Appellation Guide: Priorat DOC (Catalonia, Spain)

Around the mid 90s, the wines of Priorat, a small appellation in the heart of Catalonia, began to achieve international acclaim.They were rich and intense but also possessed a charming mineral character that elevated them well beyond the sea of wines championed elsewhere for an abundance of robust fruit.

This concentrated complexity derived from two sources; low yields from very old vines and the unique slate that distinguishes the soil in Priorat, known as Llicorella in Catalan, made the wines incredibly special.

Yet as popularity grew, so too did the reliance on international varieties. Suddenly new plantings of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah were appearing in a bid to keep supply in line with demand. The traditional identity of Priorat as a blend of Garnatxa and Carinyena was being eroded. It became increasingly difficult to pick the wines out from the crowd and the well-regarded intricacies of the local terroir were progressively obscured.

A handful of super wines achieved great scores but many of the more accessible wines started to disappoint. By the mid 2000s Priorat’s reputation as one of the top Spanish wines still held, but often the wines hid behind towering price tags, finding themselves resigned to the portfolios of increasingly specialist merchants.

When the subsequent credit crunch and financial crisis hit, things had to change. A far more discerning market held on to its money, allocating it instead to wines that delivered value rather than status. Prices levelled out and those producers whose wines weren’t up to scratch soon found out. But what now of this famous region whose potential to produce greatness is unquestioned? Are Priorat wines still worth the money or are they all hype and well overpriced?

Producing Priorat is a labour of love. Vineyards are cut into the slate hills and terraces are so steep that grapes can only be picked by hand. It is back breaking work. The vines themselves are often 50-60 years old, if not 100, and give heart wrenchingly small quantities of fruit. The cost of production is high and yields would be laughable, were they not the sole income of many winemaking families.

Many producers have now returned their attention to the historical grape varieties that have flown the flag for this area since the turn of the last century. Modern technology and a growing understanding of Garnatxa and Carinyena have led to experimentation with single vineyard interpretations.

Better knowledge of the viticultural techniques that solicit the best from each grape is now being utilised and today Priorat wines represents some of the most honest expressions of terroir in Spain. The wines are still big and powerful, but the personality is back. The mineral character is evident once again and wines are very much worth the outlay. Today they are considered once again to be amongst Spain’s greatest red wines and boast a level of both power and elegance rarely seen alongside one another.