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Spain, Priorat: Back on Track with 2012 and 2013!

 

In my initial review of Priorat I talked about how the region was at a crossroads. Now, my feeling is that the appellation is back on track. This is not to say that the appellation has entirely grown up in the last 16 months, but when I visited this time I sensed a change. The 2013 and 2014 "Atlantic" vintages have afforded Priorat perfect weather for initiating a change, perhaps even providing an excuse to move away from wines that are overripe, over-extracted and excessively heavy. This shift in style might well have started in 2010, which was a balanced vintage, and in doing so it placed the torrid 2011 as the outlier that brought back too many excessive wines.

The surprise was 2012, which despite being a very dry and warm vintage produced very balanced wines that are fresher than most producers were expecting. Some wineries produced their best wines to date in that 2012 vintage - until 2013 came along!

2012 was one of the warmest and driest vintages (the driest in 25 years!) and was the third consecutive hot and dry vintage in the Mediterranean zone generally and in Priorat specifically. The extreme drought and heat conditions so close to harvest blocked the plants from ripening the grapes such that they no longer produced sugar, and acidity levels didn't fall much. Scattered rains came in October when the majority of grapes were harvested, and might have been what ultimately saved the vintage. For this report I tasted all of the top wines from 2012 already in bottle so I can confirm that the wines are as fresh and balanced as I found them to be when younger., but they are showing much, much better than anticipated given the vintage conditions. In general, a ripe, warm vintage yields really healthy grapes, but in 2012 not only were the grapes healthy, they were also balanced, which is not always the case. Of course, yields were lower but this didn't result in excessive concentration, meaning the wines can be ripe but fine and elegant. It depends on the producer, of course. 2011 was clearly a year for Cariñena as this hardy grape takes heat much better than the more fragile Garnacha, which tends to get cooked in very warm vintages like 2011. 2012 provided perfect conditions for Garnacha, which ripened properly, but didn't turn into jam like many from the 2011 vintage.

 

The warm 2011 vintage was a year for Cariñena. These gnarled old vines are in the Manyettes quarter of Gratallops

 

As for 2013, it is as good as promised, or even better? Most people talk about it being the freshest vintage in modern times, even their best harvest ever. The climatic conditions were more or less "normal" with enough rain during the autumn of 2012 and also some in the spring. The summer was predictably warm and dry, with September and October remaining dry. Harvest started at the end of August (think whites) and lasted until the end of November. Keep in mind that Priorat's lowest-altitude vineyard is in the village of El Molar at 100 meters above sea level, and the highest is in La Morera de Montsant at 750 meters altitude. The differences in altitude alone can mean up to three weeks' difference in ripening. That's quite a difference!

The harvest was around two weeks later than in previous years, affording the grapes a chance to ripen slowly and to perfection without any rain whatsoever. They also harvested slowly and in no rush. Some of the cooler, higher and/or north-facing plots were harvested well into November. It was the perfect vintage. The resulting wines could be the freshest ever; they are really lively,balanced and elegant. They also show their roots and variety quite transparently.

 

Modern Priorat celebrated its 25th birthday in September 2014

 

I only tasted a handful of 2014s. Álvaro Palacios is so successful with his Camins del Priorat that the 2014 vintage was out by February 2015! But that's really an exception. It's still a little early to talk about them (I think I tasted a grand total of three bottled wines!). To give a high-level overview I will say that 2014 is a fresh vintage, with good rain in spring and a predictably warm summer. In September 2014 there was a very emotive celebration to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 vintage of the new Priorat. On this exceptional occasion the pioneers were allowed to have dinner at the Cartoixa de Scala Dei monastery with plenty of the old vintages present to enjoy. I'll share more about the 2014s (and especially the 2013s, as most of the top wines were not yet bottled) next time I report on Priorat.

Priorat's best

When I talk about fresher, purer, more drinkable wines I'm not talking about the 100 or so wineries in the appellation already following this path. There is always a group leading any change; usually a small group. In every appellation I talk about a handful of producers leading the way, those who have a clear idea, who know where they are going and who will define where the others eventually go. You need to go no further than my tasting notes and comments on the wines included in this article to know those who are behind because there are still plenty of overripe, blurry and excessive wines being made.

In Priorat's last couple of vintages many wineries produced their best wines in recent history. Wines from the leading wineries are fresher, have better acidity and balance and are more drinkable than ever. That does not mean that the wines are wimpy since the region's harsh natural conditions will always produce powerful wines. But the search is for the most balance, elegance and drinkability within that powerful profile. Some of the Cariñena-based wines, like those from Mas Doix or Ferrer-Bobet, show extreme power, with the 1902 from Mas Doix being a real bruiser. Still, they manage to keep their poise within their XL character.

 

Unusual training system for some vines belonging to Mas Martinet

 

But generalizations are dangerous and not all producers or wines are the same. Yes, the scores create a hierarchy within the wines, but sometimes it's also useful to make a hierarchy within the producers. As with everywhere, the producer is the last step in the process and the one who realizes (or not!) the potential of the vineyard and vintage. Today, this is my list of leading wineries in Priorat (in alphabetical order):

Álvaro Palacios
Clos I Terrasses
Clos Mogador
Ferrer-Bobet
Mas Alta
Mas Doix
Mas Martinet / Sara I René (difficult to separate all the things they do)
Terroir al Límit

 

Terror al Límit produced their best collection of wines in 2013

 

And again in alphabetical order, producers who are making progress and who should be followed:

Familia Nin-Ortiz
Fredi Torres
Mas d'en Gil
Scala Dei

A lot has been written about the names from the first list, but you might be less familiar with these last four, so let's have a look at them.

 

You can already read the name of the partidas in the labels of the superb 2012s from Familia Nin-Ortiz in Porrera

 

Familia Nin-Ortiz is the name of the family formed by Ester Nin and Carles Ortiz. Ester, originally from Penedès, works for Daphne Glorian at Clos I Terrases (Clos Erasmus) and started making small amounts of wine as a side project before she met Carles. Barcelona-born Carles is one of those attracted by the magnetism of Priorat. He arrived there a climber and was turned into an organic grape grower. He met Ester, found some amazing vineyards in Porrera and never left. They now have babies, both wine and real ones. Their wines Nit de Nin and Planetes were superb in 2012. I visited the Mas d'en Caçador vineyard in Porrera with Carles and when you see it, you realize that vineyard HAS to produce great wine. Their 2013s were in bottle, but they showed very reductive and even if I tasted them twice giving them plenty of air, I prefer to wait until my next review of the region. I suspect they might even be better than the phenomenal 2012s. But right now they are almost impossible to read.

 

When you see the Mas d'en Caçador vineyard in Porrera you KNOW it HAS to produce great wine!

 

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Fredi Torres is an ex-DJ who used to rock Ibiza on the dance floor. Originally from Galicia, he grew up in Valais, in Switzerland where he learned how to make wine. After visiting the Priorat and working on a vintage with René Barbier at Clos Mogador, he got the magnetic call from the place and he stayed. He's starting from scratch for the second time after leaving the project he built with some financial partners, Sao de Coster. Today he's only offering some basic wines, but he's using all his experience to do things differently. For example, looking for the granite soils (they are scarce, but they exist) to find fresher grapes for the entry-level wines. He has the ideas, he has the attitude, and he will make it.

Marta Rovira is, slowly but steadily, putting Mas d'en Gil at the top of the hierarchy. Working relentlessly, she has the heritage of the other historical name in Priorat, Masía Barril. And Marta Rovira is, slowly but steadily, putting Mas d'en Gil at the top of the hierarchy. Working relentlessly, she has the heritage of the other historical name in Priorat, Masía Barril. And she's doing it with respect for tradition having convinced her family to allow her to do so and to follow her. The wines get better and better with each vintage, irrespective of weather conditions, which is a clear sign of a winery in progress. I shared a bit of time with her, but didn't have the chance to visit her vineyards. I shall do so next time.

Scala Dei (re) Joins the Leading Group

If there is one historic winery in Priorat, it is Scala Dei. They bottled the first appellation wine in 1974 and they were the only winery to sell bottled wine at that time. However, quality slipped during the 1980s and 1990s. The Peyra family retained some of the best vineyards in the Scala Dei monastery, some of the highest in Priorat and some of the very few to be planted on clay and chalky soils that produce wines of a different texture to the majority of Priorat where the soils are slate-based. The winery is now co-owned with giant Cava producer Codorníu and is allowing the new winemaker to do things his way: the old way.

I visited these vineyards with winemaker Ricard Rofes, mainly Sant Antoni and Mas Deu, and tasted the still unbottled 2013 wines produced from those vineyards on site. Not only the view from both is terrific (they are high above the Monastery and you can see the whole of Priorat from there!), but when you see the soils and the vineyards, the attitude and the old vines, you understand that each wine can have a different character: if Sant Antoni is blue, Mas Deu is red. They are different expressions of a common theme. Mas Deu is always fresher and more ethereal. I'm dying to see the 2013s in bottle, but for now the 2012s are terrific.

 

The Mas Deu vineyard from Scala Dei. Notice the chalky soils and absence of slate

 

What Rofes is doing is fairly simple: he observes how the wines were produced in the 1970s and replicates the process. This means fermentation in cement vats with indigenous yeasts, of course, and some temperature peaks (not so much control) followed by aging in large, well-seasoned, oak foudres. He's aiming to produce the single-vineyard wines, which vary from vintage to vintage given that some of the plots are fairly small and sometimes do not yield enough grapes for a separate cuvée, or the conditions are simply not optimal. The experience and results make their way back into the rest of the wines. There is an awesome general improvement in quality here. I'm really excited once again about Scala Dei wines. You can freely translate Scala Dei as Stairway to Heaven and you'll never forget them!

Praise for the Appellation: Building the Pyramid

I find myself talking more and more about places; old Cariñena from Mas d'en Caçador, the granite soils close to Falset, the higher-altitude vineyards of Scala Dei on chalky soils from the Montsant Mountains. It is now possible to see and understand the character of the different villages and the vi de vila, the village wine category made official a few years ago. Taken together, it makes sense that the wines are moving away from foreign varieties, that ripening is not taken to extremes and that aging in barrel respects the character of the wines. Little by little the character of Porrera, that of Gratallops and perhaps the higher-altitude vineyards (the Les Manyes from Terroir al Límit) or villages (La Morera), is showing in the wine. There is a long way to go, particularly since all this change is still limited to leading wineries that are exploring and finding the path for the appellation to continue advancing.

The appellation is working to define all the vineyards in the different villages, à la Burgundy, going back to the old people and asking about the names, delimiting the zones/places/quarters, what in some parts of Spain is called parajes, or in Priorat they call partidas or partides. These are wider extensions of land more than single plots of vineyards and are places that have names, old names, names that could be used by different people who grow vines there. In effect, these are lieu-dits, or named-places. The old-timers knew which of these partidas produced better wine. I saw draft maps of the work, one for each village, and it looks fantastic. They are just like the lieu-dit maps of Burgundy that you might know by heart. Maybe one day you'll know the partidas of Priorat too.

 

Eagle's eye view of the wine villages of Priorat

 

The appellation is building the hierarchy, the location pyramid starting from the bottom. They first defined the villages and their vi de vila: Bellmunt del Priorat, Gratallops, El Lloar, La Morera de Montsant, Porrera, Poboleda, Scala Dei, Torroja del Priorat, La Vilella Alta, La Vilella Baixa and the zones of Masos de Falset and Les Solanes del Molar. Then they moved on to define the "partidas" or"parajes," some of which are already starting to show up on labels: Partida Bellvisos, Mas d'en Caçador, Aubaguetes. In the future the single-vineyards will come, the Grand Crus. For some time they moved ahead to place some of the single-vineyards at the very top of the pyramid before building the base. They soon corrected their strategy and returned to building the hierarchy from the bottom, which I think is the correct way.

 

A draft map of the vineyard quarters of Gratallops

 

The advantage is that the appellation is working hand in hand with the top wineries. Álvaro Palacios is very involved, and so are many of his colleagues. We often hear complaints (I complain a lot myself!) about the Appellations of Origin system in Spain, how they want everything to be equal and that they work to maintain the status quo of a bygone era. The system seems to pretend that every place and vineyard is the same; that origin doesn't count. But not really in Priorat. This appellation is so young and driven by quality producers that they do not suffer the same issues that the larger and more traditional appellations endure. So, for once, there is one appellation building a hierarchy and trying to put in place a real classification regardless of whether it is never as detailed (or as hierarchical) as it is in Burgundy. The Grand Crus should, with time (a very long time!), be defined by the market. So here, rather than a complaint, they have my praise. Kudos to Priorat!

Rancios Still Alive (and Kicking?)

I wrote about the rancio wines in my first article: "the traditional (great) wines from the region were therancios, the "oxidized" wines that were produced and managed in a way that was feasible for the warm Mediterranean climate of the region. Those are the wines the real old-timers think of when great wines are mentioned, which would be at risk of disappearing if it was not for a couple of people here and there who insist on producing them; but there's no demand, knowledge and I'd say acceptance for them on the market (yet?). I hope my comments here bring attention back to them."

 

Rancio wines start their life under the sun, in the vineyard and in glass demijohns

 

It looks like my comments did, to a very limited extent, of course, resurrect interest in rancio. I tasted a couple of amazing rancios from De Muller (and two more from Tarragona, to be found in the general Cataluña article) who continue selling a very small amount of this outstanding but out-of-fashion wine at very good prices for the age and quality you get. Surprisingly enough, they do not yet have an American importer for these wines. I visited Arrels del Priorat whose Ca les Viudes merited a perfect score in my first report and I tasted a new bottling that will soon be available, again in homeopathic quantities. I also requested a sample of a new commercial wine, Mas Plantadeta Vi Ranci Solera 35 Anys from Celler Sabaté, so the rancio world is slowly moving.

If you go to the village of Gratallops you can visit Celler Cecilio, opposite the church, and he will sell you a couple of liters of his rancio (and some vermouth if you want), and if you have time to chat to the owner, Augusto, he might give you a drop or two to taste from his older barrels. He does not bottle any of these rancios, but they are sold in bulk.

Other than that, the most traditional families keep their barrels at home. One of the best private collections has to be that of the Peyra family from Scala Dei whose nectars I was able to taste and that one day might see the light of day in a box with different age rancios. Mas Martinet keeps working on their version that was started in 1995 and that after 20 years should see the light sooner rather than later. Every year their demijohns are filled and put on the roof to age under the sun. They mature their soleras for which they are building a brand new, albeit small, underground cellar.

 

A traditional cellar devoted to rancio wines. This one belongs to the owners of Scala Dei

 

All of a sudden, old-fashioned is modern, you know...

Visiting Priorat

Priorat is one of the most spectacular wine-producing regions in Spain. I call Priorat "a magnet for hippies." Many of the hippies that visit tend to stay, starting with René Barbier (senior), the father of modern Priorat, of course! And I've mentioned some more in the previous lines too. The landscape is dramatic, the vineyards are impossible and the villages are tiny and full of character. It's a place to slow down and think, a place to walk about and a place to go back to nature; go back to nature and do something with your hands, grow vines and make wine, that's what many did. But even if it's just a short trip, it's well worth visiting.

I had a bit more time this round (I gathered samples and tasted the great majority of the wines from Cataluña in Priorat) so I had the chance to explore more vineyards, talk to more people and also visit more restaurants! I remember when I first went to Priorat years ago, the only hotel was the Hostal Sport in Falset. And even so, only a handful of rooms were open and up-to-date, as most of the floors were closed and only a few rooms had been renovated and available because they hardly had any guests. What a contrast now! I needed to arrive during the weekend and the Hostal Sport was fully booked! There was a large group of French people that got up very early each morning, went on bus trips (I'm not sure if they were only wine - related) and were out and about until night when they returned. Some had drinks at the bar and filled the dining room, as noisy as if they were Spanish. The bar and restaurant at the Sport is like the center of Priorat; go there frequently and you'll bump into all the winemakers!

 

Amazing views from the village of Siurana

 

Of course, there are more hotels now. One of my favorites is Cal Llop in Gratallops, where they also have a very good restaurant. The other one that stands out in Falset is El Cairat. But I want to mention a place just outside the wine-producing zone, in the village of Siurana. I had been there years ago but never really had time to go back; in any case I already mentioned it last year. But this time I went back. World famous in the climbing world, the village is on top of an enormous rock and you can see the meander of the Siurana River below. Plus they have a nice restaurant, La Siuranella, which is almost on the edge of the precipice and also serves as a hotel if you don't feel like driving down. The views from up there are breathtaking, looking down during the day or looking up on a clear, starry night. The slow drive (it takes about an hour from Falset even if the distance is not long) is certainly worth it. Everything in Priorat is, in fact, quite slow.

And now, the icing on the cake...

The Wine of the Vintage: L'Ermita 2013 - A Legend in the Making

 

The steep vineyard of L'Ermita form Álvaro Palacios

 

It's quite simple: Álvaro Palacios has produced his best wine in his 25 years in Priorat with the 2013 L'Ermita. The growing season was perfect. I caught Palacio's 2013s a mere few days after bottling and they didn't show any dizziness. A guy with a pneumatic drill insisted on ripping up the pavement just a couple of meters from where we were tasting. Álvaro hit the roof. But despite all the adverse conditions, as soon as I put my nose in the glass of L'Ermita, my heart started beating faster. I knew he had made it! Unfortunately, yields were tiny and this is not only the best vintage for L'Ermita, it's also the shortest one ever! I think I already mentioned this last year, but it's worth saying again: if you have six minutes, take a look at this video about the 2013 harvest at the amazing L'Ermita vineyard:L'Ermita Harvest.

Well yes, it's my first perfect score for a red wine. I hope more are produced in the future.

—Luis Gutiérrez

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Voor de liefhebbers van een volle chardonnay is dit zeker een aanrader. Qua prijs wat gunstiger dan vergelijkbare wijnen uit Amerika.

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