In the far north eastern corner of Spain is the state of Catalunya, and within this state there is a region which, despite its relatively new appearance, unfashionable grape varieties and near-inhospitable environment, is one of the two top-tier Spanish quality classifications (the other being Rioja), whose wines demand prices higher than almost any other still wines anywhere else in the Iberian Peninsula. So what’s the deal with Priorat?
Like across most of the Mediterranean, grapes have been grown in Priorat for centuries, mainly to service Sunday mass- the word Priorat is actually the local word for a Priory where monks live- though the wines never garnered any critical acclaim. Winemaking across Spain however, has had a tumultuous history. When the Moors crossed the Alboran Sea from North Africa, they outlawed the production of wine in any town they took. Whilst the invaders landed in the very southern tip of Spain in 711AD, they quickly raided up the Mediterranean coast, reaching Catalunya 6 years after the initial invasion, and so wine production across the region slowed to a trickle. This region was held under Islamic rule for almost 800 years, until the Reconquista restored Christianity, and its love of wine, to the region. After this was the Age of Discovery, where Spain found wealth and new territories in the Americas and things seemed on the up, however they also discovered Phylloxera, which decimated Spanish vineyards when it hitched a ride back, almost wiping out the whole industry. 2 World Wars and the Fascist rule of Franco until 1975 were pretty much the nail in the coffin for quality wine in Spain. It was not until the mid 1980s, when a French/Spanish winemaker decided to pay closer attention to Priorat, that it was discovered this region could make some very special wines.
So why did it take so long to find this out? Well apart from the speed bumps of religious persecution, disease and war, Priorat is a fairly inhospitable part of Spain. Despite only being 20km from the water, the Serra del Llaberia Mountains block most of the cool breezes, and almost all of the rain- rainfall is a miserly 500mm/year . The vineyards themselves are all planted to the steep hillsides of these mountains, renowned for their danger to traverse. Finally there is the soil. The whole region is covered by a thin layer of low nutrient black shale shot through with blocks of brown sandstone, over a sub-layer of near-impenetrable quartz. This incredibly unique black soil, known locally as Llicorella, does not hold what water does fall here, and has almost zero organic matter in it so gives next to no nutrition. This means that basically nothing grows here. Nothing except the Grenache vine that is…
It is a common belief in today’s wine industry that the vigour and yields of modern vines are far superior to those of the past. Vignerons will logically choose to propagate those vines that are the sturdiest and grow healthily in their vineyards, so over the centuries, this has given us vines whose vigour must be controlled so the vine does not pump out kilos of grapes with next to no flavour. The nutrient poor, rocky, dry region of Priorat is therefore absolutely perfect for curbing the vigour of the modern vine. Historically, these less-vigorous versions of vines would have simply died in 2-3 vintages, hence why the wines were never really noticed- it took the re-introduction of modern clones into this old region to find perfect balance and create world-class wines. Grenache is one of the most vigorous varieties of them all- I recall Peter Fraser of Yangarra in the McLaren Vale referring to it as “that weed”. Grenache, known here as Garnacha or Garnatxa depending on if you speak Spanish or Catalan, is king here in Priorat, and despite its naturally high vigour, produces some of the smallest crops in the world; Spain’s yearly average yields are 25hectoltres/hectare (which is already pretty low)- whereas Priorat’s average is 5hl/ha! The vines are trained to the traditional ‘gobelet’ or ‘bush’ position, which shades the fruit from the harsh sun in the centre of the bush, but make it impossible to machine harvest. Cariñena, or as we may know it Carignan is the next-most grown, and is another high-yield vine not usually known for quality, but which does well in this region. It is a hot-climate specialist which adds valuable acidity to the wines which keep them fresh and lively, as well as age-worthy, and is a perfect foil for the juicy cranberry fruits and spices of Garnacha.
As winemakers get to know the different orientations of the sites, they have recently begun to branch out to other more mainstream varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah for their red wines. These are mainly used to add complexity and tannic structure to Garnacha. Priorat also produces a very small percentage of white wines, which are made from the four authorized white varieties, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez and (bizarrely) Chenin Blanc.
Priorat has a very similar quality system to Rioja, based primarily on the time the wine spends in barrel, which was brought into law when this region became Spain’s 2nd DOCa in 2002. Crianza spends one year in oak, followed by a year in bottle before release; Reserva spends one year in oak then two years in bottle; Gran Reserva spends two years in oak and three years in bottle. In modern Priorat however, with the extreme prices these wines can achieve, these are more a guideline, and many producers go far beyond these minimum ageing limits.
Wine Sales Manager