THE ESSENTIALS: Spain’s Priorat region flexes its muscles

Editor’s note: Beginning today, the Wine section will profile noteworthy wine regions across the United States and around the world, with an eye toward helping you in your wine-buying decisions. Look for the Essentials every few weeks in Wine.

In just 20 years, wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to being the most expensive in Spain. The surging popularity of wines from this rugged mountainous area in Catalonia, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, stems from their ability to deliver the power and ripeness associated with California or Australia wines balanced by an uplifting freshness. Their chief drawbacks are their limited production, availability and steep prices.

Just like the French Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC) system — name-controlled regulations for making wine in specific geographic areas — the Spanish have a system, Denominacion de Origen, or DO, for wines. Of the 64 DOs, Priorat is one of only two that have been awarded the top status, Denominacion de Origen Calificada, or DOC — the other DOC is Rioja. (On Catalan labels, a Q, for Qualificada, is often seen in place of C.) In essence, the Spanish authorities have identified Priorat as one of the two best places in Spain for viticulture.

Priorat’s wines — almost exclusively red, although there is an occasional white — are blends made chiefly from indigenous Garnacha and Cariñena (Grenache and Carignan) grapes. Since Priorat’s renaissance, which started in the 1980s, winemakers have added Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to the blend.

Priorat has been a place for wine since monks cultivated grapes in the Middle Ages — the region takes its name from the Spanish word for “priory.” As recently as 1900, there were 40,000 acres — about the same area under vine as in Napa or Sonoma counties. A combination of wars, political turmoil and the attraction of jobs in nearby Barcelona and in the thriving tourist industry along the Mediterranean coast led many farming families to forsake the vine.

Priorat’s wines sank into obscurity until the 1980s when five forward-thinking winemakers, Rene Barbier, Dafne Glorian, Alvaro Palacios, Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, combined their resources and started a renaissance. Initially the young, energetic vintners modernized the wines by incorporating “international” grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah into the blend, by using new small oak barrels for aging and by using modern winemaking techniques. These innovations gave the wines a New World sheen — power, suppleness and an emphasis on clean fruit flavors — while maintaining balancing acidity. Initially they made wine in a communal winery, but gradually established individual facilities — Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Alvaro Palacios, Clos de l’Obac and Clos Martinet — respectively, which remain leading names in the region.

Now that wines from Priorat have captured the world’s attention, some winemakers have gradually altered the blend — using less Cabernet Sauvignon and relying more on the indigenous varieties. Barbier, who runs Clos Mogador, says he has not planted nor replanted any Cabernet Sauvignon and it now comprises about a quarter — instead of half — of the blend. Barbier and others are also reducing the amount of time the wine spends in new oak barrels to avoid masking the distinctiveness imparted by Priorat’s soil and climate.

“Ten years ago, when Priorat was undergoing its renaissance, they didn’t have confidence to exclude Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, but now they do,” says Salustia Alvarez, the president of the governing body for Priorat wines. He thinks the change is good, but believes that there will always be some Cabernet or Syrah in the blend.

Priorat wines are intense and high in alcohol (regulations mandate a minimum 13.5 percent alcohol) because grapes ripen well — sometimes too well — under the Mediterranean sun. The ripeness can be a two-edged sword, producing wines that are overblown when the intensity is not balanced by acidity and tannins. If winemakers aren’t careful, they run the risk of being criticized for favoring size over elegance and producing jammy, overly alcoholic wines.

Priorat’s location should help make balanced wines. The altitude of the vineyards — 1,000 to 3,000 feet — keeps the grapes cool at night, so they retain their inherent acidity, keeping the wines lively. Some growers also attribute the wines’ freshness to elements extracted from the rocky slate soil. Because they are so well balanced, wines from Priorat have the potential to combine the intensity of the New World with the finesse and elegance of the Old World. One reason the wines are expensive is that all the vineyard work must be done by hand — often with the help of mules. The slopes are so steep that tractors risk tumbling down them. Workers plant the vines by chiseling a hole in the “soil” — a combination of quartz and slate called llicorella. The roots wend their way through the cracks and crevices to find water. The meaning of the name of Priorat’s leading town, Gratallops — “the place where wolves howl” — aptly describes the entire region. The landscape is so inhospitable that even those animals go hungry.

The top wines from these five “new school” Priorat producers are all priced well above $100 a bottle, and it’s rare to find any Priorat at less than $25 a bottle. Despite the prices, the wines rarely stay long on retailers’ shelves and they can be frustratingly difficult to find. There’s a large demand, in Spain and elsewhere, for a relatively small amount of wine.

There are a limited number of American consumers willing to pay $100 for a bottle of wine and a lot of wines at that price level vying for their wallets. So are wines from Priorat worth it? Probably no more or less than many other wines at that price — California Cabernets, classified Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, Barolo and Brunello.

Personal preference, as much as price, is likely to determine who buys these wines. To enjoy and appreciate Priorat, you need to relish the intensity and weight found in many young wines from California, Australia or France’s Rhone Valley. If you are a fan of the delicacy and nuances found in mature Bordeaux or Burgundy, Priorat’s power will overwhelm you.

The area’s recent growth suggests companies are gambling that consumers will pay. The number of wineries in Priorat has increased from 6 to 60 over the last 10 years, according to Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain, a New York branch of the Trade Commission of Spain. In the last five years, vineyard area, while still only a small fraction of what it was 100 years ago, has almost doubled to just over 4,000 acres. Exports to the United States have climbed similarly.

Priorat’s recent history is short and how the wines evolve with age remains uncertain. Time will tell whether it will join the other great wine regions of the world and the wolves will finally stop howling.

A taste of Priorat

The recommendations below come from tasting wines costing less than $60 a bottle.

Perfect weather throughout the growing season made Priorat’s 2004 vintage excellent. Many producers say it was the finest since 1998. As in the rest of Europe, 2003 was scorching in the region, but the vines there tolerate heat well. Still, some wines were a little overdone. Atypical temperatures and rain resulted in great variability in the 2002 vintage, but some producers still made outstanding wines. The 2001 vintage, thanks to just the right amount of rain, produced balanced wines, similar to those of 2004.

2003 Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses ($38) One of Priorat’s leading producers, Palacios makes two wines from single vineyards, L’Ermita (about $200), a blend of 80 percent old-vine Garnacha and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and Finca Dofi (about $70), a blend of roughly 50 percent Garnacha and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Syrah. Les Terrasses, his “entry level” wine, is a refined blend of 30 percent Garnacha, 60 percent Cariñena and 10 percent Cabernet that is full of ripe black fruit flavors intertwined with minerals. One reason for its complexity is that almost half of the Cariñena used in the blend comes from old vines. It’s outstanding.

2003 Buil & Gine Plaret($55) Oak still shows at this stage, but does not obliterate the region’s typicity. Its overall size and supple finish means it’s a good choice with a hearty dish of short ribs.

2002 Mas del Camperol ($55) Tarry earthy nuances emerge and meld with black fruit in this concentrated wine. It has great length and, despite its power, remarkable vivacity. Tannins give it structure, but not astringency.

2003 Mas Igneus Fa 206 ($20) Fa 206 (Fa is the Catalan abbreviation for Allier oak; 206 means the wines spent 6 months in 2-year-old barrels) is a designation for one of Mas Igneus’ less expensive Priorats. Although it lacks the depth of its stablemates, it is still a remarkable $20 wine. Full of minerals and black-cherry fruit all nicely complemented with fine tannins and acidity, this mostly Garnacha-Cariñena blend is an excellent introduction to Priorat.

2002 Morlanda ($48) In addition to minerals and black fruit flavors, a haunting bacon-fat character that’s often associated with Cote Rotie (but there’s no Syrah in this blend) adds an intriguing note. The supple tannins complete the picture and allow it to be enjoyed now.

2002 Pasanau Finca La Planeta ($43) Composed of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon — the remainder is old-vine Garnacha — this stunningly luscious single-vineyard bottling shows the diversity of blends in Priorat. Fine tannins and succulent black-cherry acidity support the intense cassis-like fruit in this nicely balanced wine.

2003 Scala Dei Cartoixa ($35) Plump and ripe, probably a result of the vintage and the inclusion of 40 percent Syrah in the blend, the region’s signature minerality and attractive earthiness still shines. By Priorat standards, it’s a good buy.

2002 Vall Llach Embruix ($32) Vall Llach, like most of the producers in Priorat, makes several wines. Embruix, which means “bewitched” in Catalan, comes from young vines, but you wouldn’t guess it from tasting this one. Succulent and remarkably powerful, its length betrays the youthfulness of the vines.

— Michael Apstein

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, January 12, 2007