Priorat: the next big red

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Priorat, the boutique wine region southwest of Barcelona known for its distinctive, staggeringly expensive red wines, is coming of age. The number of wineries here has nearly doubled in five years, acres of new vineyards are being planted, and even the winemakers who personify the isolated region’s fiercely independent spirit are channeling their ambition toward making more affordable wines. Despite the high costs of working the steep terrain, wines expressive of this amazing terroir are now within reach of wine lovers other than just the deep-pocketed cognoscenti.

But as quickly as Priorat’s reputation was made, it could be lost as some of these new wines fail to live up to the region’s high standards.

In 1992, Priorat rocketed to the top of the Spanish wine world with the release of its first modern wine, a blend of Garnacha and Cariñena with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that was made by a co-op of five growers. (It was bottled under five different labels including Clos Mogador and Clos Erasmus.) As individual winemakers brought their vintages to market in the next few years, the distinctive minerality of the region’s forbidding slate soils seemed chiseled into the powerful reds. When most emerging regions were peddling interchangeable fruit-driven wines, Priorat stood out.

Signature taste

At their best, Priorat wines are blends dominated by either Garnacha or Cariñena grapes with complex cherry and black-plum flavors indicative of mature vines. They have aromas of wild thyme, tarragon, curry and dill, as well as the native lavender and violets that grow in profusion throughout the countryside. They have a rough hewn character but are as sophisticated as any top Bordeaux, with a signature graphite bite and dense, inky texture reflecting soils that are a stark contrast to the organic turf in the Montsant Denominació d’Origen that surrounds Priorat’s hills.

The quick success of the small wineries lured Spain’s largest wine companies. A building boom in the last five years has nearly doubled the number of wineries to 85. New Priorat wines, some priced as low as $11 a bottle, can be found in L.A.'s fine wine stores.

It’s a good bet that most of the new wines will be laudable, said Alvaro Palacios, one of the evolving region’s original wine pioneers, after a tour of his dazzling new Finca Dofi winery in Gratallops. “Priorat is such an extreme natural region,” he said. “The worst guy is going to make wine with character in our Eldorado.”

It’s a common claim. In the most basic equation, there is no compromise possible in Priorat. It is never easy to grow grapes here, as Palacios points out. There is no flat terrain. Every vine must be planted on perilous hillsides in the region’s defining slate soils.

“Priorat is exciting. It is one of the most obviously terroir-driven wines in the world,” says London-based wine critic Jancis Robinson. But Priorat has always been a little ahead of itself, and the latest rush means more less-exciting wines. “Prices took off like a rocket just a bit too soon than was justified,” she says. “The top wines, such as those made by the [modern] pioneers, are very good. But the region as a whole is showing every sign of becoming another Ribera del Duero with too many newcomer buccaneers coming in and overcharging for their young wines.”

Priorat is entering an important period, said René Barbier, the forward-looking vintner who first brought modern winemaking to the region, speaking at Clos Mogador, his winery in Gratallops. He has continued to make his $100-per-bottle Clos Mogador, as well as a new wine, Manyetes, which uses old-vine fruit from heritage vineyards. Priorat will become an established wine region when it becomes accessible to more wine lovers, he said.

“The region needs some larger players. We need to have less expensive wines,” Barbier said, but the wines must be of good quality.

Unforgiving terrain

On another morning, the ground made a sharp crunching sound as Salus Alvarez, the winemaker at Vall Llach, a Porrera winery, walked across the shards of shale that blankets the ground of a 90-year-old vineyard. No topsoil cushioned his step. The drive through the hills to get to the top of the area planted with Cariñena grapes can nauseate a visitor, but the view of the Montsant range beyond is spectacular.

Vall Llach’s owner, Luís Llach (a folk musician whose anti-Franco songs made him the Bob Dylan of Spain), bought the vineyard from a 73-year-old woman from the nearby village of Porrera, who thought she had grown too old to tend the vines. Until retirement, she’d walk up the hill daily to shimmy down the dark gray splinters of rock, tending the wild-looking bush vines as she went. Each day, she would tend a different row.

“These are the best grapes we harvest every year,” Alvarez said. No chemicals. No terraces. No trellises. No irrigation. The shale fragments, called schist or llicorella, glisten in the hot sun. But beneath the forbidding surface, the rocks trap the moisture from infrequent Priorat rains, keeping the vine roots cool during the blazing summers. On the traditional slope vineyards, roots work their way down 10 to 20 meters through cracks in the rocks seeking pockets of moisture. The vines produce very few grapes, however.

The outsiders who brought modern winemaking to the region may have put Priorat on the map, Alvarez said, “but they didn’t understand it.” When the winemakers planted new vineyards, they built wide terraces that could support tractors, not realizing until later how terraces could cause erosion and disrupt the land’s natural water retention. There was no agricultural regulation in Priorat in those days, he said. “Everyone did whatever they wanted with the land.”

Recently, he said, as the people in the region have witnessed the environmental challenges created by the rush to build terraced vineyards on ever-steeper hillsides, they’ve passed new regulations. Terraces now are forbidden in the steeper slopes, and at least 40% of the natural vegetation must be preserved.

A long history

Priorat is a historic wine region, with a winemaking history that begins in the 12th century with the Carthusian monks of Scala Dei (a monastery whose ruins still stand at the base of the Montsant mountains) and extended until the late 19th century, when the phylloxera epidemic destroyed all the area vines. Replanting began immediately, then slowed after the Spanish Civil War, when the area, a Republican stronghold, was neglected by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist government. Until as late as the 1980s, only one single-lane road connected Priorat’s crumbling medieval towns to the rest of Spain. The local wine sold for pennies in 5-liter plastic jugs.

When Barbier bought vineyard land in Priorat in 1979, the town of Gratallops was limping along with one tractor and one telephone.

Born in nearby Tarragona and the son of a wine wholesaler, Barbier was, at the time, working in Rioja at the Palacios Redmundo winery owned by Palacios’ family. He developed his Priorat vineyard on weekends. “My father is intuitive,” said Barbier’s son, René Barbier Jr., during a recent interview. René, 32, who works with his father making wine at Clos Mogador, said, “He is also like a mule. He was certain that great wine was possible here.”

By the end of the 1980s, Barbier had talked five friends into planting vineyards in Priorat. Daphne Glorian, a Swiss citizen working for a wine importer, developed Clos Erasmus. Josep Lluís Pérez, the director of a vocational school in nearby Falset, started Clos Martinet. Guitar player-turned-journalist Carles Pastrana planted Clos de l’Obac. And Palacios left his family winery to follow his mentor to Priorat.

For three vintages -- 1989, 1990 and 1991 -- the group pooled their grapes to make one wine that was released under five separate labels. After that, they operated independently.

From that first release, American wine critic Robert Parker was a fan, going so far as to give Glorian’s first solo vintage 100 points on his 100-point scale. Prices soared on the limited production wines.

Palacios was the first of the group to question the validity of their early decision to cut terraces into the steep hillsides to make it easier to tend the vines and harvest the grapes. “Everything had to be new when we started,” he said. “We thought the grandfathers knew nothing.”

In 1993, Palacios made a wine with fruit from a 66-year-old Garnacha vineyard called L’Ermita. “L’Ermita changed my philosophy,” he said.

The wine also made him famous and is now the superstar of the region, commanding more than $300 a bottle, if you can find it. “Other romantics soon followed me into the old vineyards,” he said.

That success caught the attention of the local vineyard-owning families. Ramon Llagostera quit his job as an executive with PepsiCo in Barcelona and moved to his family’s ancestral home in Priorat. His Mas Doix wine is made with the grapes from vineyards that have been in his family for five generations.

Hanging on to a rope to keep from sliding down the hill, first his grandfather, then his father and eventually he had maintained the vines as a weekend hobby. “The Priorat is an old region, but we began again in the 1990s,” he said.

Learning from the past

The other pioneering vintners have grown to appreciate the old ways too. Though it is impossible to return terraced vineyards to their previous steep topography, Barbier, Palacios and Glorian are trying to bring balance to their terraced vineyards with organic viticulture and by allowing the herbs and flowers to grow wild. Glorian farms along the metaphysical principles of biodynamics.

At an informal gathering of winemakers on a recent morning in the tree-lined plaza of the town of Porrera (Priorat’s largest, with 500 residents), the discussion turned to the transformation of Priorat.

“The biggest change in the region? We can live here now,” said Joan Sangenis, a 32-year-old winemaker whose Mas d’en Compte wines are gaining attention, from, among others, critic Robinson who is particularly impressed with his Garnacha Blanca, a white wine made with fruit from 110-year-old vines. The fifth generation of his family to live in Porrera, Sangenis grew up assuming he would have to move away to find work after college. “By the time I finished school in the early 1990s,” he said, "[the pioneers] were selling their first wine. It changed my future. I began to study wine.”

Porrera and the other towns in Priorat have come back to life. A handful of restaurants and guesthouses have opened in Porrera’s newly restored 15th century homes. School-age children play in the narrow cobblestone streets. But asked whether there is much night life, the group laughed. The closest movie theater is an hour away in Tarragona.

A second generation is taking the reins at some of the original wineries. René Barbier Jr. runs Clos Mogador, and his wife, Sara Perez, has taken over winemaking from her father at Clos Martinet. Together, they make a wine, La Vinya del Vuit, as a cooperative effort with a group of friends much as their fathers did 15 years ago. With other young winemakers, they have opened Irreductibles, a wine store-restaurant in Gratallops that has a more contemporary menu than most restaurants in the region.

The young vintners have been more conservative than the pioneers were, said Esther Nin, general manager of Glorian’s Clos Erasmus and a critically acclaimed Priorat winemaker in her own right with the wine Nit de Nin. “We like to work with mules on the slope vineyards, not tractors on terraces.” Nin, who grew up nearby, pulled her dreadlocks back in a knot at the nape of her neck and spoke intently about the need to protect the land from “industrial farming” typified by some of the newly constructed terraces.

On a larger scale

In a separate interview, Miguel Torres Jr., head of Spain’s largest family-run wine company, said the large wine companies also face challenges when making wine in Priorat. Though the early modern winemakers and most local families count their vineyard acreage only in single digits, Torres has 240 acres of new terraced vineyards near the towns of Porrera and Lloar in Priorat. Construction of a Torres winery is to be completed this year. Although the vines were planted in 1996, the 2005 vintage of Torres’ Salmos now in stores is its first. Creating a good Priorat wine has been a difficult process, he said, much more difficult than he expected.

Salmos wine was worth the trouble, he said: “Priorat is paradise for red wines with personality.” But it would have been impossible to even try without building terraces, he said. “It is dangerous to work these vineyards even with the terraces.”

Cava makers Freixenet and Codorníu and sherry producer Osborne, to name a few of the new, larger players who are bankrolling large Priorat wine projects, have also planted hundreds of acres of terraced vineyards. Mas Perinet, funded by a group of Spanish investors, is among the largest wine estates in Priorat today. Seventy-five acres of its 750-acre estate near Poboleda are terraced with vineyards constructed using wire mesh boxes filled with rocks. In places, the terraces are reinforced with shot concrete.

These huge operations will prove to be too much too soon if the new wines fall short. Meanwhile, Priorat’s reputation as one of the wine world’s most distinctive regions hangs in the balance.