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Priorat has evolved over the last 20 years, shedding the exaggerated style and fascination with too much oak, to wines of freshness and elegance - not unlike Burgundy.

Priorat reds imbued with newfound nuance

Oct 11, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

FASHION is notoriously fickle. But hemlines have nothing on wine.

The difference is that in fashion, styles change because a huge industry depends on convincing consumers that new clothing is necessary even if the old clothing still has years of life.

But wine has no need to create turnover. Each bottle can be poured out only once; the obsolescence is natural. So what accounts for changing styles over time?

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Is it the power of wine critics? Or possibly consumer demand? Maybe it's climate change. Or, as one recent article suggested, blame the accountants.

It's interesting to ponder that question while considering the case of Priorat, a wine that rose to wild acclaim towards the end of the 20th century from a dormant, little-known region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain.

The initial excitement seemed to die down by around 2010, yet the wine remains popular, if not widely known. The best examples have remained expensive, US$100 a bottle or more. Over time, the wines have changed noticeably.

Priorat has been a source for wine for nearly a millennium, since Carthusian monks established a priorat - Catalan for "priory" - in the 12th century and planted vines. It's a forbidding place to farm, a series of steep slate hills south-west of Barcelona that thrust upward in a series of jagged slate slopes at sometimes ridiculously sharp angles.

Phylloxera, the aphid that ravaged European vineyards, devastated Priorat in the late 19th century. For most of the 20th century, it was a sleepy place, its vineyards diminished. Production was dominated by cooperatives, which largely made cheap, indifferent wine.

Priorat's rediscovery was spurred by young French and Spanish winemakers who recognised potential in the old stands of garnacha and carinena, planted in what the Catalans call llicorella - the stony soils of brown slate that occasionally sparkle with quartzite.

From its modern inception, Priorat has generally been a burly wine, rich and alcoholic, as garnacha and carinena, also known by their French names grenache and carignan, can often be. Yet, over the past 20 years, it has rarely stayed the same.

At the beginning of this century, Priorats often seemed muscle-bound and brutally oaky. Its tannins could be impenetrable, and the texture was sometimes thick and syrupy. Back then, that powerful style for red wines, promoted by influential critics, dominated many regions. Priorat, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a grenache-based wine from the southern Rhone Valley of France, epitomised that approach.

Over the past two decades, however, I have seen Priorat evolve. It has shed the exaggerated style and the fascination with too much oak, too much fruit and too much alcohol. The international grapes that were planted at the beginning of Priorat's renaissance, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, have faded to bit players, allowing the traditional local grapes to define the wines.

As it has changed, has Priorat's innate identity emerged? Or is this another in a series of metamorphoses, determined by whatever drives wine styles? In pursuit of answers, or at least of inspiration that might one day lead to answers, the wine panel tasted 20 red Priorats from recent vintages, primarily 2015 and 2016. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests: Alex Raij, the chef and proprietor (with her husband, Eder Montero) of four restaurants in New York, El Quinto Pino, Txikito, La Vara and Saint Julivert Fisherie, and AJ Ojeda-Pons, beverage director at Mercado Little Spain in Hudson Yards.

What is the current state of Priorat? It's clear that producers have strived for and succeeded in making wines of freshness and elegance. These are still big wines - only one of 20 was under 14 per cent alcohol, and most were 14.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent. The best of these wines showed finesse and precision, structure, purity and great minerality.

Years ago, these wines were tough to drink with a meal because they were so overwhelming. Now, as Alex remarked: "With so many I said, 'I want them with food.' "

It's hard to account for the evolution, except to say that all over the world, the Goliath wines of 20 years ago have moved towards becoming Davids, fleet-footed and agile rather than hulking giants. It would be easy to conclude that this is simply another stylistic oscillation and that more will come.

I don't think so, though. It seems to me that wines have returned to classical conceptions of what they ought to be, after a period of strange extravagance in which wine was amplified because, for the first time, producers had the wherewithal to do it. Maybe that's out of our system, and once again, wine is something that can be served at the table.

Today, diversity reigns. If consumers want powerful, dense, oaky wines, they can still find them, although as far as we could tell from our tasting, not so much in Priorat. Our favourites were floral, with stony mineral flavours and fruit that was juicy and appetising rather than syrupy. "These were concentrated without being clunky or cloying," AJ said.

The bad bottles? We found only a few, and they tended to be overly rustic or marred in some other way rather than exaggerated or oaky.

We did see two main types in our tasting, those with the structure to benefit and evolve from ageing, and those that seemed delicious right now. Our favourite, the 2016 Clos Mogador, was from the family of Rene Barbier, one of the pioneers of Priorat's resurrection. It was ripe, lively and fresh, with floral and mineral flavours. It was also the most expensive bottle in our tasting at US$99, near our US$100 spending limit.

Our No 2 bottle was the balanced, elegant and focused 2015 Salmos from Familia Torres, a big producer with interests all over Spain and South America. No 3 was the 2015 Bellmunt from Mas d'en Gil, an easygoing, lovely wine - made from young vines - that was floral and fruity, with mineral flavours. It was our best value at US$25.

Our top tier also included the 2016 Laurel from Clos I Terrasses, spicy, earthy and herbal; and the 2016 Les Crestes from Mas Doix, another fresh, easygoing wine like the Bellmunt, with bright floral and fruit flavours.

Next were five bottles we liked very much, including the stony licorice-scented 2015 Pissarres from Costers del Priorat; the fresh, floral 2016 Planetes de Nin Garnatxes en Amfora from Familia Nin-Ortiz, made entirely of garnacha aged in amphora; the spicy, savoury 2015 Clos Martinet from Mas Martinet; the vibrant, balanced 2016 Crossos from Clos Galena; and the juicy, easygoing 2016 Les Terrasses from Alvaro Palacios.

Short of a return to grandiosity, what lies ahead for Priorat? Considering how far the region has come in the past 30 years, it's easy to imagine it resting on its laurels.

Yet much is still to be learnt, especially about how the microclimates and soils differ in the various sub-regions. In an effort to gain a clearer understanding of the terroir, the local authorities have come up with Vi de Vila, in which wine from 12 areas may add the name of the local village to their labels if they meet certain criteria.

The intent is to increase the sense of place within Priorat and to determine the stylistic characteristics of the villages. Dispassionate observers might consider this part of the Burgundification of Priorat. Burgundy, after all, is very much in fashion right now. NYTIMES