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Wine & Spirits

Move over, Bordeaux

Spain's Priorat wine region is poised for greatness. But the challenges are steep.

August 15, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

GRATALLOPS, SPAIN — PRIORAT, the boutique wine region southwest of Barcelona known for its distinctive, staggeringly expensive red wines, is coming of age. The number of wineries here has nearly doubled in five years, acres of new vineyards are being planted, and even the winemakers who personify the isolated region's fiercely independent spirit are channeling their ambition toward making more affordable wines. Despite the high costs of working the steep terrain, wines expressive of this amazing terroir are now within reach of wine lovers other than just the deep-pocketed cognoscenti.

But as quickly as Priorat's reputation was made, it could be lost as some of these new wines fail to live up to the region's high standards.

In 1992, Priorat rocketed to the top of the Spanish wine world with the release of its first modern wine, a blend of Garnacha and Cariñena with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that was made by a co-op of five growers. (It was bottled under five different labels including Clos Mogador and Clos Erasmus.) As individual winemakers brought their vintages to market in the next few years, the distinctive minerality of the region's forbidding slate soils seemed chiseled into the powerful reds. When most emerging regions were peddling interchangeable fruit-driven wines, Priorat stood out.

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Signature taste

AT their best, Priorat wines are blends dominated by either Garnacha or Cariñena grapes with complex cherry and black-plum flavors indicative of mature vines. They have aromas of wild thyme, tarragon, curry and dill, as well as the native lavender and violets that grow in profusion throughout the countryside. They have a rough hewn character but are as sophisticated as any top Bordeaux, with a signature graphite bite and dense, inky texture reflecting soils that are a stark contrast to the organic turf in the Montsant Denominació d'Origen that surrounds Priorat's hills.

The quick success of the small wineries lured Spain's largest wine companies. A building boom in the last five years has nearly doubled the number of wineries to 85. New Priorat wines, some priced as low as $11 a bottle, can be found in L.A.'s fine wine stores.

It's a good bet that most of the new wines will be laudable, said Alvaro Palacios, one of the evolving region's original wine pioneers, after a tour of his dazzling new Finca Dofi winery in Gratallops. "Priorat is such an extreme natural region," he said. "The worst guy is going to make wine with character in our Eldorado."

It's a common claim. In the most basic equation, there is no compromise possible in Priorat. It is never easy to grow grapes here, as Palacios points out. There is no flat terrain. Every vine must be planted on perilous hillsides in the region's defining slate soils.

"Priorat is exciting. It is one of the most obviously terroir-driven wines in the world," says London-based wine critic Jancis Robinson. But Priorat has always been a little ahead of itself, and the latest rush means more less-exciting wines. "Prices took off like a rocket just a bit too soon than was justified," she says. "The top wines, such as those made by the [modern] pioneers, are very good. But the region as a whole is showing every sign of becoming another Ribera del Duero with too many newcomer buccaneers coming in and overcharging for their young wines."

Priorat is entering an important period, said René Barbier, the forward-looking vintner who first brought modern winemaking to the region, speaking at Clos Mogador, his winery in Gratallops. He has continued to make his $100-per-bottle Clos Mogador, as well as a new wine, Manyetes, which uses old-vine fruit from heritage vineyards. Priorat will become an established wine region when it becomes accessible to more wine lovers, he said.

"The region needs some larger players. We need to have less expensive wines," Barbier said, but the wines must be of good quality.

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Unforgiving terrain

ON another morning, the ground made a sharp crunching sound as Salus Alvarez, the winemaker at Vall Llach, a Porrera winery, walked across the shards of shale that blankets the ground of a 90-year-old vineyard. No topsoil cushioned his step. The drive through the hills to get to the top of the area planted with Cariñena grapes can nauseate a visitor, but the view of the Montsant range beyond is spectacular.

Vall Llach's owner, Luís Llach (a folk musician whose anti-Franco songs made him the Bob Dylan of Spain), bought the vineyard from a 73-year-old woman from the nearby village of Porrera, who thought she had grown too old to tend the vines. Until retirement, she'd walk up the hill daily to shimmy down the dark gray splinters of rock, tending the wild-looking bush vines as she went. Each day, she would tend a different row.

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