by Tim Atkin

Land of Plenty

There can’t be many people who would pay £410 for a bottle of red wine. Even by the silly-money standards of Bordeaux, that’s a huge amount of dosh. But pay it some do. The wine in question is L’Ermita, which vies with Pingus from Ribera del Duero as Spain’s most expensive tinto, and is sourced from a steep, 70-year-old patch of Garnacha vines in the staunchly Catalan region of Priorat.

If you had told a local grape grower 20 years ago that a wine from this wild, isolated, poverty-affected corner of Spain would fetch such a sum in 2009, he would have died of shock, or possibly laughter. In 1989, Priorat appeared to be in terminal decline, a once famous wine region that had seen thousands of better days.

What saved it was a bizarre cuvée of eccentrics, misfits, refugees and academics, who set up a tiny cellar in the village of Gratallops as a low-tech co-operative project. At the start, they made a single wine, selling it under different labels to different markets. To their amusement, various wine critics claimed to prefer some wines to others, despite the fact that they were identical.

Those modern-day pioneers were on to something. Priorat, an area that was first developed by Carthusian monks in the 12th century, had and still has a number of things going for it: cool nights, old vines, naturally low yields and a schistous bedrock known as licorella. Taken together, these produce a wine style that is unique. The best Priorats often have 14.5% alcohol or more, but they are remarkably fresh and well balanced, showing masses of what we wine writers call “minerality”.

Priorat is a small wine region, with only 5,000 acres under vine. But in its way it’s as diverse and complex as Burgundy: altitude, aspect, the quantity and depth of licorella and the mix of grape varieties (Garnacha, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are all grown here) all have a marked impact on style. Wines from Gratallops and Porrera can be totally different, which is why the local authorities are about to allow the 11 villages within the denominación to use their names on labels, just as Burgundy can distinguish between, say, Volnay and Pommard.

The thing that puts a lot of people off Priorat is price. There’s no denying that they are expensive to produce, or that they are in relatively scarce supply, but there’s more than a smidgeon of hype, too, part of it fuelled by wine journalists. The success of L’Ermita has encouraged other wineries to hike their prices.

If you like Priorat as much as I do (it makes some of my favourite Spanish reds, which age as well if not better than a lot of Riojas and Ribera del Dueros) you might want to sample the cheaper wines from neighbouring Montsant, which surrounds it on three sides and has some, but not as much, licorella of its own. Try the youthful, gluggable 2008 Celler El Masroig, Sola Fred, Montsant (£7.85, Indigo Wine, 020 7733 8391; Noel Young Wines, 01223 566 744).

Three wines under £20, all of which offer the genuine Priorat experience, are the assertive, vigorous 2006 Les Mines, Bellmunt del Priorat (£12.99, 15%, Marks & Spencer), the intense, darkly coloured, blackberryish 2007 Pasanau, Ceps Nous, Priorat (£13.99, 14.5%, The Sampler, 020 7226 9500) and the inky, powerful, dense yet refreshing 2006 Torres Perpetual Priorat (£18.99, 15%, Noel Young Wines), which won a trophy in the recent New Wave Spanish Wine Awards.

And what of those Gratallops pioneers? Well, a number of them are still flourishing and making some of Spain’s greatest wines. René Barbier’s 2006 Clos Mogador Priorat (£34.50, 14.5%, Georges Barbier, 020 8852 5801) is a complex, herby, plum and prune-like red with Italianate acidity, while Alvaro Palacios’s brooding, minerally 2006 Finca Dofi, Alvaro Palacios, Priorat (£45.95, Berry Brothers, 0800 280 2440) is a stunning wine. It’s also £364.05 cheaper than L’Ermita.)

Originally published in the Observer.

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