Not Just Rioja

Paul Blow

If you pay attention to such things, you may have noticed a steady escalation on wine lists of bottles from a region in Spain called Priorat. The names—Clos Manyetes, Val-Llac, Scala Dei, and Mas Igneus, to name a few—may not sound Spanish, but the wines effuse a romanticism that seems deeply Spanish in that macho, Hemingwayesque sense. Deep, dark red—the inky purplish color that reminds me of old blood—they seem simultaneously new and ancient, which is exactly what they are: grapes from old vines in old soils made into wine using modern techniques.

The name Priorat comes from the Catalan word for “priory,” as it was monks who settled in the southern part of Catalonia, just west of Barcelona, 800 years ago after a young shepherd had a vision of angels descending on a heavenly ladder (the scala dei after which the monastery was named). I visited the area two years ago, and though Priorat is just a couple of hours from Barcelona, when I drove over the low mountain range and down into the quiet valley, I felt as if I were going back in time. Rocky hillsides emerged, dotted with old trees, tangled bushes, and ancient, gnarled vines.

In the 1980s, a group of young winemakers from other regions discovered Priorat. Until then, despite naturally parsimonious yields and deep, intense wines, Priorat wine had been a bulk product, sold on tap by the liter at the local shops or sent for blending to regions that couldn’t achieve adequate punch in their wines. Among the discoverers were Alvaro Palacios, scion of a powerful family in Rioja, and René Barbier, from a successful winemaking family in the Penedes, both of whom had had a cutting-edge wine education at top schools in France. They saw the potential in the old vines.

Gold in the Grapes

Palacios, Barbier, and a few others founded the wineries of Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, L’Ermita, and Clos Martinet (the French-sounding names were chosen to differentiate the new wines from the ones already being made in the region). They demonstrated that with some modern equipment and techniques—stringent vineyard practices, controlled fermentations, tannin management, use of new, high-grade French oak—Priorat grapes could produce world-class wines that would sell out at shockingly high prices. Priorat went from being near-worthless plonk to a Spanish cult wine in the span of a few years. The results of retraining these neglected old vines and applying 20th-century oenological practices amounted to finding gold in the hills.

Finding gold always begets a gold rush. Lots of new vines have been planted on the steep hillsides to complement the old ones, and new restaurants serving Spain’s more modern cuisine have sprouted up next to the old ones that have six different preparations of goat. But because of the long, hot, dry summers and the unique slate soil (known as licorella), which can give the wines a striking mineral element, even wines from young vineyards have the potential for greatness. Alongside the traditional varieties like Grenache and Carinena, winemakers have planted small parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to help add complexity and elegance to wines that naturally tend to be a bit hard and unyielding.

This all comes together in my favorite Priorat wine, Clos Mogador, an exemplar of the collision between old and modern. Grapes from its 80-year-old Grenache vines are mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to produce a powerfully dense and mineral wine. As with other top wines from Priorat, I love its structure and its almost impenetrable depth, as well as its flavors of violets, blackberries, dried herbs, and rocks.

Don’t Rush It

But this wine, like most top Priorats, needs time to loosen; don’t drink it young, as the tannins can be massive. Grenache from Priorat, as opposed to, say, the southern Rhône, can be much more formidable—heavier in body, darker in color, and with more structure. The same goes for Carinena (what the French call Carignane), which in less extreme climes makes fairly deep, rough wines anyway. In Priorat, without careful handling, these wines can be severe.

Wines like L’Hermita and Clos Erasmus sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle, and Clos Mogador sells for $60 to $70. Made in very small amounts, these are cult wines of Spain, their high prices as much a result of scarcity and fashionableness as of quality. But over the last few years many less expensive wines have cropped up, some of them second labels from the same top producers. You’ll find great wines under $30 from Mas Igneus, Cims de Porrera, and Las Terrasses. Even the less expensive wines can be deep, rich, and compelling—a taste of the collision between old and new.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.