As some of you know, I've been in this business a l-o-n-g time. Priorats probably didn't cross my radar screen until the late 80's or so and then they were viewed as exotic "can't get" wines. The advance word was that these big powerful reds were actually the finest wines of Spain, better than the more Bordeaux-like Riojas. And then they arrived...sort of. For years I would have one example of a Priorat wine on the shelf like that was my allocation for the year. Now it seems like they're coming out of the woodwork. Without walking across the store I know of four off the top of my head.
So what's going on? Let's go back to the beginning. Written references to Priorat wines go back to the twelfth century. Those references were made by the monks who planted the vineyards. (Don't you love the monks.) The name, Priorat, actually comes from the monk title, Prior.
Today Priorat is a Denominacio d'Origen Qualifada (DOQ) government de-limited premier wine region in the Tarragona province in the Catalonia region. It is encircled by the Montsant DO which should clue you into its stature having been carved out of a larger entity and then given a higher rating than the surrounding area.
The wine making history of Spain for the past hundred fifty years or so has been difficult, to say the least. Priorat had 12,000 acres in vines before the devastating Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800's. All of those would be destroyed by the bug and before they could be replanted, the European wars, including the Spanish Civil War, would set the industry back for another fifty years. Finally in the 1950's the re-planting of Priorat was begun but because of economic circumstances, that reset was on a much smaller scale than what was there pre-Phylloxera.
As California wine makers upgraded their vineyards and wineries in the early 1980's preparing for the anticipated wine boom to follow, something similar started happening in Priorat. Knowing the potential of their collective land holdings, five insightful growers banded together to form a cooperative venture. Priorat, which had always been planted in common jug wine grapes, was now primed for replanting and re-branding. Garnacha Tinto now became the premier varietal supported by Carignon and other reputable vinifera types. The co-op's initial wine offerings consisted of making one common wine which each participant labeled with his brand. As the new Priorat wines began to make a name for themselves, investments poured in. By the year 2000 2,500 acres were in vines. In ten years that number doubled and today 48,000 acres are now in vineyards.
Priorat vineyards are diverse in elevations and microclimates but they share a continental climate and rocky soils which mean low yields and intense wines. 96% of the production there is red wine and because of the sales potential internationally, the international varieties (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah) are increasingly being planted. Also the traditional Spanish labeling of Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva is now being amended or even disregarded.
Please join us here at the store next Thursday the 16th of August after 5pm when Atlanta importer Ted Fields presents a tasting of Italian wines from his fine portfolio. Fittingly the cutting table will feature complementary Italian cheeses like Piave Vecchio.