This year marked the second occurrence of the biennial (i.e., every other year) Espai Priorat International Exhibition of DOCa Priorat Wines, hosted by none other than the Regulatory Council of the Qualified Designation of Origin Priorat and coordinated by a delightful British expat, Rachel Ritchie.
In case you don’t know (I didn’t), Priorat is a small region in the southwestern corner of Catalonia, crowned by the Montsant mountain range at every direction. Another brief explanation for those out of the loop: the DOCa designation is granted by the Spanish government to certify that the wines of a specific region adhere to traditions and rules advocated by the winemakers of that region. DOCa is a step above what most denominations receive (most are just DO – Denomination of Origin) – the “Ca” stands for Calificada.
I would estimate that at 23 years old, I was the youngest person at the exhibition by roughly ten years. I say this to highlight my inexperience with wine culture – what is to follow is only my impression of Priorat as a budding aficionado, not an expert. If they knew better, they would have made sure to secure the more knowledgeable Doc.
In any case, one must give credit where credit is due (consider this disclosure): The Priorat foundation paid for my flights both to and from Spain and accommodated me for four nights while I joined the swarm of industry folks who ate their food and tasted their wines. There were some foibles in organization and transportation but on the whole it was a terrific showcase of the region and its world-class wine, entirely on their dime.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the international wine press over the last decade, you’ve probably seen expensive wines from Priorat crop up every once in a while. If you’re like me, you haven’t been. Instead, you might be dependent on the sommelier at a restaurant, clerk at a liquor store, or your father to pick something good out of the wine cellar. Like most exhibitions, this one’s purpose was to generate awareness of something that a particular group of people take extraordinary pride in. In this case, it’s their delicious wine.
Priorat has long depended on the wine trade to connect it with the outside world. Some locals I spoke with contend that wine production begane over two millennia ago, when the Romans had their Iberian capital in the nearby city of Tarragona. Naturally they required wine, so they allegedly employed the fertile grounds and industrious people of Priorat to produce it. Priorat’s viticultural history is murky during the Dark Ages, but the official history begins in the year 1194 with the Roman Catholic Church, one of the largest landowners on the planet. The Church funded the construction of the secluded Scala Dei monastery, where Carthusian monks toiled under the watchful gaze of God and the region’s namesake, the Prior. The rural poor assisted this holy endeavor, sweating blood in the mountains while the silent monks pickled themselves to endure.
This way of life continued for over 600 years, until in 1835 the government seized most of the region from the Church and redistributed it to local families. Suddenly empowered, the new landowners saw profits as they exported their vino around the peninsula. But the Christian god is jealous. As if in response to the state’s usurpation of the Church’s land, the phylloxera blight wiped out winemaking in Priorat. Without a source of income, families fled in search greener vineyards elsewhere in Spain.
Most of the vineyards were completely wiped out, but in time people returned to the lives that they knew from childhood, or that their parents passed down during exile. These early re-adopters started the oldest vineyards you can find today. These vines average about 100 years of age. Like a grandfather, they’re gnarled and crusty on the outside, but inside is the thin, rich vein of life that a family treasures. While a few of these rare vineyards belong to be their original post-Priory owners, the greater proportion belongs to larger bodegas that have the profit margins to care for them.
Because of the plague, the vast majority of Priorat’s vineyards are relatively new. Unlike their elder counterparts, most of these vines were planted in the late 1980s and 90s, their grapes destined for the Spanish table. This production wasn’t so much a secret as it was unknown, but in the mid-90s wine publications started to whisper about some fine, rich wines coming out of Priorat. Its reputation grew and production boomed; today you will find a region overflowing with booming garnatxa blends along with more tempered whites.
Priorat is a small, rural area, but there each of the many producers has their own style of winemaking. Some are organic like the Formiga winery, which I visited and enjoyed very much. On organic vineyards, you will find that grasses and wildflowers grow alongside the vines – advocates claim that they infuse the grapes with their herbaceous qualities, though you will find many who dismiss that opinion. Also fascinating is the biodynamic movement, which has several levels of certification. In order to qualify for the highest certificate, a winery must expose its aging wine to moonlight and sunlight because, like other living things, it responds to natural phenomena.
The wine industry draws an eccentric crowd. Some individuals are more eccentric than others, but the fact that everybody is free to market their wines however they’d like means that you’ll find some strange claims on a bottle. However, there is one thing that sets Priorat’s wines apart from the pack: its unique soil. Old and new vines alike dig their roots into licorella slate, the bedrock of the Mont Sant range and its foothills. This rocky soil has unique absorptive properties (which preserves water in dry season while preventing erosion during rains) and infuses Priorat wines with a distinct minerality that in many cases survives the popular new-oak barrel aging process.
I learned a great deal about these wines along the way, but especially during the tasting showcase they put on at the beautiful Escala Dei monastery. It was awe-inspiring, and then the skies opened. The Mont Sant range frames the estate like enormous curtains; the downpour felt like a heavenly shower. Much of the grounds lie in ruined splendor, gutted for stone by locals and refugees after the Spanish Civil War. If you look closely in the surrounding villages, you might notice arches and cornerstones rebuilt with ethereal pink stone.
Espai Priorat used a recently renovated prayer hall for the showcase, built to the original size in newly quarried stone (another industry in this industrially-challenged region). The tasting lasted almost five hours, and after six bodegas my exhausted palate couldn’t discern a formiga (a young wine) from a gran reserva (barrel-aged for a minimum of three years). There was a lot to learn in speaking to the producers and to the wine experts who milled around the space; there was also a lot to learn from Gerry.
I made a host of new friends during my three days with Espai Priorat. Some new friends were local chefs, businesspeople, and of course winemakers, but the exposition brought a variety of people from around the world. In my group I enjoyed the company of a fellow journalists from Toronto and Madrid, two affable gentlemen from Napa Valley and a soft-spoken professor from Beijing. Dinners brought the disparate six-person groups together in a central location, splitting and mixing the groups at different tables around the dining room. As educational as it was to see vineyards and meet producers, I learned just as much from the international folks I spent my days with!
Later on when I visited, tasted, and learned in other regions of Spain, it became even easier to define what separates Priorat from other Spanish DOs. Unlike many Spanish DOs, its wines are big. Fortunately, they haven’t forgotten where they come from. Like its province, Catalonia, Priorat is fighting for independence in the world community. Wearing its Catalan heart on its sleeve, Priorat deserves your attention. Ask your local liquor outlet to stock it and see for yourself!