by fame. Located around 150 kilometres from Barcelona in the sun-scorched Mediterranean region of Catalonia (correctly spelled ‘Catalunya’), the speciality of Priorato is powerful, no-holds-barred Garnacha.
Like most other up-and-coming, or rediscovered, winegrowing regions, though vines have been planted in Priorato for well over eight hundred years, it is only relatively recently that great wine began to be made here. This occurred about twenty years ago, when René Barbier convinced a group of fellow winemakers in 1989 to produce five different ‘Clos,’ sourcing their grapes from only the finest, in some cases abandoned, sites surrounding the village of Gratallops, making their wine on the same premises in the village. The results were wines of unbelievable concentration, personality, and quality; and it was not before long that each winemaker set off on his own to start up his own individual bodega. The rest, as we say, is history.
Now for the specifics. Virtually surrounded by the Montsant DO, there are nowadays almost 1,800 hectares under vine (a far cry from its pre-phylloxera hectarage of 5,000), with approximately 70 bodegas in operation. The finest vines are planted are terraces between altitudes of roughly 100 to 800 metres—a key feature in producing the finest grapes possible. By sheer numbers, Cariñena (Carignan) still outnumbers Garnacha by far, though the best bottlings almost always feature the latter. These are usually planted on cooler, later ripening sites.
Of soil deposits, one of the most distinctive features of Priorat soils is the inclusion of a dark stripes of brown slate intermixed with quartzite, which glitters black and gold in the sun; in Catalan, this is called llicorella. As one would expect in such a hot, sunny climate, rainfall is minimal, but because Priorato’s soils are unusually cool and damp, vine roots usually dig deeper to absorb water and nutrients—another key component in the crafting of more complex, high quality wine.
For collectors, then, Priorato is nowadays home to some of the greatest wineries in Spain. The most costly is Alvaro Palacios’ L’Ermita, a single-vineyard wine of the same name, made predominantly from Garnacha (usually 80%) with a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cariñena, crafted from vines ranging from 60 to 100 years of age; it was first released in 1993.
Other gems? Think Mas Doix, Mas Martinent, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Cal Grau, and Cims de Porrera. Just so you know, not all of these are crafted primarily from Garnacha; many will be made from (very) old-vine Cariñena, and are not to be missed on any account.
So how should such wines taste? While I have encountered a few wines here and there that have tasted like richer versions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best examples from Priorato ought to have this intense figgy, ripe black fruit aromas and flavours about them, boasting slightly ‘roasted’ or ‘tarry’ Provençal notes, which continue on the palate and finish. Accompanying scents and flavours will invariably include leather, ‘thick’ black raspberries, kirsch, and spice—among other things. Moreover, the best wines, robust and textured to a point beyond flattery, will almost always possess extremely high levels of alcohol, reaching as high as 16.5% on occasion. Such blockbusters have the potential of keeping for several decades, sometimes more. Such are the hallmarks of great Priorato.