El Priorat DOQ (The Phoenix of Cataluña, Spain)
Story and Photos by Rhoda Stewart ©2016
My first taste of Priorat DOQ wines was in 2014, when I noticed some bottles of H & G Priorat DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qalificada) in the wine section of my local Whole Foods. Intrigued by the DOQ classification, the back label (which indicated that H & G wines are “hand-picked small lots of wine sourced from prized appellations”), the vintage date (2008), and the under $30 price, I bought a bottle. After decanting it for an hour, I took my first sip, and discovered a richly flavored and bold wine of deep garnet color that bewitched my senses and lingered on my palate. I was smitten! I wanted to know more about this Priorat DOQ. So I looked it up on Google, and found a description of the region together with a few photos. One image in particular captivated me, an image of a winery nestled at the base of the massive Montsant Mountains, dwarfed, in fact, by this startling band of beige-colored peaks overlooking steep slopes densely covered with low-growing bushes and a few terraced vineyards.
I felt a compelling need to visit that region.
Priorat was awarded DO (Denominació d’Origen) classification in 1954. In 2000, the Catalonian government ungraded this classification to DOQ, the Spanish central government in Madrid following suit in 2009 (DOCa in Spanish). Priorat is just the second wine region in Spain to be awarded the top classification DOQ, the other being Rioja.
(For more information on European wine classifications, please see my posting dated June 2015.
It wasn’t until mid-April 2016 that I was able to fulfil my wish to visit the region. After a 10 ½ hour flight from SFO to Charles De Gaulle Paris, connection to Barcelona, I found myself on a beautiful Monday morning departing Barcelona for Priorat DOQ accompanied by the Catalonian guide I had engaged to create an itinerary and be my driver for my one-week visit to the region.
A couple of fascinating stops along the way and we arrived at our destination of Falset, a village set in the Montsant mountains at the edge of the Priorat, as darkness was falling. Our hotel was in Old Town, reached by foot-bridge just across a dry river bed that ran along the edge of the modern down-town area.
The air was fresh, clean, and chilly enough to grab a cozy pullover and jacket from my bag before stepping back out with my guide to shop in an Old Town green grocers’ for fresh salad and tomatoes, some tuna, and a baguette, enough for a delicious supper in our third-floor kitchen suite.
Later, we enjoyed the view from our terrace of the village below and the darkening mountains surrounding us. I felt as if I had discovered a long lost and still unspoiled paradise.
My anticipation of my first venture into this enchanting wine region on the morrow was high. I was eager to discover just what was it about this region that enabled it to emerge so quickly (since about the 1990s) from relative obscurity to one of two premium wine regions of Spain. Why was Priorat a “prized appellation,” how were the vineyards farmed, how were the wines a reflection of the top classification of DOQ, and who were the people who brought all this together to produce a red wine worthy of the prestigious denominació, the best of which are today considered among the very best red wines of Spain? And why, according to my guide, were the indigenous Garnacha and Cariñena vines of Priorat for decades nearly “lost?”
My first glimpse next morning of the stunning beauty of the region momentarily made me forget about the wines. The roadsides were scattered with Western Europe’s indigenous red poppies;
meadows were filled with them, their brilliant scarlet petals sparkling in the sun like a Monet painting come alive.
And under the incredible Montsant mountain light, the terraced vineyards and olive orchards on the steep slopes of the valleys beneath the barren peaks looked like nature’s own amphitheater, enchanting my senses and eliciting repeated pleas to my guide to stop for photos.
Fortunately, the narrow, twisting road was sparsely travelled, which allowed him to safely stop the car here and there for a quick (thanks to auto-focus) shot. But we had a mid-morning appointment at a family-owned winery, Clos Figueras, in the vibrant village of Gratallops, so I had to forego many image opportunities— at least until later.
Clos Figueras is owned by British couple Christopher and Charlotte Cannan since 1997. Here would begin my introduction to the wines of the region, winemaking practices, and an understanding of the all-important contribution the unique soil imparted.
After a few minutes enjoying the views of the mountains and the valleys below from the lavender-scented patio, we were greeted by Gisela, the hospitality manager, and taken down a steep ladder into the small barrel room, formerly a large cistern. Here were 500-litre oak barriques, chosen to minimize the amount of contact the wine has with the wood.
The wines were made primarily from Garnacha (Grenache) “from vineyards planted on steep terraces overlooking the Montsant River valley,” and from 2,500 old vines of Garnacha and Cariñena, with some as old as 60 years. (From winery brochure) The winemaking practices sought to maintain the distinctive character of the region, using just enough oak to round out the body and flavors.
Back on the terrace, I was shown pieces of black llicorella (Catalan for “slate” or “schist”). Llicorella, of which there are several kinds, forms the basis of the soil of Priorat, and is unique to the region. This is the first and most important point I was to learn when seeking answers to the emerging success of the wines of el Priorat: it’s in the llorcella soil. And what an amazing soil it is!
The llicorella soil was produced beneath the sea that covered the region in the Paleozoic Era. It is a metamorphosed fractured slate containing crystalline quartz, and was formed from the extreme pressure exerted by two layered plates of limestone up to 50 kilometers below the earth’s crust, compacting clay deposits that had settled at the bottom of the sea from erosion of the ancient mountain sides. According to geologists, this soil formation was a rare occurrence, the clay soil first being compressed under extreme pressure while at the same time being heated to temperatures up to 900° Celsius from magma extrusions that metamorphosed the compressed slate. Such rocky schist, which glistens with quartzite crystals, provides one of the defining characteristics of Priorat terroir.
This happened hundreds of millions of years ago, and then millions of years later, after the sea had dried up, the llicorella, rich in minerals and metals from the shells and skeletons of sea creatures that formerly swam in the sea, was “floated” to the surface through subsequent tectonic plate movements, creating the mountainous topography that is today’s Priorat. This llicorella soil is unlike any other of Europe, according to geological experts, and is the last soil to emerge in Europe, a testimony to the strong geological convulsions of tectonic plates in procession that formed this region of mountains, great cliffs, a few small planes, and many rocks. It’s a land whose origins are as difficult to write about as the origins of the sun, claims Catalan author Ferran Mestres in his book, “El Curiós món dels vins del Priorat” (2012), and has been misunderstood by those living outside the region, who at one time regarded the region as a “mal pais” (bad country). (49,50)
Mestres was our hospitality host during our visit to Scala Dei Cellars, described below.
What isn’t a difficut to explain, however, is why llicorella is such an amazing soil, and so suitable to grape growing. There are two reasons: its capacity to absorb moisture through its fissures from the irregular rain fall, and then to retain this moisture, up to one-third of its volume, in the thin layers of clay trapped within the fissures, allowing the vines access to moisture during the driest months of the summers; and its capacity to trap heat of the Mediterranean sun during the day, then release it back at night, enabling the vines to continue the maturation of the grapes even during the nighttime.
And because the top soil of decomposed llicorella is thin, perhaps just 20 centimeters (8 inches) the vines are forced to send their roots deeply into the llorcella (some 20 meters in the oldest vineyards) through the fissures in search of the mineral-rich nutrients. This austere environment results in tiny vines with small crops (less than 2 kilos per vine, and as little as 200 to 300 grams for the oldest vines) of intense flavors and complex character, or, as Mestres writes, “Poderiem dir doncs que al Priorat hi ha un rendiment molt baix de raīm peró alhora un raīm de molt bona qualitat.” (56) (Transl. RS: “One is able to say, therefore, that the Priorat produces few grapes but of very good/high quality.”)
From Clos Figueras, our next stop was Scala Dei Cellars, where I met Ferran Mestres.
Scala Dei Cellars, which today occupies portions of a 12th century Carthusian monastery, is an impressive winery, as are its authentic wines. Here, I was to learn more of the history of this captivating region, and why is it called “El Priorat.” The following is my translation and summation from Mestres book (which is in Catalan). It also contains details from Wikipedia.
The region has a winemaking history stretching back to the Middle Ages, when monks of La Cartoixa D’Escaladei (the “Staircase to God” Carthusian monastery) began making wine for Mass. This was the first Carthusian order founded in Spain. The leader was called a prior, and ruled over his territory (his priorat), thus the name for the region. The monks planted Garnacha grapes and made wine from the 12th century until 1835, when the Spanish prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, under Queen Isabel II of Spain, issued a set of decrees (called desamortització) that resulted in the monastic properties being expropriated and privatized, and redistributed to nobles and merchants wealthy enough to afford the purchase (“noblesa i burgeses amb capital sufficient to acquirer , , , Mestres, 40)
Escala Dia monastery and vineyards were acquired at that time by five families who set up Societat Agricola l’Unió, and in 1878 bottled the first Priorat wine, which was presented at the Paris World’s Fair.
The vineyards flourished until phylloxera arrived in the late 1800s, effectively ruining Priorat’s wine industry, and costing many families of the region their patrimony. It was not until the 1950s that vast swaths of land were again devoted to vineyards, and the wines of Priorat again began to appear.
In 1974, Societat Agricola l’Unió was re-founded, the Scala Dei winery operation resumed, housed in what were the monastery’s stables; the barrel room in the cellar of the 17th century Charthouse.
Shortly thereafter, Scala Dei produced the first numbered and bottled Priorat wine in the modern era.
The wine was of the quality of the great wines of Bordeaux and Rioja, but was made 100% from Priorat’s indigenous Garnacha grapes gathered from the best of Scala Dei’s estate hillside vineyards, which included some of the oldest vines in Priorat. Traditional wine-making techniques of Priorat were applied. The result was “a vi potent, explosiu i tànic, típicament prioratí.” (Mestres 65)
With this bottling, Scala Dei had moved to the forefront of a trend away from the region’s traditional, dark, intense and fairly alcoholic wines to a more balanced and elegant, yet full-flavored, style of Priorat wines.
During my visit to Scala Dei, Mestres emphasized the small stainless steel tanks today used for “microvinification” of grapes, “vineyard by vineyard” for its 60 separate vineyards.
The vineyards range in altitude from 100 meters to 700 meters, and grow in several soil types of the region. The vines are up to 80 years old, and yield about 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of intensely flavored grapes/vine. The wines are fermented with extra yeast and allowed a short maceration (8 – 20 days) to control oxidation. Blending takes place after fermentation. At the end of maceration, the wines are put into 500 – 1400-litre barriques for 7 – 15 months, to preserve the complexity and delicacy of the Garnacha grapes. The trend is away from 225-liter barriques.
Mestres explained that the region, generally, and Scala Dei Cellars in particular, is turning more towards its traditional grapes and “character wines,” that is, making wines that respect the grapes (primarily Garnacha and Cariñena), and preserve the character of the soil. “We are coming back to the land,” said Mestres, and are looking more to the “traditional ways of vinifying the traditional grapes of our region.” He cited three elements in achieving this goal: using the traditional grapes of the region (Garnacha and Cariñena); fermenting Garnacha with stems, and ageing the wines in 500- to 1400-liter barriques.
In 2000, Grupo Codorniu assumed the management of Scala Dei’s vineyards and winery, employing modern techniques and state-of-the-art equipment.
The early success of Scala Dei winery were augmented by the now famous producers Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier, who brought wine practices from France’s best regions to Priorat in the 1990s, where they planted vineyards and built their wineries in their efforts to make their mark and establish their names in this emerging DOQ region. The elegant rich reds made by these producers were part of the 1990s revolution that built upon the early success of Scala Dei, revitalizing the region and helping to bring Priorat wines out of the darkness that followed the devastation of phylloxera in the 1890s and to establish Priorat as Spain’s second DOQ region.
My guide also took me to a lovely historic family winery Sangenis I Vaque.
Owned by the family with two daughters, this small winery (16,000 bottles) is finding a balance between the more traditional winemaking practices favored by the father and the younger daughter (Nuria Sangenise) and the newer methodology favored by the elder, university-educated daughter, Maria, which includes using 225-liter French oak barriques by Taransaud tonnellerie, rather than joining the trend to 500-liter and larger oak barriques.
The wines are made from Garnacha and Cariñena, and are corked with a natural Catalonian-grown cork. Nuria Sangenis, who provided us with a tour of the little winery and a beautiful tasting of their 7 Priorat wines, explained that their wines are neither fined nor filtered. “Wine is alive,” she said.
After fermentation in small stainless steel tanks, the wines are aged 225-liter French oak barriques, from 15% to 100% new, for about 14 months, and one year in 2-year American oak barriques. When fermentation and oak-barrel ageing are complete, the wines are bottle-aged 6 years before release, a costly practice. “We are not money-oriented,” she said.
Sangenis I Vaque family began planting vines in 1978, but the land has been in the Sangenis family, on the maternal side, since 1700. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the daughters joined in the winery operation, the family deciding that the new recognition of the Priorat region and its wines indicated that it was timely to begin investing in their vineyards and their wines. “We are proud of our wines, which are made to age, and we believe that our wines deserve to sell for much more.” said Nuria. With their wines now being sought after by wine buyers as distant as the independent wine stores in Alberta, Canada, there is no question that the family will soon see the deserved increase in market value placed on their wines.
My last winery visit was to the modern facility Buil I Giné.
Situated on a hilltop with panoramic views of its vineyards below and of the region around, including of all the local villages, Buil & Giné produces white, red, and sweet wines from both the Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ regions. The dry red wines, produced primarily from Cariñena and Garnacha, are aged in both French and American oak, some of it new, for up to 12 months, the sweet wines for 14 months. The wines are then bottle-aged at the facility. Our visit concluded with a tasting of both Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ wines. A favorite of mine and of my guide was the 2012 Montsant DO Baboix Negre, produced from Garnacha and Cariñena and small amount of Tempranillo, and aged 6 months in American oak casks. Giné Giné , DOQ Priorat, produced from old vine Garnacha and Cariñena, and without oak ageing, is readily available in California markets for under $20. It is among my locally available favorites.
The best of Priorat wines today are considered some of the best wines coming out of Spain, and also among the most expensive, relatively speaking. Because of the rugged terrain, all care of the vineyards and harvest of the grapes are done by hand, and the yield is small. Many of the producers also believe in the costly practice of bottle-ageing their wines for a few years to ensure they are ready to drink when released. The interest, globally, that Priorat DOQ wines are beginning to generate suggest that wine lovers are recognizing the value for Euro for these amazing wines. The returns are beginning to compensate the quality of the wines, and to recognize the work it takes to produce them. For these producers, who have stood by their tiny (4,151 acres) region and their nearly lost patrimony during “El Trist Segle XX” (Mestres 46), the sad century of little profit and much hard work, the improving returns are a just and timely reward, providing money for investment in their prized region, for new vineyards, new barrels, bottle ageing facilities, and more.
Too soon Saturday morning arrived; my lovely week in this beautiful and enchanting region had come to an end. As I packed up my things, I felt exhilarated and spiritually rejuvenated. Yet there was also an underlying tinge of wistfulness. It had been a great, if slightly bitter-sweet, experience. But given the intensity of the connection I had felt for the region long before visiting, it could not have been otherwise.
I had discovered what I had come to find out: what it is that makes the wines of Priorat worthy of the DOQ classification: It begins, as it does with all great wines, in the soil of the vineyards. In the vineyards of Priorat DOQ, the soil, that “piece of ground the vines grow in, is llicorella.
But the amazing wines are not the only memorable experiences this spectacular wine region offers. The magnificent Montsant Mountain range that embraces it and its convoluted terrain offers an ancient and still pristine paradise of great mysteries, untouched wilderness, and breathtaking vistas.
Hard to fathom, at times, how in the midst of all this history, culture, and spectacular natural beauty has been established one of Spain’s two DOQ wine regions.
Yet it is there, and will be for at least another millennium or two. And in the rich and robust wines of Priorat DOQ one may savor (I’m sure I did), in the aromas and flavors of the Garnacha and Cariñena, the smell and taste not just of the wine but also of the history, culture, and incredible beauty of the Priorat/Montsant region.
A few of my favorites from Priorat DOQ:
• Scala Dei – Cartoixa 2012 – A full-bodied “authentic” Priorat red wine. My personal favorite. About €40.
• Sangenis I Vaque – Clos Monlleó 2007 (made from 80-year vineyard), 50/50 Garnacha and Cariñena, is aged in new French oak barriques for 2 years, then bottle-aged 6 – 7 years. Will develop for an additional 10 years.
• Alvaro Palacios – Les Terrases – 2012 – An elegant style, smooth, like velvet. Reflects Palacios’ Bordeaux experiences. About €45.