Given our Spanish heritage – traceable to Hernando de Soto, if not earlier explorers – you’d think Mobilians would drink more Spanish wine. (Given the quantities of Pinot Grigio we guzzle, you’d think we owed our homestead to Italians.) There’s excellent Spanish wine on the market, including one you may not have heard of … until now.
The wine I’m talking about is called Priorat, which is wine named for a place, like Bordeaux or Champagne. Priorat takes its name from the Carthusian priory established in the hills above the Catalan town of Tarragona (which sits on the Mediterranean coast in northeastern Spain) by French monks in the 12th century. As was the way with 12th century traveling monks, they probably carried grape vines with them to their new home – most likely Grenache (Garnacha in Spanish) – and set about making sacramental wine.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s, though, that modern winemakers realized there was a treasure-trove of ancient Grenache vines growing on those sparsely populated hillsides and figured out how to make exceptionally high-quality wine from their grapes. They determined which plots were growing the best vines and experimented with blending Grenache and Carignan (Carineña in Spanish), aging it in French oak barrels to produce a wine in the southern-Rhone style. By the mid 1990s five vineyards were exporting small quantities to rare-wine merchants in other parts of Europe and although there are more than 30 producers in Priorat now, the wines remain scarce.
Priorat currently is one of only two Spanish wine regions to qualify for DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) status — Spain’s highest quality award, standing above the 79 regions that produce Denominación de Origen wines, those of a generally high quality as judged by Spain’s regulatory board. (Rioja, in case you’re wondering, is the other region with DOCa status.) DOCa is equivalent to the highest French (AOC/AOP) or Italian (DOCG) classifications – it’s good stuff, in other words.
Priorat’s vines grow in a unique combination of black slate and quartz soil (called llicorella), which is low in nutrients and drains easily, resulting in vines producing very few grapes, but ones with intense flavor concentration. The English geological term for llicorella is “schist,” by the way, which can get you in trouble if you type it too fast, let alone say it aloud, so I’m sticking with llicorella.
Besides Grenache and Carignan, the region now also grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. It’s primarily a red-wine region, although there is some acreage (less than 10 percent of Priorat’s total) planted in white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez (the grape used to make Sherry) and Chenin Blanc.
The hills overlooking the Mediterranean coast benefit from an abundance of sun in summer, with heat mitigated by cool sea breezes. Some of the vineyards are planted on graded slopes as steep as 60 degrees (picture highway warning signs warning 18-wheelers to slow the heck down). When you combine poor soil with these climatic and orientation qualities, old vines and almost unavoidable hand-harvesting, you’ve got a recipe for producing fine wine.
I’ve been absolutely blown away by Priorat, sometimes called “Spain’s most expensive wine.” Everything is relative though and I believe Priorat – compared to its French peers, in particular – truly isn’t expensive and actually is very good value. It’s a Grenache-based red-grape blend similar to France’s Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and if you’ve priced any of those wines lately you’ll understand why I think Priorat may be a bargain.
One particularly outstanding Priorat maker is Rotllan Torra, whose 2009 Priorat Reserva deserves a spot alongside the southern Rhone and Bordeaux blends in your wine rack. It comes from a family owned winery, started in the early 1980s by Jordi Rotllan Torra and run today by himself and his brother, Albert.
Rotllan Torra makes a range of wines, blending different proportions of red grapes to achieve taste profiles ranging from fresh and immediately accessible to solid and cellar-worthy. Their Priorat Reserva blends 50 percent Grenache, 25 percent Carignan and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, falling into the “fresh and accessible” category. It pours dark purple into your glass, with a deep ruby heart when held to the light and good viscosity (it leaves “legs” or “tears” running down the glass after a swirl). Its aromas are definitely peppery and you smell more slate than fruit, although there is a thread of cranberry working its way up from the depths.
For me, this was love at first sip. The wine’s flavors were rich and tannic, but not heavy. It’s fermented in wooden vats and then aged for at least 12 months in oak barrels, (followed by two more years of aging in bottle) so it can’t help be tannic but it’s not at all harsh. There’s more fruit on the palate than in the nose, including fresh cherry and raspberry, with licorice on the finish. This Priorat is definitely dry but balanced and approachable, even at 14 percent ABV. Possibly not as complex as Bordeaux nor as spicy as southern Rhone blends, I still had no problem making it “all gone.”
As for value, a bottle of Rotllan Torra Priorat Reserva sells for $15-$20 on average, but your friends will think you spent a lot more. If you don’t believe little ol’ me, Robert Parker’s “Wine Advocate” scored the 2007 Rotllan Torra Priorat Crianza, a sister wine to the Reserva, an “outstanding” 90 points, while “Wine Spectator” has listed Rotllan Torra among its top-scoring Spanish wines since the late 1990s. The International Wine Guide awarded a silver medal to their 2005 Priorat Reserva.
This is a red wine that won’t overwhelm you during hot weather, by the way. Maybe those clever Spaniards thought of that when they made it. Pop it into the fridge for half an hour before serving, unless you keep your home super-cooled. (Available at restaurants and wine shops served by A&G Beverages, so ask around.)