When The Times tasting panel met last week to assess red wines from Priorat, it seemed to everyone that we were tasting two types of wine. The division was striking between wines priced from $65 to $175 in one flight and those priced $40 or less in another. The best -- from the pricier flight -- were powerful and complex, sophisticated and elegant, with tantalizing wild herb and floral aromas and mouthwatering, black fruit flavors.
The panel was far less enthusiastic about the less expensive flight. Astringent and tight, those wines were difficult to grasp and much harder to love. An interesting exception was the least expensive, Ónix. A co-op wine from the town of Gratallops, Ónix can only be as good as the grapes sold to the winery in any particular vintage. For the 2005 vintage, the grapes came from vineyards averaging 55 years old, producing a generous, fruity wine that's a terrific bargain.
Most of the wines -- all blends made from Cariñena and/or Garnacha grape varieties, often with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and/or Merlot -- displayed the signature minerality of the slate soils in this hot, dry, mountainous region. The less expressive wines, primarily those from the less expensive flight, tended to be made with grapes from younger vineyards.
The 16 wines are grouped below in the two flights. They are ranked in order of the panel's preference. Two wines in the tasting are not yet available in Los Angeles area stores -- the 2004 Capafons-Ossó Sirsell and the 2000 Mas d'en Gil Clos Fontà -- but they are expected to be available soon. Joining me on the panel were Food editor Leslie Brenner, restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, food columnist Russ Parsons and assistant Food editor Betty Hallock.
Priorat tasting: pricey versus populist First flight2005 Ònix Clàssic. An accessible wine with dusty blackberry and herbal aromas and juicy cherry and plum flavors, this blend of Cariñena and Garnacha was the panel's favorite in the under $40 category. With a little time in the glass, it opened up dramatically. Available at K & L Wine Merchants in Hollywood, (323) 464-9463, www.klwines.com; Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454, wineex.com; and Mission Wines in South Pasadena, (626) 403-9463, missionwines.com. About $11. 2005 Torres Salmos. A tart, silky wine that's well-balanced but seems as if it hasn't quite come together. Herbal and sweet black aromas give way to flavors of boysenberries and black cherries. The fruit -- a blend of Garnacha, Cariñena and Syrah with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon -- is from estate vineyards near the towns of Porrera and Lloar. Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, www.winehouse.com. About $32. 2004 Mas Doix Salanques. A tight, leathery wine with edgy minerality and a pleasing astringency, this frisky blend is the winery's less expensive secondary label. Available at Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, (805) 966-9463, winecask.com; Twenty Twenty Wine Merchants in West Los Angeles, (310) 447-2020, www.2020wines.com; and Wine House. About $42. 2005 Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses.This dark, tannic wine offers black pepper and anise aromas and bold, black fruit flavors. A blend of 40% Garnacha, 40% Cariñena and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this is Palacios' entry-level wine made with fruit purchased from seven vineyards near Gratallops. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463, www.hitimewine.net; K & L Wine Merchants; Wine House and Mission Wines. About $35. 2004 Vall Llach Embruix. This entry-level wine from a celebrated winery is sweet and jammy, with licorice aromas and full, round tannins. The out-of-balance alcohol in this blend gives the wine unpleasant heat. Available at Wine Cask, Wine Exchange, Wine House and Mission Wines. About $34. 2004 L'Encastell Marge. This dense, herbaceous wine tastes like sweet tar and black cherries. Although it has a nice mouth-feel and some minerality, it's young, tough and a bit medicinal. Available at Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024, silverlakewine.com; and Hi-Time Wine Cellars. About $22. 2004 Mas d'en Compte. A dense, chewy blend with sweet fruit flavors and spicy, herbal aromas. Available at Silverlake Wine and Wine House. About $39. 2004 Capafons-Ossó Sirsell. This entry-level wine from one of the region's most established vineyard families is rough and earthy, with an odd, dill pickle aroma and finish. Not yet available in the Los Angeles area. About $37. Second flight2003 Alvaro Palacios Finca Dofí. This darkly elegant, Garnacha-dominated wine offers aromas of blackberry and black plums with a touch of menthol. On the palate it's concentrated, tightly structured and well-balanced, with powerful, dark fruit flavors, good acidity and a long finish. Available at Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606, www.wallywine.com; Wine House and Wine Cask. About $80. 2000 Mas d'en Gil Clos Fontà. Approachable and on the softer side, though with a hint of sternness, this blend is rich and concentrated. The flavors are layered -- lots of black plum -- lined with serious minerality; the finish is long. The producer holds the wine in bottle for four years longer than most other Priorat producers. Not yet available in the Los Angeles area. About $90. 2004 Clos Erasmus. Elegant and smooth, this is a wine the panelists kept coming back to in the glass. The bouquet offers violets and brambly red fruit, and the wine is lovely in the mouth, with bright cherry and cranberry flavors. Chewy and intense, the finish is long with an Amarone-like sweetness. Available at Wine Cask. About $175. 2004 Vall Llach. Intriguing, sweet fruit aromas with a hint of campfire smoke in a complex, focused and sophisticated Cariñena-based wine that offers velvety tannins and deep, mouthwatering black fruit and peppery flavors. Available at Wine Cask and Wine House. About $80. 2004 Clos Martinet.An open, accessible, well-balanced, harmonious wine with leather aromas and cherry and plum flavors. Well-knit and complex, dense and layered, with a touch of pencil lead on the finish. Available at Wine House and Hi-Time Wine Cellars. About $65. 2004 Clos Mogador. A woodsy wine, dense, minerally, smooth yet edgy, with aromas of brambly fruit and wild herbs. Available at Wally's Wine & Spirits, Wine Exchange and Wine House. About $100. 2003 Familia Sadia, Dits del Terra. Bright acidity and a fine texture distinguish this blend of 50% Garnacha and 50% Cariñena with round, full tannins, juicy fruit flavors and an undulating finish. Available at K & L Wine Merchants. About $90. 2004 La Vinya del Vuit El Ocho. The reticence of the violet and wild herb aromas makes this dense, tannic wine less appealing than the others in this category. Mostly Cariñena, with only a touch of Garnacha, it's rather tight and young. Available at K & L Wine Merchants. About $100.