Priorat: Globalization, Terroir, and The New Wines of Spain
A contradiction lies deep in the heart of wine’s globalization. The standard narrative is that globalization leads to homogenization of wine style and increasing monopolization of distribution. The counter-narrative has always been ‘wines of place’ that are specific to where they are made. These typical narratives are misleading and, at times, false. Globalization works in far more mysterious ways. In Spain, it has been and continues to be perhaps the most important driver of the country’s wine history and future. And Priorat in particular is a hyper-charged microcosm of global Spain.
The Birth of Cult Wines in Priorat
The revival of Priorat in the 1980’s was remarkable. A region that had been facing a severe economic downturn and extreme depopulation suddenly vaulted onto the international stage with the wines of Alvaro Palacios (Clos Dofi – now Finca Dofi), René Barbier (Clos Mogador), José Luis Pérez (Clos Martinet), and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus).
Suddenly the region became the most expensive in Spain and home to one of its most renowned and expensive wines (Palacios’ L’Ermita). US importer Eric Solomon pushed the wines successfully in the U.S. market, which at the time was awash in the heyday of Parker’s high-extract palate. Priorat fit that mold, with a little more complexity than many from Spain, and thus scored very well.
The growth of wineries in Priorat since 1989 has been equally astounding as its reputational surge: a mere 8 wineries with 765 hectares under vine in 1989 turned into 32 wineries with 942 hectares under vine by 2000, 85 wineries with 1,882 hectares under vine by 2008, and 106 wineries with 1,961 hectares under vine today. The region is now abuzz with activity, and tourism, while still lacking infrastructure, is increasing.
Priorat’s popularity with the US critics also brought with it a focus on a highly extracted style with significant use of new oak. In a region where natural alcohols are regularly 15-16% or higher, this resulted in many unbalanced wines that struggled particularly with food. At the same time, Priorat was home to one of Spain’s greatest terroirs: a band of slate soils known as llicorella that are ideally suited for old-vine bush plantings of Grenache and Carignan; a plethora of aspects; high elevation; extreme diurnal temperature shifts; and a mix of cool winds from the pacific with warmer inland winds. Having spent several days in Priorat, I can attest to the drama of both the landscape and, in particular, the brittle slate soils that can barely hold together let alone retain water. The result are vines with extremely deep root systems and correspondingly low yields. The berries are both beautiful and packed with complexity. The wines, when made well, have a depth of minerality unlike Grenache and Carignan elsewhere.
Despite this terroir, in the early days many had yet to fully figure out how to ideally work with such profound material. Priorat went through a period of awkward cordon trellising, plantings of new Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot vines, and poorly constructed terraces that, when viewed today, seem awfully inefficient (Palacios says he never thought terracing would produce the best wines). Development to more careful extraction and greater finesse has moved along slowly, with some producers doing well and others entirely missing the boat.
But, something exciting is happening in Priorat that is being echoed elsewhere in Spain. The prevailing patterns are, in my view, heading for a significant shake-up.
The Natural Wine Movement in Spain
Today, ideas spread at light-speed. Traditional critical gatekeepers do not control what information gains hold or the definition of quality. Where once Parker could make an entire region with a single 100 point review, today other influences hold sway and diffuse the debates. This is the counter-narrative of globalization that is coming to radically reshape the entire wine-world, including Spain.
Where once a new way of thinking would take decades to spread, now worlds can change in a handful of years. When I last visited Spain 8 years ago, the “natural wine” movement was nowhere to be seen, and wines fell mostly into the traditional camps. Parkeresque Frankensteins remained widely available and admired, and traditional regions like Jerez appreciated but perhaps neglected. Not so today.
Barcelona’s El Born neighbourhood is now home to at least half a dozen natural wine bars, ranging from the extreme (L’anima del Vi, which prohibits wines with any sulphur additions), to the slick (Bar del Pla), to the non-demagogic, but philosophical and tourist friendly (Bar Brutal). These bars pour many French wines to be sure, but they also champion a new set of Spanish producers that are making wines influenced by the fundamental issues raised by the natural wine movement: sustainability, indigenous grapes, purity of fruit, freshness and elegance, sense of place, and respect for the complexity of the chemical and biological processes that spontaneously occur in wine production. These new wines are shifting the debate from power and impact to drinkability and food. Just like new ‘natural wine’ movements elsewhere, there are extreme, flawed wines that many would find undrinkable; there are philosophical debates about what ‘natural’ is and is not; and there is tremendous excitement by a younger generation of wine lovers. I tasted quite a few remarkably exciting wines from indigenous varieties that were a beacon of the country’s new direction and will be the subject of future articles. These wines have the potential to influence an increasing number of Spaniards, but they remain very much in the minority. Their explosion in a mere 5 years, however, also promises the movement may grow beyond nascent in less time than many expect.
This change one can witness in places like Barcelona’s El Born is evidence of a broader trend in Spanish wine – one that I think has the potential to allow Spain to find a previously missing sense of national and regional wine identity. And why has this happened? Globalization in the information age has promulgated a philosophical movement past the traditional gatekeepers and directly to the younger generation.
When I asked the owners of Bar Brutal when ‘natural wine’ became a ‘thing’ in Barcelona, they told me it has only been around for 5 years. In half a decade I felt like I was engaging in an entirely new wine scene from my previous visit. This new-globalism is a reaction to the old-globalism that brought Spain to prominence in the Parker era. And, in the most fascinating of contradictions, it is this new globalism that seems to be providing the impetus and drive for the new breed of Spanish wine-maker to discover a more regional and idiosyncratic sense of place in their wines.
The “New” Priorat
Priorat is a region built on trendiness. But it is a region with incredibly complex underlying material. Its challenge today is whether it can move to understand itself in a manner that provides consistency and an opportunity to iterate on that consistency to ever-improving quality. The heavy extract, new oak wines are not going to get where Priorat needs to go. Sadly, a large number of producers remain in this paradigm.
However, there is a new breed of producer in Priorat that, in my view, is showing the way to greater regional typicity. These producers are focused on greater balance and finesse and are extremely cautious about alcohol levels. They appreciate salinity, minerality and restraint. They focus, as they should, on the indigenous varieties – Garnacha and Carinena – and on bush vines. They understand wine as food (many coming from food industry backgrounds themselves).
Greater exploration of terroir usually means greater understanding of microclimactic differences within a larger region. As such, there are some finer grained distinctions within Priorat worth noting. While Priorat has implemented a village system they call “vins de la vila”, there is not yet noticeable terroir distinctions between that many villages. Moreover, the potential of implementing a single vineyard “finca” system is even more premature. There are, however, some important distinctions worth noting. In particular, I find the wines in Porrera to have much higher acidity than surrounding areas, and the longer growing season seems to lend itself to greater control over potential alcohol and extract. The best wines of Porrera are, thus, in my opinion the best wines of Priorat.
Gratallops remains distinct – it has greater fruit and richness than Porrera. Though it gets all the attention, for me the verdict is out on how many of the vineyards here can make truly great wine. For sure, some of Palacios’ wines are exceptional, and Clos Martinet has been ever-increasing in finesse, but these wines remain more in that heavy and high alcohol style.
Lastly, the vineyards around Scala Dei seem to gain a unique quality from the greater amount of sand there and perhaps the closer proximity to the Monsant mountain chain, across which lies the designated wine region of Monsant. Certainly the wines of the Scala Dei winery (where the original Carthusian monks first lived and directed the wine plantings in Priorat) has a distinctive house-style, with fine grained tannins, florals, red fruit, and a bright, mouth-watering palate.
With respect to the most exciting new breed of producer in Priorat, of particular intrigue were the wines of Terroir Al Limit, the project of Eben Sadie and Dominik Huber, where they employed from the beginning an extreme philosophy of prohibiting alcohols to exceed 13.5%. In the Priorat this is unheard of, and yet the wines contained no sense of greenness, but rather purity of fruit and great tension. Eben Sadie has since left the project, but I got the chance to talk both to owner Dominik Huber and to current winemaker Tatjana Tanja Peceric, the latter of whom told me that they harvest based both on taste and analysis, and that though there can be a small amount of slightly green grapes at harvest, it is always less than 5% and never seems to have a negative impact on the wine. Terroir Al Limit is also producing remarkable white wines that would wow anyone in a blind tasting and that explore a broad range of grapes including Xerello, Pedro Ximenez, Macabeu, Muscato and Grenache Blanc. This winery proves that there is great potential and diversity in Priorat that is ripe for exploration, and that all the wines need not exceed 15% ABV. On the other hand, one has to understand this project as a wine-makers project – as there is no particular terroir-driven reason to always limit alcohols to no greater than 13.5%.
Finesse does not always require low alcohol. At the higher alcohol levels, there are producers focused on minerality and freshness that also prove the potential of Priorat. A standout for me was Ma La Mola, the small project of Jordi Masdeu (a Catalan by birth, but who spent years in London as a sommelier) and Alessandro Marchesan. The top wine, “La Vinyeta”, made from 90 year old Carignan bush vines, exemplified Priorat minerality and was both immensely complex and quaffable. The estate bottling, which goes for around $35 USD, drinks like a much more expensive bottle of wine, and the very entry level “L’Expressio del Priorat” is wonderfully pure in fruit and glides across the palate. All the wines are very low in sulphur, with some at 1-4ppm. The Mas La Mola vineyards are also stunning and a showcase for the llicorella soils.
When I asked Jordi Masdeu why he felt Priorat was important, he took some time to think about it, poured me a glass of wine, and walked over to a stunning vista:
Jordi and his enthusiasm is a real ambassador for the region and his wines showcase the future direction I feel Priorat should explore further.
While Priorat has yet to embrace ‘natural wine’ – the changes that movement represents have clearly influenced the younger winemakers in the region. Moreover, the global conversation about sustainability, drinkability, food friendliness, and regional distinctiveness, is starting to gain a more substantial foothold in Priorat. As such, the region could have an exciting future ahead if more wineries embrace these ideas. On the other hand, the majority of wineries in Priorat remain in the old model, either by explicit choice or simply by not knowing better (there are many unsophisticated wineries that don’t have a great sense of international context – a phenomenon not uncommon in ‘new’ regions that us Canadians should be quite familiar with).
The future in Priorat is a combination of uncertain and exciting, but there is no question in my mind that the region has the potential for greatness.
A Word on Vintage in Priorat
2013: A rainy spring led to a hot summer, and good phenolic development. This wines are balanced and the vintage tended to produce supple tannins, but still good acidities. These are drinking well today, but the best will continue to age at least in the mid term. Long term ageing in Priorat remains a mystery as there simply are not enough examples to assess what ages well and farming and wine-making has changed considerable over the years such that there is little consistency between how old wines were made and the wines of today.
2014: A challenging vintage with significant rainfall in the latter half. Some grapes were bloated. Tannins were generally greener and the wines are far more angular than 2013. That said, very good producers made lovely wines that will age well. These wines are noted below.
2015: A year that started warm, went to very hot (July), and then saw relief in August with cool nights. Priorat’s unique amphitheatre topography prevented the August and September rains from ruining harvest. Large crop, good quality.
“The New” Priorat Wines to Try
Mas La Mola Blanc 2015 (White Grenache and Macabeau): 13% ABV. Extremely fresh, mineral cut, delicious and appropriate for very hot weather. Very Good+.
Mas La Mola La Vinyeta 2011 (Carignan): 15% ABV. Stunning purity and complexity. Excellent to Excellent+
Mas La Mola 2012 (Red Grenache and Grenache Peluda): 15% ABV. Excellent.
Mas La Mola L’Expressio del Priorat 2015 (Grenache and Carignan): Every day red that is a true expression of Priorat’s interesting minerality with less aromatic complexity and length than the top bottlings. Very Good+.
Terroir Al Limit Arbossar 2014 (Carignan): 13.5% ABV. From north-facing slopes. Elegant and aromatic. One of the most compelling Carignan’s I have had from any country. Excellent+.
Terroir Al Limit Pedra de Guix 2014 (Pedro Ximenez, White Grenache, Macabeau): 13%. Game-changing white for Priorat. Most people at the tasting were extremely surprised and impressed with this. Excellent.
Terroir Al Limit Les Manyes 2014 (Red Grenache): 13.5% ABV. 100 year old vines. Masterpiece. Excellent+.
Terroir Al Limit Les Tosses 2014 (Carignan): 13.5% ABC. 100 year old vines. Excellent+.
Terroir Al LImit Cartoixa 2016 (Xarello): 13% ABV. Excellent.
Michelle Negron of Sao del Coster
Sao del Coster Pim Pam Poom 2016 (Grenache): 15%. Young vines. Very quaffable, drink now. Pure fruited. Extremely affordable for the quality. Very Good+.
Sao del Coster La Pujada 2014 (Carignan): 15%. This Carignan specialist house makes two stunning single vineyard bottlings that go a long way to suggesting it is Carignan, not Grenache, that is the star of Priorat. Excellent.
Sao del Coster Planassos 2014 (Carignan): 15% Abv. Excellent to Excellent+.
More Traditional Priorat Wines With Finesse and Drinkability
Alvaro Palacios Les Aubaguetes 2015 (Grenache): A new wine from Palacios. From 105 year old Grenache vines. This is not cheap at 200 euros, but it is absolutely stunning – pure, elegant, extremely expressive. An ambassador for more traditional Priorat. Excellent+.
Scala Dei Cartoixa 2013 (Grenache and Carignan): From the winery located at the original monestary. This is balanced wine with very nice acidity. Excellent. (currently available at BCLDB)
Scala Dei Massipa 2015 (80% Grenache Blanc and 20% Chenin Blanc): One of the highlight whites of Priorat. The Chenin is noticeable but it works very well to give the wine greater structure and balance to the often blousy and uninteresting white Grenache. Very Good+.
Marco Abella Mas Mallola 2014 (Grenache and Carignan): 14.5% ABV. Vineyard in Porrera show the sub-region’s trademark high acidity and minerality. Expressive. Very Good+.
Marco Abella Clos Abella 2013 (Carignan and Grenache): 14.5% ABV. A large step up from the Mas Mallola. Again, lots of minerality. Bluer fruit from the Carignan, but also animality. Excellent.
Marco Abella Roca Roja 2015 (Grenache): 14.5% ABV. Very small production old-vine Grenache. Shows finesse, freshness, and is highly aromatic. Excellent.
Mas Martinet Els Escurcons 2015 (Grenache and Carignan): 15% ABV. Fermented in Amphora. Traditionally large-scaled Priorat, but I think the neutral fermentation really highlights the quality of the fruit, making this a nice example of big-boned priorat. Excellent.
My time in Priorat was paid for by Espai Priorat.