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Priorat's Place in Wine's New World
By Paul Lukacs
Jun 16, 2009
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As Hugh Johnson counsels in his A Life Uncorked, 'the way to explore any wine is to make comparisons.'  I definitely took that advice to heart last month when I traveled to northeastern Spain and the Catalonian region of Priorat to explore the wines being made there.  Virtual unknowns twenty years ago, those wines have become connoisseurs' darlings, prized (and priced) today alongside top-flight European reds from not only Rioja and Ribera, but also Bordeaux and Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany and the Rhône.  To understand why, I wanted to see the vineyards, visit the cellars, and of course taste as many of the wines as possible--always keeping in the back of my mind the characteristics that have made the world's other celebrated reds so special.

Though a proverbial crow would only have to fly about sixty miles, it takes a car over two hours to get to Priorat from the Barcelona airport.  The landscape turns craggy inland from the Mediterranean coast, as the roads narrow and the hills become steep and jagged.  Sparsely populated, Priorat remains isolated from much of the rest of Spain, and indeed the world at large.  It's a breathtakingly beautiful place--one that for visual splendor ranks right alongside Germany's Mosel and Portugal's Douro Valleys as one of Europe's most spectacular wine areas. 

Winemaking was first promoted in this rugged, remote region by medieval monks--in this case Carthusians, who built their priory (thus the name) in a small valley in the mid twelfth century.  History does not record which grapes the monks planted, but for centuries now the dominant ones have been varieties often associated today with southern France--Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish) and Carignan (Cariñena).

That association is somewhat unfair.  Though the most historically renowned Grenache-based wines do hail from France, particularly the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape is a Spanish native.  Along with Carignan, a variety that on its own rarely if ever has produced wines of real note, it was first cultivated in vineyards near the Mediterranean coast.  Over the centuries, it traveled all throughout southern Europe, and it grows today virtually everywhere that the hot Mediterranean sun shines--including Priorat and the surrounding DO (Denominación de Origen, a Spanish controlled appellation) of Monsant.  Until very recently, however, hardly anyone beyond the region knew anything about the wines produced there.  Made mainly in cooperatives and consumed largely by local farmers, they tasted coarse and rustic.  Those that left the region tended to be used to fashion fortified wines or brandy.

Then in the late 1980s and 1990s, revolution came to Priorat.  It was led by a Frenchman, René Barbier, and four other non-Catalonians (Daphne Glorian, Alvaro Palacios, Carles Pastrãna, and Jose Pérez) who were willing to gamble on the region's ability to produce high quality red wines.  They based that bet on the many stumpy, bush-trained vines growing there, some of which were well over fifty years old, as well as on the naturally low-yielding soils filled with slate and quartz--and, of course, the then-cheap land prices.  So working at first in a shared facility and then in separate wineries, they started making single vineyard wines, many designated by the French term clos.  The Priorat wines crafted by this so-called 'gang of five' were very different from other Catalonian reds.  They compelled critics and connoisseurs all over the world to sit up and take note, especially since these vintners courted the export market.  They made their wines primarily for well-heeled consumers in northern Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, not local folk in Priorat.        

Some twenty years later, the revolution is over, and the newcomers clearly have won.  Priorat today is filled with ambitious vintners aiming to make a global splash.  The five originals are still there, and they have been joined by many others--some from Catalonia, but others from France, Germany, South Africa, even the US, as well as other parts of Spain.  Their wines are usually Garnacha and/or Cariñena-based, but some people have planted Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah, and so are using those varieties too.  And while exceptions do exist, these wines routinely sell at high prices, fetch acclaim, and have sommeliers at high-end restaurants salivating.  Priorat, for centuries a forgotten wine from a viticultural backwater, has become very chic.

So what are these wines like, now that they have become celebrity players on the world stage?  When I visited Priorat, I framed that question in two ways.  First, what comparisons best express how these wines smell and taste?   Do their aromas and flavors resemble red fruits or black ones?  Are they in fact dominated by the taste of fruit?  Or do they have notable secondary attributes that echo, say, spice or leather?  And second, how do they compare to other wines?  Is there any family resemblance linking them with Châteauneuf-du-Pape?  Do they share any qualities with prestigious Spanish reds from other regions-the Reservas and Gran Reservas of Rioja and Ribera del Duero?  Are there any connections with classified-growth red Bordeaux, the wines that, after all, have long served as stylistic models for red wines all over the world (including initially those from Rioja and Ribera)? 

Those were my questions when I got off the plane in Barcelona.  Because I only had been able to try the wines, especially the preeminent ones, sporadically over the years, I wanted to get a clearer sense of their character.  I was fortunate in terms of timing.  In addition to having appointments at a good number of wineries, I was invited to the annual wine fair in the village of Falset.  There I tasted both current and upcoming releases from virtually every important producer in both Priorat and Monsant--well over 100 wines in all.   

I'll admit that I was disconcerted at first.  That's because as soon as I began tasting, I discovered that these wines didn't at all resemble Riojas or Riberas, the esteemed Spanish reds with which I was more familiar.   Because they displayed virtually no secondary meatiness or earthiness, they also had nothing in common with Châteauneuf or other southern Rhône wines.  And they seemed to have no connection with classic Bordeaux.  The words that kept coming to mind when I tried to express how they smelled and tasted (and felt on my palate) were  'black,' 'brambly,' 'dark,' heady,' 'heavy,' 'inky,' 'jammy,' 'muscular,' and the like--none of which is a term traditionally used to describe high-class European red wines.  Of course, those words are often used these days to describe many New World reds.  So if the wines from Priorat and Monsant resembled any others, the objects of comparison weren't European.  These wines tasted instead like quality wines from Argentina, California, or South Australia.  Why?  Not due to any specific flavors, but rather because they exemplified a winemaking style that brazenly embraces boldness, even at the expense of specificity. 

That winemaking style sometimes goes under the name 'international,' precisely because it seemingly can be transferred from place to place.  And virtually every red wine from Priorat (and to a lesser degree Monsant) that I tried during my time there embodied it.  These dark reds tasted extroverted rather than reserved, and exuberant instead of refined.  Many--no, most--of them were very well made and so certainly tasted good.  They just weren't especially distinctive.

Now, I freely admit that I'm no expert in Catalonian Garnacha and Cariñena.  (Like many American wine lovers, I know those varieties primarily in their French guise, one in which the wines sometimes taste elegant even if rustic--the Grenache in Châteauneuf-du-Pape again being the exemplar.)  Nonetheless, these Spanish wines did not seem to display any distinct varietal characteristics--unless, that is, sheer power can be considered such. 

Even more to the point, despite sampling a great many wines during my visit, I left Priorat unable to identify any real regional identity in them.  Though the vintners I met often talked about a 'minerality' allegedly unique to Priorat, I did not really smell or taste it.  This certainly may be my failing, especially since minerality is a tricky concept.  (Exactly what, after all, do minerals smell or taste like?)  Yet I usually can identify what goes by that metaphor in other wines--whites to be sure (Mosel Riesling, for example, or Pouilly-Fuissé), but some reds too (Chinon comes to mind)--and it just wasn't evident here.  The Priorat wines simply contained so much extract and felt so weighty that any potential subtlety or nuance seemed overwhelmed.  They did display a somewhat surprisingly high level of acidity, something that thankfully prevented most of them from seeming fat or flabby.  Acid, however, is not a flavor, and the appealing bite in the finish of many of these wines had nothing to do with anything I had previously called, or heard called, 'mineral.'  In short, these wines lacked varietal as well as regional individuality.  Though they often were delicious, they tasted generically global.

The question that kept nagging me was whether a region like Priorat naturally yields wines of this type, or whether the wines are being crafted deliberately with this stylistic model in mind.  Grapes there certainly ripen quickly under a blistering sun.  They often are left to hang long on the vine, their flavors becoming more intense with each passing day.  Moreover, old vines--and the region is home to many, have low yields and produce very concentrated grapes.  So perhaps the new Priorat is really nature's Priorat?  Maybe.  But I found it hard to shake the suspicion that vintners there also have been intentionally emulating something popular (and lucrative)--namely, that bold, heady international style.  After all, the winemakers who initiated Priorat's revolution all came from elsewhere, and thus inherited no native traditions.  And they are the ones who decide when to harvest, how long to macerate the grapes, and so on.  Surely they arrived equipped with the knowledge of how to make wine in a specific fashion so as to realize a specific result.  I kept finding the proof in the glass--where the wines tasted, for all the world, like wines from, well, all over the world. 

None of this should be interpreted as an indictment of Priorat red wines.  Many excellent wines from many places exemplify the international style these days.  The vast majority come from areas in which high quality wine is a relatively recent phenomenon--many places in the New World, as well as some European regions in which a new sort of wine, with new ambitions behind its production, is being made.  (For example, super-Tuscans sometimes taste comparably international, as do some of the new dry reds from the Duoro in Portugal.)  What unites these wines is just that--a style that transcends regionality.  And if they taste good--as many of the Priorat wines surely do--does anything else really matter?

From one point of view, the answer emphatically is no.  These wines taste rich and ripe, being packed full of forceful fruit flavor.  Even with all their muscle and brawn, they feel for the most part balanced and harmonious.  Granted, they're not all that complex (the fruit being so dominant); but then the earthy, spicy, sometimes even barnyard-like aromas and flavors that give some other European red wines intricacy are not to everyone's liking.  These wines taste clean.  What's not to like?

Absolutely nothing--particularly in wines priced and made for mass consumption.  Rich, ripe, fruit-forward red wines costing between $10 and $25 definitely have taken today's consumer market by storm.  It hardly matters whether they are made with Malbec in Argentina or Shiraz in South Australia (two obvious examples in the US market).  Such wines taste stylistically similar and, when well-crafted, quite good.  Thirty years ago, nothing like them existed, and we wine drinkers surely are better off because of them.  Yet when prices go to $50, or $75, or $100, might not we expect more?  Not more power or extract; not more intensity; but more complexity, subtlety and nuance--precisely that which would make such wines stand out from the swelling crowd?  That's a second point of view, and the world of wine today seems divided between proponents of the two.  The division applies to both consumers and critics.  But maybe even more important, it also applies to winemakers.

So I began to wonder what the point of all these comparisons really is.  Are we trying to establish correspondence, to assert likeness?  Or do we want to discern difference, and so identify individuality?  A generation ago, when the number of high quality wines was much smaller than today, and when the market contained many genuinely flawed, badly made wines, correspondence surely was a laudable goal.  The fact that experienced Parisian palates could not distinguish a California Cabernet from a classified-growth Bordeaux, for example, was widely considered a mark of validation for the American wine--a sign that it, and the people responsible for it, had arrived.  But today, when flawed wine is for the most part nothing but a memory (especially at elevated price levels), we must ask: should resemblance still be considered flattery?  As their price tags make clear, the Priorat wines and winemakers already have become celebrities.  So might not distinctiveness or individuality now be a more appropriate objective?

To be fair, individuality is not the same as quality.  Most of us know from experience that a wine can taste unique and at the same time be unpleasant.  None of the wines I tried in Priorat fit that profile.  But that's because while most were enjoyable enough, hardly any tasted truly unique.  They simply weren't sufficiently different from other well-crafted red wines coming from other hot climate regions to be able to express discernable distinction.  Whether that tradeoff ultimately is worth making--again, for winemakers as well as for consumers--remains a question very much up for debate.  Since the revolution in Priorat was a skirmish in a much larger upheaval that has changed wine throughout the world, that debate is in no sense confined to this one isolated area.  But these powerhouse wines enabled me to experience it personally and so comprehend it directly.  When in Priorat, the issues involved seemed to be in stark relief.  All I needed to do was taste the wines--and compare.