A New Reign in Spain

Martin Filler discovers why Prioratos, the power-packed red wines from Catalonia, are suddenly all the rage, giving the more famous Riojas and Riberas a run for their dinero.

The world of wine is as susceptible to fads as the world of fashion, and at the moment there are no trendier bottles than the big inky reds produced in the Priorato region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. The buzz began a decade ago, when winemakers in that rugged terrain southwest of Barcelona announced that they planned to reposition what had been a robust but gauche local blend into a wine that could rival Europe's best known labels—the Hermitages of the Rhône and the Barolos of Piedmont. The hype continued when prices for the revamped reds shot up and supplies suddenly became scarce. But unlike so many other fleeting viticultural fancies, Prioratos appear to have real staying power, garnering enthusiastic receptions from wine critics and connoisseurs alike.

This remarkable transformation was part of a widespread flowering of Catalonia in the decades following the death of Franco in 1975. Suppressed during the dictator's 35-year regime, the creativity of the region's independent-minded citizenry at last burst forth, as it did in the rest of Spain, in everything from architecture to filmmaking. Things reached a crescendo with the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992, when Catalonia's distinctive personality was showcased for the world. And since viticulture can be a telling index of a society's self-image, it's not surprising that this new regional renaissance, the most vivid since the turn-of-the-century heyday of creative mavericks like Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudí, has found bold expression in wine as well.

As the British wine critic Jancis Robinson predicted back in 1995, "If potential were measured in financial and human investment, then Priorato (Priorat in Catalan) is Spain's most exciting wine region.... When these wines mature (in the next millennium) they may prove to be Spain's most thrilling wine sensations." By the mid-nineties it had become clear to many observers that the country's two best-known premium winemaking appellations—Rioja in the northeast and Ribera del Duero in the north-central part of the country—were coasting on reputations that had long been out of sync with their overproduced, underperforming, but still high-priced output.

A band of enterprising oenologists saw an enticing opening and went for it. By adding small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah to the traditional Priorato blend of mainly Garnacha (Grenache) and a lesser proportion of Cariñena grapes, visionary vintners like Alvaro Palacios were able to take the country-bumpkin edges off Priorato. In the process they added deeper strata of complexity without sacrificing the wine's powerful focus: A new contender had arrived.

Palacios, born into a major Rioja winemaking family, had decided to strike out on his own rather than continue in the dynastic firm, and studied winemaking in Bordeaux under the legendary Jean-Pierre Moueix, of Château Pétrus fame. In 1989 Palacios became a leader in what has been called the Gratallops Project, named after the village that became the epicenter of the new movement.

Together with several other ambitious entrepreneurs—including another well-connected industry scion, René Barbier, of a French winemaking clan that resettled in Catalonia more than a century ago—Palacios bought several long-established Priorato vineyards and then shared winemaking facilities and equipment with his colleagues until each could set up his own operation.

Eventually, the wine boom got what every wine boom must have: a celebrity vintner. The first wave of professional Priorato pioneers was soon joined by Lluis Llach, the popular Catalonian singer-songwriter who has been called his country's answer to Jacques Brel. Along with a partner, he established the Vall Llach winery in 1991 and began producing truly outstanding wines, giving added star power to the upstart region much as Francis Ford Coppola had already done in Napa Valley.

Along with celebrity and seriousness of purpose came good press. The Gratallops group found a powerful ally in the influential wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., who, when the new Prioratos were introduced, began showering them with 90-point-plus ratings. Parker's benediction made it easier for these fledgling offerings to attract attention in a crowded international marketplace, but it also sparked a backlash. Writing in Lloyd's List International earlier this year, Neville Smith wondered if these big, expensive reds were "the sort of thing that stamp collectors like to wheel out to impress their friends."

Whatever the critics may say, the characteristics of the old-fashioned, not-ready-for-prime-time Prioratos are still there—the in-your-face fragrance, the high alcohol content (14.5 to 15 percent is typical, as opposed to 13 percent for most Bordeaux and 7.5 for some Rieslings), and the noticeably tannic backbone—but they are now accompanied by real finesse.

Prioratos are not for everyone, either in style or cost, and they are indeed expensive in a market where it's easier than ever to find superior wines for less money. It's not uncommon for bottles from several of Priorato's 42 wineries to retail for between $50 and $100, with prices escalating to over $300 for Alvaro Palacios's top-of-the-line cuvée, L'Ermita Velles Vinyes ("old vines").

Wine and food critics tend to zero in on the latest in sumptuary excess—the $1,000 caviar omelet at New York's Parker Meridien Hotel this year, the $250 prix fixe at Alain Ducasse back in 2000. Yet the high price of some Prioratos is nothing compared with the stratospheric cost of California cult wines, and has less to do with canny marketing than simple lack of supply. For example, production of the 2000 L'Ermita was only 350 cases.

Grown in the fragmented slate of steeply terraced vineyards in this dry, mountainous inland region sheltered from the warming effects of the Mediterranean, the vines of Priorato must push their roots deep into the substrate to find water, resulting in a very low yield. But though each grape holds only a few precious drops of liquid, it is amazingly concentrated, with a strong minerality that bespeaks the stony soil.

Frequently stored in young French oak casks, Prioratos often assume a notably woody character. The British wine critic Tim Atkin, sampling a Priorato and two other similarly made reds, cracked that the wines were "so oaky you could use them to build a garden shed." Though there's little doubt that overly oaked Chardonnays have been a disaster for that now-maligned grape in many regions where it flourishes, the sturdy Prioratos don't seem excessive in that respect. Prioratos are extraordinarily tannic and thus need to be laid down for at least a few years before they can be opened (but the same is true of the best Bordeaux). Luckily, they are also quite long-lived, and may last a good 25 years or so, making it anyone's guess how impressively the new wave of Prioratos might mature by the second and third decades of this century. While it was surely a privilege for me to sample the much-ballyhooed 2000 L'Ermita Velles Vinyes, I felt a bit like I was participating in oenological infanticide—though God knows how much this baby will cost when it attains full adulthood and I stumble into old age.

Given their immense size and body as well as their dense concentration, Prioratos are quintessential fall and winter wines. As is the case with Hermitages and Barolos, they show their best qualities when paired with rich, hearty meats—roast venison, wild boar, even Muscovy duck. Slow-simmered casserole dishes and braised beef in its many variations are also good choices. And don't be afraid of loading on the spices, as Prioratos can take the competition. Whereas some roughly comparable big, dry reds are thoroughly enjoyable with a simple accompaniment of cheese or nuts, the powerful qualities of Prioratos are best offset by highly flavored food.

With so much choice in the world of wine today, where do Prioratos fit into the well-stocked cellar? For me they've now become a must-have, especially the terrific Embruix de Vall Llach, which is so affordable that anyone can decide about Prioratos on the basis of that label alone. I'll continue to follow with interest what the guys from Gratallops are up to with each new vintage. But will I spring for more of the $325 L'Ermita? I don't think so. For just about $25 more (if you comparison shop around the Web), you can get a bottle of the esteemed 2000 Château Mouton Rothschild, or a whole case of something lesser but nonetheless wonderful. As a Bordeaux-loving friend of mine remarked when I told him of the parity in that price range, "I think I'll stick to the first growths."

Yet without question, the emergence of Priorato constitutes one of the great viticultural success stories in recent memory, proving that venerable wine-producing regions can become as exciting as new ones. It adds another small but inimitable piece to the grand mosaic of first-rate winemaking that now encircles the globe.

The Cream of Catalonia

Despite wide notoriety for what some deem exorbitant cost, Prioratos fall within a broad price range, with one of the best retailing for only about $40. Since none of the first-rank Prioratos are made in large quantities, it's prudent to act fast if you find a favorite, especially now that their international audience is expanding. Bear in mind that many currently available at retail still require a fair amount of cellaring, and that these typically tannic wines benefit from decanting well in advance of drinking. Here are seven that I particularly like:

CLOS ERASMUS 1999 Perhaps I'm influenced by the silhouette of the Renaissance philosopher on its label, but this lofty wine seems the most intellectual of all the Prioratos. Dark and memorable, it's made by the intrepid Daphne Glorian, one of Spain's first female winery proprietors and a heroine in her profession. $130.

CLOS MARTINET 2000 Bursting with bravura Priorato personality, this purple, cassis-scented winner has enough fruit to counterbalance the puckering tannins typical of the region. $60.

EMBRUIX DE VALL LLACH 2001 There could be no more affordable introduction to Priorato than this gorgeous second wine, a bargain at the price. Smooth and balanced, it exemplifies the new-style Prioratos. The first part of the name means "bewitched" in Catalan, and it's easy to become enchanted by this dark sorceress. $40.

FINCA DOFI 1999 This sturdily made, midlevel Alvaro Palacios offering—costing twice as much as his disappointing entry-level Les Terrasses but only about one sixth of the blockbuster L'Ermita Velles Vinyes—strikes a happy medium. $55.

MAS DOIX COSTERS DE VINYES VELLES 2001 The 2001 vintage was exceptional for Priorato, and this old-vine cuvée was one of the most successful. An intriguing mélange of berry and chocolate notes, it is highly dignified and far from the sundae those flavors imply. I'd serve it with roast beef, like a fine Bordeaux. $90.

VALL LLACH 2001 The flagship cuvée of this winery founded in 1991 by beloved Catalonian folksinger and songwriter Lluis Llach, it's immediately identifiable by its extra-fragrant rich black-cherry nose. The only problem is that, at twice the price of its superb cadet label Embruix de Vall Llach, one is tempted to buy two bottles of that instead. $80.

L'ERMITA VELLES VINYES 2000 Yes, it's as sensational as its reputation, and this gigantic, complex wine pulls out all the stops. Still very young, it should be decanted early on the day it's consumed, or even the night before. A full-bodied game dish—saddle of venison with wild mushrooms—would be the ideal pairing. $325.

Martin Filler wrote about summer wines for the May/June issue.