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Priorat Takes Center Stage in Spain
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 13, 2015
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A recent wine news article caught my attention.  In a blind tasting of over 1,000 red wines that took place in China, a wine from Priorat (a.k.a. Priorato), the 2009 Clos Abella (producer, Marco Abella), took first place.  I was highly skeptical of these results at first--until I discovered that seven of the 14 tasters were Masters of Wine, including the formidable Jancis Robinson.  And as luck would have it, I also had the opportunity to taste the first place winner a couple of weeks ago.

You might wonder why I was so skeptical when I heard the news.  After all, Priorat is now recognized as a fine red wine region.  But to win first place--beating out wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Barolo, and Napa Valley, to name some of the most renowned red wine regions--was hard to believe.

Priorat is located in a harsh, inaccessible area in the Sierra de Montsant Mountains in Catalonia (northeast Spain), over 100 miles southwest of Barcelona.  The climate is distinctly continental, with hot, dry summers and very cold winters.  The soil is volcanic--always a plus for wine grape growing.

Carthusian monks founded a monastery here, also known as a priory, in 1194, in the area that came to be known as Priorato.  They planted two grape varieties, Garnacha and Cariñena (Grenache and Carignan in French), on steep hillsides, and established a winery, which lasted until the 19th century. 

After the monastery was closed, very few inhabitants took on the job of caring for the abandoned vineyards because life was simply too difficult here.  (On my one trip to Priorato some years ago, I traveled by jeep on some of the rockiest, bumpiest roads I have ever experienced).  The steep slopes where the vineyards are located can be worked only by hand.  Grape yields are very low.  Only grapes can grow in this infertile soil.  And to make matters worse, the phylloxera louse devastated the vineyards in the late 1800s.

And yet, some vineyards were re-planted in the early 1900s and survive until this day.  The two main red grape varieties (again, Garnacha and Cariñena) are indigenous to Spain; later, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot were planted--and many of Priorat’s red wines today are composed of a small quantity of the “international” varieties.  A bit of white wine (about 4 percent of the total) is made, but the region’s climate and soil is really best suited to making big, concentrated red wines.

In the 1950s, a few pioneering farmers began to revive the dormant vines and make wine.  But it was René Barbier (winery of the same name) and Alvaro Palacios (his top Priorat wine is “L’Ermita”) who saw the opportunity to make world-class red wines in Priorat around 1985, and these two winemakers really put Priorat on the world wine map.  By the 1990s, the wine world knew about Priorat.  Today, the only two wine regions in Spain that are entitled to its highest appellation, DOCa, are Rioja and Priorato.

Priorat is the only major wine region in the world--other than the Southern Rhône Valley--where Grenache is the major, and star, variety.  The terroir of Priorat is admirably suited to this workaday red variety that perhaps performs better here than anywhere else in the world.

The Marco family has been growing grapes and making wine in the village of Porrera in Priorat since the 15th century.  The current owner-winemaker is David Marco.  It was Ramón Marco Abella, David Marco’s grandfather, who made it his life’s work to revive what was considered one of the best vineyards in the region, located in the Porrera region.  Marco Abella’s vineyards have the highest altitude (1500 to 2300 feet) in all of Priorat.  They are biodynamically farmed, and only indigenous yeasts are used in making the wines.

David Marco took over Bodegas Marco Abella in 2001. The great oenologist, Michel Rolland, was hired as a consultant.

All grapes used in Marco Abella’s wines are estate-grown.  The terroir of Marco Abella’s site is very specific to the winery.  In addition to its high altitude, which creates more acidity in the wines, the distinctive soil here, known as Ilicorella, is composed of slate and schist, with some iron ore.  The grapevines must grow deep down into the earth to find water.  They are tough, old vines that can resist the considerable winds and storms in the region.

I tasted three different Marco Abella red wines, from three different vintages:

2010 Marco Abella “Loidana” Priorat ($26 to $28):  This is Marco Abella’s introductory wine; composed of 60 percent Garnacha, 25 percent Cariñena, and 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Loidana is easy-drinking for a Priorat (which can be tough and unapproachable when young).  The Garnacha used here is from young vines, 10 years old and up, which accounts for the wine’s drinkability.  It has deep, but fairly soft tannins, is very well-balanced, will age for several years, and will improve with age.  92

2008 Marco Abella “Mas Mallola” Priorat ($42 to $44):  The La Mallola Vineyard, 1960 feet high and rich in black slate, is the source of this wine.  Mas Mallola is primarily Garnacha (63 percent), with 20 percent Cariñena, 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6 percent Merlot.  It has red fruit aromas and flavors, primarily raspberries and cherries, with some spice; it is aged in second-year French oak barrels for 20 months.  Although now eight years old, Mas Mallola tastes quite young. It can be enjoyed now, with many more years of ageability in its future.  95

2009 Marco Abella “Clos Abella” Priorat ($80):  This is the wine that finished in first place in the 1,000 wines+ China tasting.  After I tasted it, I can understand.  The 2009 Clos Abella explodes on the palate with delicious flavors of black cherry fruit, spice, and voluptuous tannins.  It is a powerhouse of a wine with a long finish. Just about perfect; it should last for decades.  Certainly the most impressive Priorat that I have ever tasted.  Clos Abella is aged for 24 months in second-year French oak barrels, and then is aged in bottle for another two years before it is released. It is composed of 50 percent Carignan, 39 percent Grenache, and 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.  Clos Abella is made from a special selection of grapes, some of which are from vines up to 100 years old.  One vineyard is 2290 feet in altitude.  Grapes grow slowly up here, and are picked late.  Another vineyard, with oxidized iron ore, grows particularly earthy Carignan. This is the source of Clos Abella’s Carignan. Just a magnificent wine.   100

The 2009 Clos Abella is the first wine that I have rated 100 points in my ten years of writing for Wine Review Online.  One of the most amazing things about the wine is that Cariñena is the major grape variety. Cariñena is the ultimate working-class red variety.  I think this shows us what old vine grapes can do in the right terroir, with the right winemaker.

Is the first-place 2009 Clos Abella the greatest red wine in the world?  I would think not; the tasting just pointed out that this wine showed the best on this occasion.  I have not seen the list of all the wines entered, but I do know that it included some of the best-regarded red wines in the world.

How would an aged Clos Abella stand up to a mature Romanée Conti or La Tache Burgundy; a mature Chateau Lafite-Rothschild or Chateau Latour; or a mature Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino--to name some of the greatest red wines in the world?

Only time will tell us where Clos Abella will rank among the world’s great wines.  But the 2009 Clos Abella is off to a great start for Marco Abella, a relatively little-known Priorat winery. And I think that its average retail price of $80 is a remarkable value for a wine of this quality.