Story by Manos Angelakis
Top Wineries in Priorat
I love great wines and Priorat is one of the major wine regions of Catalonia, Spain, producing big reds from vines grown on a heat-trapping slate called “licorella”. Visiting Priorat, a wine-lover will find numerous wineries that make outstanding wines from mostly two indigenous Spanish red grapes, Garnatxa Negra (Garnacha, Grenache) and Samsó (Cariñena, Carignan).
International varieties including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also planted here, but Garnacha and Samsó still form the backbone of the local production and Priorat’s red wines are considered among the best wines produced in the Iberian Peninsula.
There are a number of white grape vines also planted in the region. Garnacha Blanca, Pedro Ximenez, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo; all traditional indigenous varieties, the last three used for producing Cava -- Catalonia's version of an outstanding sparkler. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have been planted here more recently. But, in my opinion, the best wines produced in Priorat are the ones from the red grapes.
Ancient Phoenician and Greek seafarers and traders, first introduced white grape growing (Moscato d’Alessandria and Malvasia) to the Mediterranean coast of Spain at approximately 1200 BCE. But in Priorat, red-grape vines were planted in large numbers on rocky, slate and shale slopes by Carthusian monks to make sacramental wine, back in the middle ages. The monks founded the Abbey (Priorat) of La Cartoixa d’ Escaladei in 1194 and gave the Priorat name to the region. Priorat is only a couple hours away from cosmopolitan Barcelona, yet feels a world apart. Vineyards are planted in steep terraces that climb the hillsides in neat, curving rows. On the steep slopes, they are like enormous staircases demanding back-breaking work from workers who have to tend and pick the grapes by hand; machine harvest is almost impossible here.
Following are wines that I liked very much during my Catalan visits.
The Perez and Dalmau families acquired Domini de la Cartoixa; 11 hectares of organically grown vines on the slopes near the village of El Molar. Consistently high quality grape production and, at the field, best bunch selection ensures that the two top wines, Galena and Formiga are the best the vineyard will produce. High minerality imparts freshness to the wines.
For Galena, each vineyard plot is fermented and macerated separately in stainless tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless tanks. Then, assembling of the different plots and different varietals in the blend (Garnacha Negra, Cariñena, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) is done before the wine is placed in French (80%) and American (20%) oak barriques to age for 12 to 15 months, depending on the harvest.
For Formiga, the grape varieties of the blend (Garnacha Negra, Cariñena, and Syrah) are harvested in September to ensure optimal ripeness and ensure ripe tannins that perfectly express the terroir. Fermentation and maceration take place in stainless steel tanks and, after gentle pressing, the malolactic fermentation takes place in the same tanks. Aging is in 225 liter French and American oak barrels for 9 months. Before bottling, the wine is clarified with fresh egg whites and filtered. The wine we tasted had a bright cherry red color, and complex aromas of mature red fruits with bright citrus notes and a touch of leather and cedar.
Cellers Scala Dei is a winery with a very ancient name; it is the founding winery of Priorat. Today it is owned by Grupo Codorniu, one of the world's largest producers of Spanish wine.
Traditional organic viticultural practices and manual labor create intense red wines with a deep black cherry color and violet hues. They have lingering notes of ripe red fruits, plum and a touch of violets. These are tasty and well made wines; reds with intense minerality. We tasted three single barrel wines all made from Garnatxa Negra that exhibited considerable taste differences because of the great variances of the soil the vines are growing in.
La Creueta de Scala Dei, a wine from grapes rooted in licorella; it exhibited a nose of black juicy plums and strawberry jam, with hints of mocha, violets and herbs. It tastes of silky, perfumed, deep red and black fruits that linger in your mouth.
St. Antoni de Scala Dei; here the terroir difference is that the vines are rooted in clay. The wine is deep cherry red in color with intense violet highlights. Sour black cherries and plums, delicate balsamic on the nose and a rather tannic black fruit dominates the palate. There’s also some vanilla and a hint of tar. A few years in cellar does wonders for this wine.
Finally, the Masdeu de Scala Dei, a very young wine as tasted, from a plot where clay and calcareous soil mix. There are rich and expressive notes of black currant, chocolate and cedar cigar box with notable menthol nuances and a smidgeon of slate. Long, slightly tarry, tannic finish. It needs considerable cellar time to mellow and let the tannins settle.
We were lucky enough to also taste the Scala Dei Cartoixa Reserva. It is Garnacha from the winery's best vineyards; a wonderful wine at the peak of perfection. The wine is robust but well balanced and rounded with ripe tannins. Soft red and black fruit, chocolate, vanilla and a touch of cigar box dominated the palate and nose. It is truly outstanding.
Another winery whose wines I liked is Celler Vall Llach, an excellent producer in the township of Porrerà, in Tarragona. Their vineyards are planted mostly en vaso i.e. bush trained to withstand the winds sweeping the steep slope facing Southeast, on a mountainside, high above town. The best wine, Porrerá de Vi de Vila de Vall Llach, is created from over 100-year old ancient vines.
Viticultores del Priorat Morlanda, is another bodega that produces exceptional wines on 22 hectares of terraces. The hillsides were initially planted in the 12th century on distinctive licorella slate soil that imparts mineral and balsamic notes to the resulting wine. The estate is in the tiny village of Bellmunt del Priorat, and Morlanda is made solely from estate-grown fruit, hand-harvested from vines planted on flinty slopes and flat plateaus at plot altitudes of 190-220 meters above sea level. Most of the grapes in production are from 25 to 45 years old vines. There are intense, heady cherry, dark fruit and blackberry aromas augmented by hints of tar, leather and smoke on the nose. This textbook -- but young – Garnacha/Samsó blend was a bit tight on the palate until it had a chance to breath, but then opened up with lively berry, plum, earth and mineral flavors and well integrated ripe tannins. On the long finish there was a remarkable touch of sweet raisin richness.
Torres Priorat is a very modern young winery producing two high quality wines, Salmos and Perpetual, from 80 hectares of vineyards near the villages of El Loar and Porrerà. Old Garnacha and Cariñena vines, planted on steep slopes of slate, form the essence of Perpetual. The winery was created in 1996 as a part of the Miguel A. Torres Family Estates, one of the largest wine producers in the world with vineyards in Spain, Chile, and California.
Torres Priorat and Jean Leon Penedès, another Torres high quality winery, are run by Mireia Torres Maczassek, the daughter of Miguel A. Torres; she is a woman with a very remarkable palate.
Vinya La Scala is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon monovarietal Gran Reserva, a limited production bottling. It originates in an 8-hectare certified organic vineyard, and is only produced in years when climactic conditions will ensure an exceptional wine. To develop the aging potential for the wine, it is kept for 24 months in French oak; then allowed to mature for a minimum of 3 years in bottle. The sample we tasted was 10 years old, with powerful aromas and flavors of black currants and dates, tobacco and cedar with hints of coffee and chocolate. It is very well structured with balanced acidity and tannin levels. It exhibits a long and lingering finish.
Priorat, is only one of the many outstanding wine DOCs that are part of Catalonia. Whenever you travel to Spain, make sure to taste the exceptional wines Priorat produces, with some special Catalan dishes. You will be amply rewarded when matching excellent local foods with these phenomenal wines.
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