In many ways, not much has changed in Priorat since the arrival of Carthusian monks in the 12th century. They sought solace in this rugged, unforgiving, yet beautiful environment. As they did elsewhere in Europe, they also planted vines, further developing the work earlier initiated by the Romans on steep schist and slate (known locally as “llicorella”) hillsides. The 1980's and 90's brought a mixture of hippies, idealists, and romantics to Priorat. Many dreamed of producing Spain’s Grand Cru wines. Some wanted to produce “important” wines. The most successful of these burgeoning wineries, however, simply wanted to create wines which honored their land, their culture, and Priorat’s legacy as a place where for years people have sought fulfillment in the natural environment. While the 90's and early 00's saw huge growth (plantings up from 2,000 to 4,000 acres), the tail end of that decade represented a rather sudden and dramatic rough patch, brought on by the financial crisis, a lack of affordable everyday Priorats on offer, and a tough reception from many in the wine trade.
Then, perhaps beginning five or so years ago, things began to change. I will readily admit that I have at times been on the critical side of this Spanish wine D.O. I used to find many of the wines hot, overly alcoholic, and overly oaked. These days, to borrow a political catch phrase, Priorat has enacted “change we can believe in.” Many producers in Priorat, from the long-time leaders to aspiring newcomers, have proven that they are fired up and ready to go. Some key changes in the region, which many (myself included) believe have made these wines better than they have ever been, are:
-Increasing use of used barrels, including 300 and 600 liter puncheons—even one to 3,000 foudres in the fermenting and ageing of wines.
-Identification of individual villages, and village wines. This is the “vi de vila” designation you will see on front label. Porrera, Gratallops, Torroja, La Vilella Baixa, these are four of Priorat’s twelve villages
-Naming the “partidas” or historic parcels long recognized for the quality of their vines. This is similar to the “lieu dits” (literally, “named places”) of Burgundy. From here, the goal for many leading producers in Priorat is that 1er and Grand Cru vineyards will eventually develop, either established by the Priorat D.O.Q, as determined informally by the market, or both.
Some of our recent Priorats epitomize these positive developments. Celler Cecilio, based in the village of Gratallops, made a delicious 2013 Priorat, bursting at the seams with crushed blackberry and ollalieberry fruit, with a mineral definition and freshness that becomes all the more apparent a day after opening. This will improve for at least 4-6 years. The 2013 Mas Alta "Black Slate" from the village of La Vilella Alta is richer, a bit heavier, and an ideal introduction to the wines of Priorat for someone who favors full-bodied California Cabernet and red blends. Then of course, there are the highly sought after wines of Alvaro Palacios and Clos Mogador, two of the group of five pioneers who helped to develop and define this region beginning in 1989, and continue their work to this day. We have a few remaining bottles of Palacios’ incredible 2013’s and the highly pointed 2012 Clos Mogador as well.
Last July, I spent a week in Priorat, using the lovely village of Porrera as a home base. Community life here is once again flourishing, as many city dwellers have returned to, or soughtout for the first time, these country villages. The air is clean, it’s safe for kids to play in the streets, and there is undoubtedly a relaxed, communal vibe. Things here remind me of the Sonoma Coast: a bit rugged, but unmistakably beautiful. If you love wine, nature, hiking, and a place to quietly ruminate and relax, Priorat should absolutely be on your list of wine regions to visit. It’s an hour and a half drive from Barcelona, or about forty minutes from the historic coastal city of Tarragona.