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Priorat: Where Seeing Isn't Quite Believing
By Michael Franz
Nov 22, 2011
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Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying:  “Just as great art arises from suffering artists, great wine stems from suffering vines.”  Old sayings often prove true, but sometimes they turn out to be nonsense, so it’s wise to subject them to examination.  If you want to put this one to the test, there’s no doubt that the best place to do it is in the astonishing Spanish region of Priorat.

I’d have a tough time telling you what was the best wine I tasted in 2011, but I could tell you in an instant what was the most remarkable place I saw, and this year’s trip was my fourth to Priorat.  This brings to mind yet another old saying, “Seeing is believing,” which I now suspect is nonsense since I’ve seen Priorat four times but still can’t believe it.

If you want to just how miserably a vine can suffer, I can give you a couple examples of places from which to look within Priorat.

First, have a look from anywhere near the top of the phenomenally steep L'Ermita vineyard from which Alvaro Palacios conjures the celebrated wine bearing the site's name.  You'll see gnarled, windblown Garnacha vines that were planted some 70 years ago, and these vines cannot possibly be pleased with their circumstances.

It seems that they cling to the site only because someone went through the unbelievably arduous effort of carving terraces into the hillside and stacking the displaced slate into retaining walls.  Each vine is pinned in place by a spike on a little flat spot on one of these terraces, but the overall impression lent by the place has nothing to do with flatness.  You get the idea that nobody working in the vineyard gets to make more than one mistake.  Any misstep would be fatal.  Either you'd plummet to the bottom of a ravine or be impaled along the way by one of the stakes.  Take your pick.

The soil barely deserves that name, being nothing but crumbled rock with no apparent nutrients.  Not one of my four visits has provided a shred of evidence that it ever rains in Priorat, and in fact the region routinely goes for months without receiving any appreciable rain.  There’s no system for irrigating the vines, which, to any layman's eye, should therefore be quite dead.  But it turns out that the strata of slate have little layers of powdered clay between them, and that these retain just enough moisture to let very tenacious vines survive if they are meticulously tended.

There was one guy tending them on the day of my first visit to this vineyard five years ago, but I couldn't get a good look at him.  He was working only 150 feet in front of me, but about 500 feet down, and he was wearing a big straw hat to avoid being scorched by the sun.  Also, as he was tilling the "soil," he was trailing a mule.  A tractor wouldn't have a prayer in this vineyard.  I got a better look at him this year, or maybe at his successor--though I shrink from the thought of what might have happened to the guy I saw in 2006.

After standing on a precipice in this vineyard for a few minutes, you'd get the idea behind what’s in a bottle of L’Ermita.  If one were willing to endure the rigors of this sort of viticulture, there's not much doubt about what you'd yield:  Very little fruit that would be exceedingly concentrated and intensely mineral in character.  And you'd need to sell it for a lot of money or you'd go broke in a hurry.

A quick check on the web as I write this shows the lowest asking price for L’Ermita 2008 in the USA is $652.50.  You don’t want to know about the highest price, so I’ll spare you that detail and promise that I’ll close this column with recommendations of more affordable wines that will help you get a grip on Priorat.

A second suggestion for those wanting additional insight into Priorat’s uniqueness is take a walk through the town of Porrera before heading up to the vineyards in the heights above.  The town itself is among few in the region that has maintained a population of any size after the successive ravages of phylloxera, civil war and urbanization that have racked the region during the past century.  Checking in with a population of about 500, Porrera is a veritable boom town by Priorat standards, edging out wine villages like Capçanes by several dozen heads and Gratallops by a couple hundred.

Porrera is at once impressive and sad, looking somewhat hollowed out from a past period of prosperity but still formidable in its forbidding setting.  On account of its fierce resistance during the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent fascist repression of Catalonia, the town holds a reputation as one of the most rebellious places in the entire province.  And though the political situation vis-à-vis Madrid is now much less volatile than it was 35 years ago, you can still sense a vague sort of defiance in the place and its people.  Those who have stayed to farm in the area have a certain toughness about them, and when you head up into the vineyards, you learn where it comes from.

I’ll never forget a walk (more like a climb) that I took up from Porrera during my first visit with a few friends and a host from Celler Vall Llach, an excellent producer that has been releasing renaissance Priorat wines for the past 20 years.  Vall Llach draws its fruit from many trossos that it has purchased, which are small, old estate plots with very old Garnacha and Cariñena vines with 60 to 90 years of age.  They buy some high-quality fruit as well, but the core of the wines stems from the efforts of those who tend Vall Llach's tortured-looking vines.

Having visited more than 1,000 wine estates around the world, I've seen some tough vineyard conditions, but I cannot understand how it is possible for a vine even to survive on the seemingly sheer face of a Priorat hillside composed entirely of crumbled rock.

One vine in particular commanded my admiration.  It was clinging to a little outcropping that afforded it a toehold against the force of gravity but no room to sink a root in search of water or nutrients.  This vine apparently managed to survive by extending a taproot out along the exposed surface of rock for a full 15 feet before finding a crack into which it could burrow for a little sustenance.  How the plant survived long enough to accomplish this feat is entirely beyond my comprehension.

Seeing such conditions at mid-slope from the road made me wonder what things were like at the top.  Fueled by a just-consumed thermos of coffee but sorely lacking in prudence, I scrambled up the slope as best I could--which was not very well.  I'd estimate the angle of the hillside at 50 degrees, and, while climbing, I found it very difficult to tell how firm the footing would prove beneath any particular step in the thoroughly decomposed slate.  It was solid at one point but lethally loose within another foot.  The appropriate footwear for this ascent would be some sort of cross between a rock-climbing slipper and a snowshoe, if you can imagine such a thing.

At the crest, there was nothing to be found except an assortment of vines, mostly very old but a few quite young, arrayed in no discernable pattern.  There was no evidence of life on the ground aside from the vines, and I couldn't figure out whether the absence of weeds was attributable to fastidious viticulture--or good sense on the part of weeds.

Even insects were strangely absent, and though I was buzzed by a couple of birds, they seemed not to be feeding, but rather trying to figure out what the hell I was doing in such a forbidding place.

In this environment, the survival of the old vines seemed amazing, but the ability of the young ones to establish themselves without irrigation struck me as downright miraculous.  As I started to wonder what their attrition rate might be, the prospect of becoming a casualty myself sent me on my way back down through the slippery slate.  This could only be accomplished by zig-zagging slowly at a very shallow angle, rather like a petrified skier who has bumbled onto a mogul run that exceeds his capabilities.

Once I had managed to escape from this vineyard, where every step could be one’s last, I wondered what those who work in it would think if they were to see the lush vines that luxuriate on the valley floor in Napa.  Would they laugh?  Cry?  Demand a raise?  Relocate?

Vines suffer in Priorat, but so too do vintners, judging by my experience.  That fact helps to explain a paradox:  Priorat is a place where one can make a wine to sell for $650 per bottle, and yet almost nobody lives there.

I think I can understand this by reflecting back on that slope above Porrera and the guy working behind the horse on the slopes of L'Ermita.  It also helps to recall that beautiful, bustling Barcelona offers lots of good jobs only 75 miles away, and that the gorgeous beaches along the Mediterranean are closer still, with plenty of nice jobs in hotels and restaurants.  By contrast, the name of the town nearest to the L'Ermita vineyard, Gratallops, literally means, "where the wolves are howling," in reference to the harshness of conditions in Priorat.  It is one of the most striking wine regions I've ever seen, and I strongly recommend that you see it if you can.  But see it as a visitor, and be grateful that someone else will still be working there after you leave.

* * *

Current Releases from Priorat:

Each of the wines noted below was tasted in Spain in late May of 2011.  The wines were not tasted blind (unfortunately), but they were tasted in close succession over the course of two days.  In order to avoid influence or distraction, I made a point of avoiding conversations with winemakers or proprietors until I had worked through all of the wines, and am quite confident about the accuracy of my scoring.  Brief notes on the top wines appear in alphabetical order:

Alvaro Palacios “Camins del Priorat” 2009:  Made from 60% Cariñena and 40% Garnacha, this is fruity and floral and thoroughly charming, with soft, sweet berry and cherry fruit that firms up with plenty of tannin in the finish.  90

Alvaro Palacios “Les Terraces” 2009:  Rich and soft and succulent, this nevertheless hides lots of fine-grained tannin beneath its sweet, supple fruit.  On reflection is also shows admirable acidity and freshness that is initially obscured by the deep fruit and soft texture.  91

Alvaro Palacios “Gratallops” 2009:  Darker fruit tones and more masculine structure set this off from the “Les Terraces” 2009, with interesting aromas of damp earth lending complexity to the core of dark cherry-flavored fruit.  92

Alvaro Palacios “Finca Dofi” 2009:  Built from 70% Garnacha and 15% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, this is a supremely sexy wine with vivid, pure black cherry fruit and interesting floral topnotes.  There’s lots of tannin and lots of fancy oak, but they are slathered in so much sweet fruit that there’s nothing forbidding about the wine even at this early stage in its development.  94

Casa Gran del Siurana “Cruor” 2006:  A blend of 30% Grenache, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 15% Syrah and 10% Monastrell, this shows lots of toast and spice from new oak, but has plenty of fruit to counterbalance it.  Complex and convincing.  91

Casa Gran del Siurana “Cruor” 2007:  In this vintage the blend was 30% Garnacha, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah, 10% Cariñena and 10% Merlot.  Although I rated it with the same score as its stablemate from 2006, it earned it for utterly different reasons, showing wonderful tenderness and soft, deep flavors rather than the interplay of muscular fruit and assertive oak in the 2006.  91

Casa Gran del Siurana “Gran Cruor” 2007:  This is certainly and internationally-styled “statement” wine, as it is made from 90% Syrah and 10% Cariñena and aged for 18 months in all-new Allier oak.  Predictably spicy and smoky in light of the wood regimen, the wine nevertheless shows lots of rich, mouth-coating fruit that is soft and succulent through the mid-palate before the grape and wood tannin conspire to firm up the finish.  This isn’t my ideal bottle of Priorat, but it is impossible to fault on its merits.  92

Cellers Ripoll Sans “Closa Batllet” 2005:  Made entirely from Cariñena sourced from two vineyards, this shows admirably complex aromas with plenty of primary fruit to indicate that the wine still has years of development ahead of it.  92

Cims de Porrera “Solanes” 2006:  Floral notes and unusually tender texture make this stand out from the crowd, and though it is made from young vines, it finishes with plenty of tannic grip.  90

Cims de Porrera “Classic” Garnatxa 2006:  This big, deeply flavored wine is crafted entirely from Garnatxa, which is Catalan for Garnacha.  The fruit is so intense and powerful that it pushes right through the wood and tannin, showing mostly red notes but some dark tones as well.  91

Cims de Porrera “Classic” Cariñena 2006:  Meaty and muscular, with intense black fruit and lots of grippy tannin, this will likely improve for more than a decade but is already very striking.  92

Clos Figueras “Font de la Figuera” 2008:  Deep flavors show very ripe fruit and soft texture, but also a layered complexity that is very impressive.  92

Clos Figueras 2007:  Still firm and a bit oaky at this point, this nevertheless shows plenty of restrained fruit to unwind for years and counterbalance the wine’s structural elements.  Savory, spicy accents lend interest.  92

Clos Figueras 2006:  Layered flavors and complex, intricate aromas make this a gorgeous, exceptionally classy wine.  The balance of fruit to structure is simply perfect, and the wine is beautifully proportioned in every respect.  94

Clos Mogador 2008:  This wine is not infrequently rather tough when young, but not in this particular vintage, as it was quite open and expressive in May, 2011.  There’s plenty of structure from fine-grained tannin and high-class oak, with meaty, spicy, mineral backnotes.  However, the main attraction is definitely the core of ripe, focused fruit.  This is the sort of wine that tastes great now and will likely continue tasting great (although different) at every stage in a lifespan of 20-some years.  93

La Conreria d'Scala Dei “La Conreria” 2008:  Fresh, focused notes of both red and black fruits, blended from Garnacha, Cariñena, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  91

La Conreria d'Scala Dei “Iugiter Selección” 2007:
  Crafted from old vine Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha and Cariñena, this shows plenty of oak and lots of tannin, but remains amazingly meaty and satisfying, with dark-toned fruit showing terrific intensity and persistence on the palate.  94

Domini de la Cartoixa “Clos Galena” 2007:  This was the only wine from this bodega to which I reacted enthusiastically, yet my reaction was very enthusiastic.  It shows excellent depth of flavor and outstanding proportionality and balance.  92

Ferrol Bobet “Vinyes Velles” 2008:  A big, intense wine made from 70% Cariñena and 30% Garnacha, this is nevertheless not a chunky wine at all, as there’s remarkable acidity lending freshness and focus to the fruit.  93

Ferrol Bobet”Selecció Especial” 2008:  Only 1,000 bottles of this 100% Cariñena were made, and I damned sure wish that I owned a couple of them.  Sourced from a single, very old vineyard, it is powerful but pure, and strong but silky in texture.  Extremely impressive.  95

Llicorella Vins “Gran Nasard” 2005:  This was crafted entirely from Garnacha and Cariñena, but it immediately recalls the wonderful 2005 wines from the Right Bank in Bordeaux.  Soft but still structured, it shows aromas and flavors that are fresh and pure but already complex to the point that “intricate” appears twice in my tasting notes.  93

Llicorella Vins “Mas Saura” 2004:  A blend of Garnacha, Cariñena, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this was one of the most complete and convincing wines of all that were shown during the course of the Espai Priorat tastings.  Its density and power are remarkable and yet the wine still manages to seem stylish and even restrained due to its impeccable balance and integration.  95

Marco Abella “Clos Abella” 2005:  This is a terrific wine sourced from old vine parcels around Porrera, consisting mostly of Cariñena and Garnacha along with some Cabernet and Syrah.  Sufficiently developed to show intriguing secondary aromas but still driven by fresh, primary fruit, this is complex and mineral and very impressive.  93

Mas Blanc Pinord-Priorat “+7” 2007:  Bright, pure and expressive, with fresh berry notes, impressive acidity, and very fine-grained tannins.  91

Mas Blanc Pinord-Priorat “Clos del Music” 2007:  Pure and beautifully balanced, this has already soaked up all of its wood, and shows lovely fruit and supple tannins.  93

Celler Mas Doix “Doix” 2008:  This is the top offering of three wines from this bodega, and yet--rather surprisingly--it is moderate in all respects, with very fine purity and balance.  There’s power here too, to be sure, but the fruit, tannin, acidity and oak are all seamlessly integrated.  93

Mas d’en Gil “Coma Vella” 2006:  Lovely and inviting at every turn, this is an exceptionally well integrated, harmonious wine with deep flavors but still an overall impression of freshness and purity.  92

Mas d’en Gil “Clos Fontà” 2006:  Light floral aromas and spice notes lead into dark fruit flavors that show impressive freshness and focus, with lots of fine-grained tannin to brace the fruit.  Very impressive.  93

Mas d’en Gil “Gran Buig” 2004:  This is an absolutely phenomenal wine that was only made in one other vintage, namely, 1998.  This 2004 was made from 70 year-old Cariñena vines, and though it is still fresh and even primary in its fruit profile, my notes already show descriptors like “profound,” “complex” and “complete.”  Rare and expensive, but clearly extraordinary.  95

Mas Martinet “Bru” 2007:  Ripe, rounded in texture, and very open and expressive in aroma and flavor, this is irresistibly gushy and charming.  91

Mas Martinet “Escurcons” 2007:  Made entirely from Grenache that is grown in Priorat’s highest altitude vineyard, this is pure and delicious at every turn.  Made from young vines, but hardly lacking for punch.  92

Mas Martinet “Pesseroles” 2007:  Made from 60% Cariñena from 85+ year-old vines, with the balance being Garnacha, this is the most rustic and gutsy wine made by the exceptionally talented Sara Perez, yet its grippy finish never turns hard or astringent.  Terrific.  92

Mas Martinet “Clos Martinet” 2007:  With portions of Cabernet and Syrah, this is more international in style than the Pesseroles bottling, yet it is nevertheless complex and easy to place in Priorat, with endearing balance and texture.  92

Mayol Viticultors “Brogit” 2007:  Expressive aromas and deep, penetrating flavors lead to a focused, firm finish, yet there’s a palpable sense of generosity to the fruit that keeps this on track all the while.  91

La Perla del Priorat “Clos Les Fites” 2006:  Although this initially comes across as firm and serious, it shows lots of juicy, inviting fruit underneath the spicy, toasty surface.  91

Sangenís i Vaqué “Coranya” Reserva 2004:  A beautiful wine build from equal proportions of Garnacha and Cariñena, this shows terrific breadth and depth of flavor as well as exemplary balance of wood and fruit.  92

Sangenís i Vaqué “Clos Monlleó” 2004:  Only 2,000 bottles of this wine were made in 2004, and all the ones that I can find on offer at retail are in Europe.  Which is to say that I’ll be looking for this very shortly after I get off the plane on my next trans-Atlantic trip.  Extremely dense and hugely flavorful, it is nevertheless remarkably classy for such a big wine.  95

Sao del Coster “Terram” 2007:  Spicy, smoky edges and plenty of wood tannin show the seriousness with which this wine was crafted, yet there’s plenty of juicy fruit to keep the balance right.  90

Sao del Coster “Planassos” 2006:  Complex aromas with floral notes and hints of spice and smoke get this off to a great start, followed by dark toned fruit enlivened by bright acidity.  92

Scala Dei “Prior” 2008:  Blended from 45% Garnacha, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cariñena and 10% Syrah, this is sweet and soft and feminine, with very open and expressive fruit until quite late in the finish, when the tannin and wood firm up the experience.  91

Scala Dei “Cartoixa” 2006:  Compelling aromas and flavors show both red and black fruit tones, with terrific accents of smoke, spices, minerals and fresh flowers.  Expressive but still firm and serious, this is crafted from 40% Garnacha, 25% Cariñena, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah.  Sign me up.  94

Terres de Vidalba “TOCS” 2006:  This is international in style (which may either attract or bug you), but it is probably universal in appeal, with lots of wood but far more fruit.  Dark and impressively concentrated, it shows wonderful accents of cocoa powder, smoke and spices.  A blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Syrah and 22% Grenache.  92

Terres de Vidalba “TOCS” 2007:  Although the 2006 rendition of this wine is phenomenal, the 2007 is even better, with more breadth and depth of fruit and an even richer texture.  Dark cherry and blackberry flavors form a sweet, supple core.  94

Terroir al Limit “Arbossar” 2007:  Made entirely from Cariñena grown on a steep, north-facing site in a cool spot, this gets four “Fs” for fresh, focused, floral and fine.  91

Terroir al Limit “Les Tosses” 2008:  Soaring aromatics get this off to an amazing start, and the wine backs them up with meaty, masculine, utterly compelling flavors.  Yet it is the aromas of flowers, spices, smoke, toast and ripe fruit that are most prominent.  A very expensive wine 180 Euros according to the winemaker), but so strong that it is arguably worth the price.  96

Torres “Perpetual” 2008:  Extremely well made from very old vines of Cariñena and Garnacha, showing exceptional concentration.  Despite 18 months in 100% new French oak, this is remarkably fresh and mineral.  93

Torres “Salmos” 2008:  Fresh, bright and very well integrated, with admirably balanced oak.  Blended from 40% Garnacha, 40% Cariñena and 20% Syrah.  90

Vall Llach 2008:  Only 5,000 bottles of this flagship wine are were made in this vintage, blended from 65% Cariñena, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Merlot.  Concentrated and intense, with lovely spice from 15 months in all new French oak.  Ripe and yet fresh; built to improve but already very appealing.  93

Vall Llach “Idus” 2008:  Ripe and rich on entry, with a meaty character in the mid-palate and a grippy, tannic finish.  Needs time but nicely proportioned.  91

Vinicola del Priorat “Clos Gebrat Crianza 2008:  Ripe but still fresh and vivid, with a spicy edge on a core of juicy, expressive fruit.  91

Vinicola del Priorat “Ònix Selección 2006:  Made entirely from Cariñena, this shows impressive breadth and complexity of flavor, with expressive aromas and irrepressible fruit that really hangs in with the abundant wood to the end of the lengthy finish.  92

Viticultors del Priorat (Freixenet) Morlanda “Vi di Guarda” 2007: 
Blended form equal proportions of Cariñena and Garnacha from 50 – 60 year-old vines, this is big and ripe but not chunky or obvious.  Suave, complex and well-integrated, it wears its wood very well, which speaks highly for the fruit since the wine spent a full two years in French oak barriques.  92