Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Top Wineries in Priorat
Priorat is a small region in Catalonia that produces big red wines from vines grown on a heat-trapping slate called “licorella”. Visiting Priorat, a wine-lover will find numerous wineries that make outstanding wines from mostly two traditional Spanish red grapes, Garnatxa Negra (Garnacha) and Samsó (Cariñena). International varieties including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also planted here nowadays, but Garnacha and Cariñena form the backbone of the local production and Priorat’s red wines are considered among the best wines produced in Spain.
There are a few white grape vines also planted in the region. Grenache Blanc, Pedro Ximenez, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo are all traditional varieties, the last three used in producing mostly Cava - Catalonia’s version of an outstanding sparkler. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have been planted here more recently. But the best wines produced in Priorat are from red grapes.
The Phoenicians and Greeks first introduced grape growing in Catalonia at approximately 500 BCE. But in Priorat, vines were first planted in large numbers on rocky, slate and shale slopes by Carthusian monks back in the middle ages to make sacramental wine. The monks founded the Abbey (Priorat) of La Cartoixa D’Escaladei in 1194 and gave the Priorat name to the region. Priorat is only a couple hours away from cosmopolitan Barcelona, yet feels a world apart. Vineyards are planted in steep terraces that climb the hillsides in neat, curving rows. On the steep slopes, they are like enormous staircases demanding back-breaking work from workers who have to tend and pick the grapes by hand; machine harvest is practically impossible here.
One of the wineries we visited that makes an exceptional monovarietal wine – Tros de Clos - from over 100-years old Samsó vines is Portal del Priorat. The 45 hectares of organic to biodynamic small plots ascend from the Siurana valley to the slopes of the Montsant mountains. The production cellar is an all wood building that integrates into the landscape. Production is limited, depending on the vintage, to approximately 30,000 bottles.
The wine that I really loved during the tasting is a blend of 5 different clones of Grenache plus Cariñena, Syrah, Monastrell and Cabernet Franc; it is called Negre de Negres (Black from Blacks). It is a full bodied red wine with intense aromas of fresh red and black fruits and elegant hints of toasted bread, eucalyptus and chocolate. It is a well balanced wine, concentrated, with high minerality, excellent acidity and sweet tannins. It is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels, 1/3 new, 1/3 first year and 1/3 second year.
The philosophy of Alfredo Arribas, the owner and chief winemaker is “less is more” i.e. less intervention in the vineyard, less intervention in the winery, makes for a much better wine.
Another wine that I liked very much during our Catalonia visit was Galena.
The Perez and Dalmau family acquired Domini de la Cartoixa, 11 hectares of organically grown vines on the slopes near the village of El Molar. Consistently high quality grape production and, at the field, best bunch selection ensures that the wines, Galena and Formiga de Vellut, are the best the vineyard will produce. High minerality imparts freshness to the wines.
For Galena, each vineyard plot is fermented and macerated separately in stainless tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless tanks. Then, assembling of the different plots and different varietals in the blend (Garnacha Negra, Cariñena, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) is done before the wine is placed in French (80%) and American (20%) oak barriques to age for 12 to 15 months, depending on the harvest.
For Formiga de Vellut, the grape varieties of the blend (Garnacha Negra, Cariñena, and Syrah) are harvested between September 5th and 15th to ensure optimal ripeness and ensure ripe tannins that perfectly express the terroir. Fermentation and maceration take place in stainless steel tanks and, after gentle pressing, the malolactic fermentation takes place in the same tanks. Aging takes place in 225 liter French and American oak barrels for 9 months. Before bottling, the wine is clarified with fresh egg whites and filtered. The wine we tasted had a bright cherry red color, and complex aromas of mature red fruits with bright citrus notes and a touch of leather.
Cellers Scala Dei is a winery with a very ancient name; it is the founding winery of Priorat. Today it is a member of the Grupo Codorniu, the world's largest producer of Cava.
Traditional organic viticultural practices and manual labor create intense red wines with a deep cherry color and violet hues. They have lingering notes of ripe red fruits, plum and a touch of violets. They are tasty and well made wines, typical Priorat reds with intense minerality.
We tasted three single barrel wines all made from Garnatxa Negra that exhibited considerable taste differences because of the great variances of the soil the vines are growing.
2010 La Creueta de Scala Dei, a wine from grapes rooted in licorella, exhibited a nose of black juicy plums and strawberry jam, with hints of mocha, violets and herbs. It tastes of silky, perfumed, deep red and black fruits that linger in your mouth.
2010 St. Antoni de Scala Dei; here the difference is that the vines that make this wine are rooted in clay. The wine is deep cherry red in color with intense violet highlights. Sour black cherries and plums, delicately balsamic on the nose and a rather tannic black fruit dominated palate. There’s also some vanilla and a hint of tar. A few years in cellar will do wonders for this wine.
Finally, the 2011 Masdeu de Scala Dei, a very young wine as tasted, from a plot where clay and calcareous soil mix. Rich and expressive notes of black currant, chocolate and cedary cigar box with notable menthol nuances and a smidgeon of slate. Long, slightly tarry, tannic finish. Can also use considerable cellar time to mellow and let the tannins settle.
We were lucky enough to also taste the Scala Dei Cartoixa Reserva (the 2007 vintage is available in the US). It is Garnacha from the winery's best vineyards; a wonderful wine at the peek of perfection. The wine is robust but well balanced and rounded with ripe tannins. Soft red and black fruit, chocolate, vanilla and a touch of cigar box dominated the palate and nose. It is outstanding.
Another winery I should mention here, even though we did not visit it during this trip, is Celler Vall Llach, an excellent producer in the township of Porrerà, in Tarragona. The vineyards, planted en vaso i.e. bush trained to withstand the winds sweeping the steep mountainside, are planted facing Southeast, high above the town. The best wine, Porrerá de Vi de Vila de Vall Llach, is created from over 100-year old ancient vines. For more details on the wines of Celler Vall Llach, please see the Vall Llach story.
Viticultores del Priorat, Morlanda, is another bodega that produces exceptional wines on 22 hectares of terraces. The hillsides were initially planted in the 12th century on distinctive licorella slate soil that imparts mineral and balsamic notes to the resulting wine. The estate is in the tiny village of Bellmunt del Priorat, and Morlanda is made solely from estate-grown fruit, hand-harvested from vines planted on flinty slopes and flat plateaus at plot altitudes of 190-220 meters above sea level. Most of the grapes in production are from 25 to 45 years old vines. There are intense, heady cherry, dark fruit and blackberry aromas augmented by hints of tar, leather and smoke on the nose. The textbook -- but young -- Garnacha-Carignan blend was a bit tight on the palate until it had a chance to settle with lively berry, plum, earth and mineral flavors and well integrated ripe tannins. Only on the long finish does a touch of sweet raisin richness rise up.
Torres Priorat is a very modern young winery producing two high quality wines, Salmos and Perpetual, from 80 hectares of vineyards near the villages of El Loar and Porrerà. Old Garnatxa and Cariñena vines, planted on steep slopes of slate, form the essence of Perpetual. The winery was created in 1996 as a part of the Miguel Torres family estates, one of the largest wine producers in the world with vineyards in Spain, Chile, and California.
Torres Priorat and Jean Leon, Penedès, another Torres high quality winery, are run by Mireia Torres Maczassek, the daughter of Miguel A. Torres.
Jean Leon, the winery, is named after the famous Jean Leon, co-owner with James Dean of the extremely luxurious “La Scala” restaurant in Hollywood. The winery creates a number of exceptional single vineyard wines from Vinya La Scala, Vinya Le Havre, Vinya Palau and Vinya Gigi.
Vinya La Scala is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon monovarietal Gran Reserva, a limited production bottling. It originates in an 8-hectare certified organic vineyard, and is only produced in years when climactic conditions will ensure an exceptional wine. To develop the aging potential for the wine, it is kept for 24 months in French oak; then allowed to mature for a minimum of 3 years in bottle. The sample we tasted was 10 years old, with powerful aromas and flavors of black currants and dates, tobacco and cedar with hints of coffee and chocolate. It is very well structured with balanced acidity and tannin levels. It exhibits a long and lingering finish.
Priorat, is only one of the many outstanding wine DOCs that are part of Catalonia. Whenever you travel to Spain, make sure to taste the exceptional wines Priorat produces, with some Catalan specialties. You will be amply rewarded when matching excellent local foods with these phenomenal wines.
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