While the first day’s tasting saw 21 participating wineries assemble in a historical building in Torroja del Priorat, the small village housing the office of the Consell Regulador De La Denominació d’Origen Qualificada Priorat, the next day saw 45 wineries participate in the event at Scala Dei, the historical winery with an awesome backdrop, but making it impossible to taste wines from several producers.
|Tasting at Torroja del Priorat
At the risk of being termed elitist, one had to start tasting the wines and meeting the iconic producers like Alvaro Palacios whose l’Ermita 2010 was brilliant (emotional as Alvaro described), Finca Dofi 2009 a smooth talker and Gratallops Vi de la Vila 2009 simply too sexy for words (Alvaro termed it as sensuous).
One had a tasting at Clos Mogador with the Barbier family, Clos Figueras with Christopher Canaan , and Torres with Mireia Torres. Fortunately the ‘Queen of Cult’ was also there just for a day on the second day and chatting with her about her cult wine Clos Erasmus, which I tasted and then drank, was an equal pleasure .
But to me, visiting the vineyards and winery and tasting in those environs was far more interesting and important. I did not mind spending an extra day visiting wineries on my own, thanks to the wonderful efforts of Salus Alvarez, the humble President of the DOQ Priorat, who is also the General manager of Vall Llach owned by the well known Spanish singer from this area- Lluis Llach.
El Lloar, Tarragona
It is mystifying why Miguel Torres, who went to Chile to start a winery in the seventies, using advanced technology that placed it on the world wine map, did not come to his own backyard. His main winery in Villa Franca in Catalonia, is barely 60 kms from this region. But he did buy vineyards in El Loar and Porrera in 1996 after scouting around and set up Torres Priorat. His daughter Mireia Torres who heads the winery was present at the Tastings at this International Exhibition of Priorat Wines and was gracious enough to give a guided tour of the relatively new winery after the tastings on the second day.
|Mireia Torres at her winery with Porrera vineyards behind
On second thoughts one also wonders how Torres chose to enter the region. He is used to making wine in big numbers in Penedès and Chile. The quantity possible here is rather small. But Miguel is also known to perpetually plan to bring out better quality wines and ‘Perpetual’ from Priorat fits the picture frame even though they produce less than 10,000 bottles and the quantities are never going to increase much. The 70 hA vineyards in the Llicorella (schist-slate) filled land make high quality wines.
Till recently, they were using a make-shift winery but last year the state-of-the-art winery was inaugurated. In keeping with Miguel Torres’s resolve to have eco-friendly operations, solar panels are being used for energy and a water treatment plant.
‘Salmos’, a young crianza and ‘Perpetual’ are the only two labels- 2008 was outstanding; 2007 was even better in the glass. Both are Grenache and Carignan blends. Salmos is being already imported into India through their JV, Prestige Wines. Perpetual would be really exciting for the connoisseur with an evolved pocket and palate, in the duty free restaurants.
2. Vall Llach
Lluis Llach is a native of this region. He has been a very popular Spanish folk singer who was singing protest songs and was extremely popular in his late teens when he was forced into exile and spent several years in Paris till Franco was in power. He has devoted his life to social causes and improving the standards of people from this area and as far away as Senegal. In the 1990s he went into partnership with a lawyer friend Enric Costa and rented a property where they established a winery. He offered much higher prices for the grapes to the locals who had earlier fled due to poverty and lack of opportunity in Porrera. He was able to motivate enough people besides buying his own vineyards with vines over 60-90 year old vines, growing scarcely on the land that was completely Llicorella (schist). The heavily slate soil shows in the glass as a mineral wine, especially the signature estate wine Vall Lach, made with 65% Carignan and grapes sourced from the very old vines.
|In the laboratory at Cellar Vall Llach
During harvest, Lluis spends time tasting the grapes personally for complete ripening. He also believes that the grapes are ripe when birds start eating them. Grapes are harvested in several parts from mid-September to mid-November. Around 90 wines are made individually first as micro-fermentation before blending, according to the winemaker Salus Alvarez, who is also the President of the DOQ (DOCa in Rioja). Blending is done after 15 months and during Full Moon.
Lluis Lach is a poet who likes to maintain the history of the place. The winery is still at the old place where they started. The cellar is at another building about 150 m away and across a small nullah (water stream). Wine is pumped using pipes through the public streets and over the nullah because he likes to keep the old winery productive, thus keeping the history alive, though the volumes of production have gone up and the process is more expensive.
Embruix (89), Idus ( 92) and Vall Llach (92) are 3 labels, all with an alcohol content of 15%. The label is very popular in the US due to the robust character and Michael Mondavi –owned Folio is importing the wines. Germany and Switzerland are other important importing countries.
3. Clos Mogador
Contact Person: René Barbier
One can drive from Village Porrera to Gratallops where the winery is located, by the main road or the old, small, dirt road used by mules since Roman times or the local winemakers like René Barbier. I assented to the latter route when he assured me he had driven on it many times and though it looked dangerously steep, it was not too risky. Initially, I thought I might rue my decision posthumously but as I had a firm grip on the car door handles, I realized I had the most exciting roller coaster ride of my life, passing through vineyards only a select few outsiders get an opportunity to enjoy.
|Barrel Tasting with junior Barbier at Clos Mogador
Clos Mogador led the new wave that brought Priorat on the world map as the Spanish wines with character. Though the vineyards are not easily accessible, the unique personality of the wines is a characteristic of this winery. Senior Barbier believes a lot in long maceration – 40 days for the estate wine that is the only DOC single vineyard wine accepted by the European Union.
Nelin is a delicious mineral and spicy wine with racy acidity-based on a blend of white Grenache (54%) and several other grapes including Viognier. René’s son argues that a few local varieties of white varietals have been identified and will be used in the region in the future, countering my suggestion that perhaps Viognier will be a more prominent plantation in the future.
The winery plans to stay at the steady quantity of around 45,000 bottles although the young Barbier has grown vines of Carignan and Grenache with his wife Sara Pérez and the grapes are being fermented and blended in this winery for younger drinking wines.
4. Mas d’en Gil Estate
Contact: Marta Rovira
It is a 125 hA estate in south of Priorat in the small town of Bellmunt. It took over the old estate of Masia Barril in 1998 when Pere Rovira’s family with four generations of experience of growing grapes and selling wine bought it over. Pere is a neighbor of Torres winery in Villa Franca, he says. He is very passionate about the quality and terroir characteristics of his wines and abhors high production at the cost of quality. He is helped by his daughters Piral and Marta who looks after the vineyards and winery.
|Marta's Vineyards- Mas d’en Gil Estate
‘We ferment grapes from 43 small parcels individually and choose the best for the Mas den Gil Estate Wines’, says his daughter Marta who looks after the production and took me around to show me some of the vineyards divided in 4 valleys- El Sas, La Coma Clot de l’Oliver and Esmoler. They believe in biodiversity- no vine should be more than 50 meters away from some fruit trees like almond, hazelnut or olive, says Marta. They have a bank of old Grenache and Carignan vines that were planted by the previous owners and also keep on replenishing the old vines with other grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
In a region where white wines are hard to come by, Mas d’en Gil produces two white wines-primarily from White Grenache. Come Blanca is a blend of equal parts of Grenache and
Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja) grown on vines over 50 years old and is full of concentration and minerality, while Come Alta uses 30% Viognier to the balance white Grenache, thus adding shades of spice to the wine.
|Marta and Pere Rovira outside the old 'Masia Barril 1931' estate
They have a few other labels- Clos Fontá is their signature wine in which they use the local varieties of Grenache- 30% Grenache Peluda and 25% Grenache Pais with 25% cabernet and only 20% Carignan. A rich, powerful and mineral wine (92), the alcohol level is as high as most other estates-15%, though with good balance. Gran Buig is a full blooded, pure Priorat with 60% Grenache and 40% Carignan- full of fruit and minerality. Mas d’en Gil is negotiating with a couple of Indian importers and should be available soon in India, hopes Marta.
5. Clos Figueras
Contact Person/Owner: Christopher Cannan
The small winery producing 25,000 bottles was purchased by Charlotte and Christopher of Bordeaux in 1997 on the advice of René Barbier in whose winery he still ages his wine. He does not mind basking in the glory of the iconic neighbours in Gratallops- Clos Mogador, Mas Martinet, Clos Erasmus and Álvaro Palacio-the extended family closeness in the region can be infectious. The original 10 hA estate has been enlarged to 18 hA with additions of a couple of thousand 60-year old vines.
Font de la Figuera White is an interesting wine made from 85% Viognier, 10% Grenache Blanc and 5% Chenin. Christopher gleefully admits that his supplier in France sent him Viognier in stead of the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon plants he had ordered. Of course he received the replacement but he planted Viognier anyway and today his wine is quite spicy and aromatic. Font de la Figuera Red is made from young vines and is a blend of the favourite Grenache (60%). Serras del Priorat is a younger version, a fruit forward wine with soft tannins that make it suitable with white meats and vegetarian dishes, making it an ideal choice for India. Christopher also owns Europvin, exporting multi-country wines globally for over 30 years, including India through Brindco. Clos Figueras is the delightful estate wine that ages for 15 years and would be a perfect choice for exclusive serving in a 5-star hotel with national presence.
Wineries for Future
It is not possible to visit many wineries during the 2-3 day time. I planned to visit Alvaro Palacios, Clos Erasmus and Mas Martinez but due to the distances which take longer to traverse than it may appear, more visits could not materialize. I would have liked to visit the wineries whose wines I had tasted: Scala Dei is one of the oldest wineries. Domini de la Cartoixa, producing Clos Galena in El Molar from the land monks used to till; Ferrer Bobet which makes powerful yet typical wines from the region, making them score consistently high on the Parker scale, La Conreria d’Scala Dei in Scala Dei- an interesting relatively new venture of an enologist, priest and a lecturer; La Perla del Priorat- an old winery resurrected in 1998 by Count Pirenne who is very keen to make a mark in the Indian market; Marco Abella belonging to a very old family of several generations in Porrera, Terroir al Limit- an interesting collaboration between South African enologist Eben Sadie and a German by the name Dominik Huber and last but not the least, the iconic winery Clos l’Obac. These are but a few of the 92 wineries I had on my wish list. Perhaps another time in the future!
Priorat is an interesting region where the vines are old and wines are expensive but as Alvarez says, ‘ it is a difficult land where production costs are higher and the yields are lower. Therefore the prices have to be higher. We need to compete in quality and not in price.’ This is a region with unique terroir and territory. One needs to go deeper to understand and appreciate the region that potentially will be the best winemaking region of Spain one day, though the wines will always be in limited quantities.