Spain is a place for wonderful value. Big bold wines, sometimes with surprising complexity, are available for very little money. For some very serious and elegant wines, look no farther than Priorat.
Priorat is a tiny appellation of about 1800 hectares (4400 acres) of vines just southwest of Catalonia in Northeast Spain. It began getting recognition for its powerful yet elegant red wines in the 1990s. Priorat is one of the only two regions to qualify as a DOCa, the highest quality in Spain (Rioja is the other).
The prior of the monastery of Scala Dei introduced viticulture in this region in the late 1100s, hence the name Priorat. All the vineyards were tended by monks until 1835 when they were expropriated by the state and distributed to small holders. At the end of the nineteenth century, phylloxera devastated the vineyards and caused economic ruin and mass emigration from the area. The vineyards were replanted in the 1950s.
The soil in Priorat is an unusual mixture of black slate and mica called llicorella. This soil holds heat (but not water) well. Many of the vineyards are on extremely steep slopes and require hand harvesting. On this rocky soil, the traditional grape varietals of Garnacha and Carinena flourish; many vines are fifty to one hundred years old. Also authorized in the region are Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot, which are becoming more popular in the blends, although the traditional grapes make up the majority of the mix. Some white grapes are grown, but they make up less than four percent of the total harvest.
Because of the climate—which is harsher than usually seen in temperate areas, the rocky soil, and the steep hillsides, yields are low and the cost of making the wine is higher than most of Spain. Prices average in the $25.00 to $50.00 range and can reach well over $100.00 per bottle. However, there are some awesome wines available that won’t hurt your cash flow and will still give you an excellent introduction to the wonder of this region.
The Alvaro Palacios Camins del Priorat 2010 is a perfect place to start. This blend of Garnacha, Carinena, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah stays true to the vision of Priorat—powerful yet elegant, approachable but restrained. The perfumed nose displays dark berry preserves, licorice, minerals, and pungent flowers. There are sweet vibrant flavors of black raspberry, cherry, minerals and white pepper. It is dense and chewy but lively. The finish is well defined and gently tannic. This wine grossly outperforms its price point of $22.99.
The Onix Classic 2010 is a blend of fifty percent old vine Garnacha and fifty percent old vine Carinena and is one of the best values in the Priorat. The wine is completely unoaked. There is a lovely nose of mineral, black cherry, plum, and Asian spice. The wine is intensely flavored with blackberry, black cherry, tea, and cinnamon . There is a lengthy finish of leathery tannins—a lot of wine for $20.00.
The Vall Llach Embruix 2008 is outstanding and acts like a $50.00 wine in a $26.99 bottle. This is a blend of Garnacha and Carinena from fifty to ninety year old vines, along with a bit of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is aged fourteen months in used oak. There are beautiful aromatics of mature dark fruits, minerals, tar, leather, and spice, with a hint of freshly roasted coffee. The palate suggests warm berry compote followed by espresso and dark chocolate. Very full bodied and complex, yet elegant—a great bottle of wine.
Spanish wines are sexy, spicy, and fun to drink. There are wonderful Garnachas, Tempranillos, Mencias, and Monastrells from all over Spain at great prices to enjoy with tapas and barbeques, but don’t neglect the serious wines found in the Rioja and especially in the tiny picturesque region of Priorat.