The fame of rediscovered Priorat, Spain’s second DOCa along with Rioja, has motivated some of the most expensive pricing for Spanish wines in only a short two decades. The tickets charged for some of these wines are as lofty as the stark pinnacles above these mountainous vineyards. Twenty years ago the area and its wines were mostly forgotten. In the early 1980s, perhaps inspired by some of the ferment outside of Rioja, a group of mavericks, including some from Rioja (René Barbier, Álvaro Palacios, Carlos Pastrana, Daphne Glorian, and José Lluís Pérez Verdú), moved to Priorat. Today, with Priorat pricing at astronomical levels, it’s hard to imagine that most people viewed their adventure into Priorat as pure spoiled–brat silliness. The pundits were very wrong. Barbier and his younger friends created fantastic wines almost from the beginning, and they continue to drive the region’s improvements, joined now by many other dedicated souls and a few large companies. Palacios, for one, has returned to his home territory of Rioja to implement some of his brilliant ideas.
Some have worried that this success has created a rush of less noble–minded producers and that the large companies that have moved in will compromise the image of the region. But as Álvaro Palacios is quick to point out, the region itself is so difficult to work that only small amounts of very high–quality wine can be made. Anyone seeking to make wine through compromise will likely move elsewhere. The quality in Priorat, and the prices, will remain high. Even today, there are large stretches of forgotten or lost vineyard, though where once over half of Priorat seemed abandoned, now it’s only an occasional spectacle.
Garnacha, at nearly 40 percent of the vineyard plantings, is the most widely planted grape, with Cariñena just barely behind. Most consider Cariñena a second–rate grape, but the old vines in this particular soil make for something special. There is great interest in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah in Priorat, and only Tempranillo seems to hold little promise and less interest here. It’s just too hot for that grape.
Historically, the wines of Priorat were sweet, hot, rancio–styled wines. The modern wines are powerful and warm, if not occasionally hot, and not at all oxidized. It’s as if the Port wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley (which shares some of this soil) has been fashioned into a dry and extremely impressive wine. A few producers are creating wines with the incipient sweetness of the older style; those too are meeting with acclaim. Priorat seems destined to stay at the top. The landscape is distinct; the mix of granite and slate called licorella adds a distinct mineral and stone note that underpins every wine, regardless of the grapes.
While white grapes might seem unlikely in this lunar landscape, Garnacha Blanca and others have done well. But the laws legislate against them: legally minimum alcohol levels of 13.75% to 18% do not encourage a lighter hand, nor are the ripeness levels of grapes at those alcohols likeliest to show freshness of fruit.
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