by Victor de la Serna

Priorat: from tradition to hi-tech to terroir

When the International Wine Academy, the august Geneva-based institution, first visited Catalonia two decades ago, its members didn’t make it to Priorat: the roads were bad in 1994, accommodation almost non-existent, and even if the wines had begun making a comeback, they were considered little more than a sideshow. But these wines did get tasted on the last day of a trek across parts of France and Spain that had taken the keepers of the sacred flame of wine traditions south from Banyuls. And right there, in a bare room at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, the first academic discussions on what Priorat should or shouldn’t be like took place. The discussions are still going on today.

Alvaro PalaciosThe scene was quite animated. Academy members tasted with great interest the powerful, mineral, wild herb-infused reds. Josh Jensen, of Calera, smilingly advised Alvaro Palacios, the twenty-something winemaker who led the tasting with much enthusiasm and energy, to get rid of even the loosest wine filters he might keep in his cellar, “because if you don’t have one, you won’t feel the temptation to use it.” In a corner, Serena Sutcliffe intently listened to the explanations given by José Luis Pérez, a small, wiry, older oenologist who was the technical guru leading the small band of pioneers who had revolutionized the region five years earlier.

Most academicians loved the wines. But some, particularly older French members who had known the traditional, high-alcohol Priorat wines made in an oxidative, ‘rancio’ style, weren’t entirely happy.

“Those traditional wines had personality,” explained Dr. André Parcé, the magician of Banyuls fortified wines. “They were Mediterranean and expansive, like red dry sherries. These new ones are more technical, more international. And I’m not sure about this idea of including cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the blends…”

Scala DeiThose traditionalists were being nostalgic for what, essentially, had hardly existed since the heyday of Priorat’s wines, centuries ago, and particularly since the area became deserted after phylloxera ruined vinegrowers early in the 20th century – except for tiny, residual productions of bottled reds by the existing wineries such as De Muller or Scala Dei. The latter had been built 20 years earlier on the site of what was once the first Carthusian monastery on the Iberian Peninsula, founded in the mid-12th century as part of the long, slow Christian reconquest after the Muslim invasion 400 years earlier.

It’s all old history indeed, but the Priorat, like Burgundy, is one wine producing region you cannot understand unless you go back, however briefly, to the Middle Ages and the monastic orders.

Monasteries were bulwarks in the strategy by the Iberian kings, as they advanced from north to south, to establish farming communities and small towns in territories captured from Muslim rulers. Most often, monastic orders were called in from France to build the new abbeys. Sometime between 1163 and 1194 (there are conflicting dates, and no documents to buttress them), King Alfonso II of Aragón brought the Carthusians from Provence to a remote, wild and isolated mountainous area of southern Catalonia that had been attracting hermits and assorted holy men for many centuries.

Coster de vinyaThe Carthusians, who would become famous for the celebrated Chartreuse liqueur rather than for wine, were no doubt as adept at viticulture as the famous Benedictine and Cistercian monks were in Burgundy. The king gave them feudal rights over seven villages in the mountains lands surrounding their small abbey, and the land became known, by extension, as Priorato (or Priorat, in Catalan), i.e. the Priory.

There is precious little flat land in the region, and grapes are the best possible crop on those precipitous slopes that make it one of the world’s most “vertical” wine regions with the such of Portugal’s Douro, Austria’s Wachau or Germany’s Mosel and Middle Rhine. The monks probably grew the grapes themselves and, as vine growing had become mostly a lost art during the Muslim period, also instructed peasants, who in turn paid their dues to them in grapes.

There is no written account on the early development of viticulture in Priorat – and we do know there had been an even older tradition there, since the wines from the Tarraconensis had been celebrated in imperial Rome – and only a few local tales remain. For instance, that of the monks prohibiting harvesting before the day of their patron saint, Saint Bruno, which is Oct. 6, would explain the ripeness and high alcohol levels reached.

La Vilella AltaAlso, the monks’ interest in the famed ‘llicorella’ soils of decomposed brown slate is apparent even today, as some of the large granite boulders which they placed at the exact limit of those soils are still in place. (They mark the boundaries of the modern Priorat appellation too, justifying its claim to be one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions.) Slate makes for very warm vineyard soils as it retains the sun’s heat at night, again ensuring high alcohol levels.

Why would the Carthusians so obviously favour high ripeness and sugar? On one side, there’s the different perception of wine centuries ago, as it was part of the everyday diet and expected to provide calories for physical, manual jobs. Then there are historic circumstances which may or may not have played a role – in particular, the Little Ice Age that Europe endured since the 14th century until well into the 19th century, which could have put a premium on warmer soils for viticulture.

The 19th century saw the fast decline of Priorat: many workers moved to the silver mines nearby, and then the scourges of oidium and phylloxera destroyed the vineyards, which had reached some 6,000 hectares at the end of the 18th century. The population dwindled and its vinous fame became a distant memory.

René BarbierFast forward to the late 1970s, when René Barbier and Carles Pastrana, two young local growers, started replanting vines around Gratallops and were joined over the next decade by a bunch of youngsters from many places who heard of the project, plus a veteran oenology professor, José Luis Pérez, who would mastermind some of the collective decisions, such as the importation of French varieties. The region’s vineyard area then was just 800 hectares.

There were 10 participants in the early project and in the communal, inaugural 1989 vinification (just one wine, made in Pastrana’s facility, but sold under several labels). There was one Briton, Adrian Garsed (Clos Garsed), and one Belgian, Luc van Iseghem (Clos dels Llops), who died young. His vineyard lives on as Barbier’s Manyetes. Several have been forgotten, but five have reached international fame: Barbier (Clos Mogador), Pastrana (Clos de l’Obac), Pérez (Mas Martinet), the Swiss-French Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) and Alvaro Palacios, last to join and first to become known worldwide.

Pérez, the endearing man from Valencia who had once emigrated to Switzerland and paid for his chemistry studies there with jobs such as taxi driver and hairdresser, was teaching oenology in Falset (and later in Tarragona). None of his younger friends had much winemaking experience, so he provided a large part of the technical input as to how to bring back Priorat in a style that would be acceptable in modern times – no 18% alcohol levels, no ‘rancio’ oxidative style. The chosen formula was very much in the style of the 1980s – technically correct, à la Bordeaux University.

Coster a la Vilella BaixaAfter the celebrated but flawed 1989 vintage (early harvest due to the obsession with alcohol levels, and clear signs of a lack of ripeness in the wine), events speeded up as the pioneers moved their separate ways and began making spectacular, increasingly powerful and extracted wines. That part of the story is well-known, and it includes a few 100-point scores by Robert Parker.

But after a decade the first signs of fatigue appeared. The longevity of the wines was debated as tastings of past vintages showed a fast evolution in some of them. Also, their high prices and increasingly high alcohol and extraction slowed them down in restaurants and shops. Tastes were changing.

Since 2000, the 1989 pioneers and a bunch of gifted newcomers have been making changes, some of them of great import, that are not so well known as the previous events but seem certain to transform the face of Priorat wines once again. The new direction would have pleased Dr. Parcé, even if it wasn’t a return to ‘rancio’: the buzzwords now are terroir and carignan (call it cariñena, caranyana, crusilló or mazuelo but, please, not the absurd ‘samsó’ concocted by the Catalan viticultural authorities).

A better knowledge of the soils and of the performance by grape varieties has led to a reappraisal of their roles. The only French variety still growing in surface, albeit very little, is syrah, as its compatibility with grenache and carignan in this climate is evident.

Dominik HuberThe grenache-‘llicorella’ association is viewed with less enthusiasm in the light of climate change, as it tends to produce alcoholic, overpowering wines unless from cooler sites such as Palacios’ northeast-facing L’Ermita vineyard. But L’Ermita’s top competitor among grenache varietals in the region, Dominik Huber’s Les Manyes, comes from a site with no ‘llicorella’.

At the same time, the early disdain for carignan has been replaced by a growing infatuation with it. The pioneers had little use for what was considered as a rustic variety with dubious aging potential that was largely introduced after phylloxera. Palacios only used some bought-in carignan grapes for his least expensive wine, Les Terrasses.

Coster a PorreraBut growers in the northern half of Priorat, around Porrera and Poboleda, where the grape is more abundant than grenache, discovered the austere elegance of which old-vines carignan from the ‘costers’ (non-terraced hillside vineyards) is capable and became enamoured with it. Some of them now want only carignan in their top wines. A North-South divide, carignan vs. grenache, is developing – somewhat like the Left Bank-Right Bank divide, cabernet sauvignon vs. merlot, in Bordeaux. It all makes for a richer, more diverse wine landscape.

Fredi 'Fresquito' TorresNot coincidentally, a move to fresher wines, somewhat earlier harvesting, less emphatic extraction (45-day macerations were once usual at Clos Mogador) and larger barrels with less new oak has been taking place as drinkability and terroir expression moved to the fore. Huber, who incorporated Eben Sadie’s Dits del Terra project into his Terroir al Lìmit, has been one of the leaders in the movement, with such other newcomers as Fredi ‘Fresquito’ Torres, the Swiss-Spanish hermit of Saó del Coster, or Joseph Puig, once Miguel Torres’ export manager, with his oenologist daughter Silvia. But the evolution of the famed pioneers is also obvious – proof that experience is a needed factor. The change towards more elegance and subtlety in Palacios’ wines with the 2008 vintage has been striking.

There are now almost 200 wineries and 2,800 hectares under vines in Priorat. The expensive monuments are fine, but so are in their price range some modest, 10 euro wines like Les Cousins Marc & Adriá’s L’Inconscient or Meritxell Pallejà’s Nita. Local expressions are on the rise with the new Burgundy-inspired village appellations. It’s so much more interesting than at any time in the past!

Top 10 pre-2000 Priorat producers

  1. Alvaro Palacios
  2. Clos Mogador
  3. Clos Erasmus
  4. Vall Llach
  5. Mas Martinet
  6. Mas Doix
  7. Clos de l’Obac
  8. Mas d’en Gil
  9. Cims de Porrera
  10. La Conreria d’Scala Dei

Top 10 post-2000 Priorat producers

  1. Terroir al Lìmit
  2. Coster del Saó
  3. Mas Alta
  4. Viñedos de Ithaca/Joseph Puig
  5. Combier-Fischer-Gérin
  6. Familia Nin Ortiz
  7. Les Cousins Marc & Adriá
  8. Portal del Priorat
  9. Miguel Torres
  10. Ferrer Bobet

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