Photo; Vincarta

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

It wasn’t that long ago that the wines from Spain’s remote, rocky region of Priorat were known more for their harsh, minerally taste and high alcohol content than for the multifaceted structure and earthy bouquets of leather, violets, blackberries and dried herbs.

In fact, for decades, the region’s bodegas were best known for their bulk wine grapes that were mixed in with “more refined” varietals for mass consumption.

But all that changed in the late 1980s, when an innovative group of young European winemakers decided that the southern part of Catalonia – with its spectacular terraced hillsides, abundant sunshine and low-yielding soil – was the perfect place to produce world-class, artisan vintages that would be recognized for their uniquely layered complexities rather than their overpowering tannins and knock-your-socks-off proofs.

Today, Priorat wines, which earned D.O.C. (Denominación de Origen Calificada) status in 2001, still have high alcoholic content – a required minimum of 13.5 percent – but they are now far tamer on the palate.

“The secret to a great Priorat wine is the handcrafting in its production,” Fredy Torres, a 30-something, Swiss-Spanish vintner who began growing his own grapes in a tiny six-hectare estate in Grattalops, Catalonia, in 2004, told Pulse News Mexico.

“What we are doing in the region is going back to the old tradition of natural production, using biodynamic techniques and classic oenological practices to give the wines a rich, character and easy drinkability.”

At Torres’ Sao del Coster vineyards, where he grows both Priorat’s indigenous Grenache and Carignan grapes, as well as several international viniferas, the soil is toiled with an old-fashioned, mule-powered plow, each grape is hand-picked and there is no artificial irrigation, which means that the vines develop longer roots that have to stretch their way through the volcanic, slate and quartzite soil to reach water.

This, in turn, allows the grapes to absorb the robust mineral content of the soil, giving them a more intense and savory palate.

Like Torres, most of the current vintners of Priorat have a back-to-our-roots approach to winemaking, using no artificial chemicals or mass-production technology.

Most also shun manufactured yeasts, allowing the grapes to ferment naturally.

All of this personalized attention inevitably limits production and raises prices, especially since Priorat is Spain’s new cult favorite.

In general, Spain’s hot, dry vineyards are known for their low yields, but the vines of Priorat are sparse producers even by Spanish standards.

Small estates (the average size of a Priorat vineyard is less than 15 hectares and there are only about 550 growers in the region) also means that production outputs of any given vintage is usually limited, making it hard to guarantee consistent supplies for consumers and distributors.

Sao del Coster, for example, produces only 10,000 bottles a year, and the entire region has an output of about 9 million bottles.

What makes Priorat wines unique are their hardy, fruity flavors, their radiant, ruby-red color and fresh, focused structure, complemented by spicy tannins and a definitive leathery nose … and, of course, their indisputable mineral base.

Most Priorat wines are blends, balanced fusions of Grenache and Cariñena grapes (which give them concentrated aromas of licorice, tar and brandied cherries), tempered with Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot to mellow out the tannins and add versatility and elegance.

To help soften the epicurean shock of so many contrasting notes, most Priorats are aged in oak for at least 12 months.The official Priorat DO production laws recognize three levels of wine quality based on maturation periods: Crianza, which must spend one year in oak, followed by a year in bottle before release; Reserva, which spends one year in oak and two years in bottle; and Gran Reserva, with two years of oak and three years in bottle.

…Nov. 6, 2020

 

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