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A visit to the lovely region of Priorat

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – you never know a wine region, I mean really truly know a wine region, until you visit it. I was saying that again this week when I had a great day visiting the nearby region of Priorat.

The region has gone through quite a bit of change in the last 50 years. After the potential of the region was re-discovered by some talented winemakers (Rene Barbier, Alvaro Palacios, etc), the popularity of the wines exploded after Mr. Parker bestowed his praise on the wines. This resulted in a period of financial sustainability, and even financial success, until the economic crisis hit in 2008. Now Priorat is regrouping and trying to figure out what model will work to make it sustainable.  The key problem is that these wines are just so damned expensive to make – this only becomes evident when you visit the vineyards.  They are impossibly steep, the vines are impossibly spread out, the vineyard access is impossibly difficult, and there is impossibly little water.

Look at this picture…

That dirt road in the background is the access road to the vineyard, and it required a 4×4, with the 4×4 fully engaged to get through it. The vineyard to the back of the photo does not do justice to how steep these vineyards are. And look at this ancient vine in the foreground. Does it have neighbors? Yes, but they’re pretty far away, for sure. And it’s low to the ground, requiring back breaking manual tending. No machines up here. Just solid human (and in the recent past in this vineyard – mules!) work and toil.

But why are the vineyards so great? It’s the soil! Or really, the lack of soil!

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That’s the lovely Valenti Llagostera from Mas Doix explaining to us how the schist has vertical cracks down it, forcing the vine roots to penetrate deep down to get to water.

Here’s another photo so you can see close-up the vertical cracks the vines need to root through…

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It’s a little hard to see in this picture, but this root is wavy, but flat as a pancake!

Alright, so the wines are incredibly difficult and expensive to make, got it. And although the international market has been supportive of Priorat, the super premium price category these wines sit in is certainly a crowded one. So why are people still struggling with making and selling them? The answer, as evident from my two winery visits, was passion. Pure passion for the region, for the varietals, and for the wines themselves.

We first visited Mas Doix, one of the established high-end producers in Priorat.

Valenti took us for a nice walk through one of his vineyards. Look at how step this is!

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We also got a beautiful view of the town of Poboleda.

They seem to have solved some of their cash flow by producing a higher volume lower priced wine called Les Crestes. And while not high volume at all, it is compared to their higher end wines. And also certainly not lower priced from a global perspective, as it retails for around $22 in the US, but it’s definitely low priced by Priorat standards. But definitely tasty! Really tasty! Search it out in your marketplace, for sure.

In addition to tasting their great Doix and Salanques wines, we had the distinct pleasure of trying the Mas Doix 1902! This is their super tête du cuvèe wine. Look at the bottle number at the bottom right. Look closely! It wasn’t the last bottle in their cellar for sure, but it was fun to taste the last one labelled!

Here’s a good point to talk about one of the key learnings from this day, and that’s about grape varieties. The 1902 is 100% carignan. No grenache at all. Grenache is not at all necessary to make top quality priorat wines. In fact I felt that a 100% carignan wine from the region had beautiful aromatics and lift, but still had the fruit power and tannin power so indicative of the region. The international consumer may associate top Priorat with 100% or at least majority grenache, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Search out 100% or strong percent carignan wines from Priorat. They’re really eye opening.  In the case of the Mas Doix 1902, it helps that its made from vines that are over 100 years old!

From there we had a lovely lunch in the neighboring picture postcard town of Porrera.

Yes, the towns here are pretty stunning!

After a lovely lunch at Restaurant La Cooperativa (check it out if you’re in town – it’s great, and run by a super nice couple), we walked literally 30 meters to the cellar of Familia Nin-Ortiz. But before tasting, we went for the aforementioned four wheel drive up to the vineyards!

As I said, these vineyards are steep!

But the vines are beautiful …

… and the views are breathtaking …

We headed back to town and to their cozy cellar and tasted through the great wines made by Esther Nin, from grapes grown by her husband, Carles Ortiz.

The wines were remarkable. Grown with extreme care (biodynamically too) and made with passion and love for the terroir and grapes.  And barely sustainable – some years it takes ten vines (10!) to get enough grapes to make one bottle of the Nit de Nin. Carles passion in the vineyard is so evident. He cares for each vine so closely, and sees himself as a steward of the land. And many in Priorat feel the same way – the vineyard we toured was purchased by the Nin-Ortiz’s after they rented them for 4 years. The owner of the vineyard wanted Carles to prove to him that he was “worthy” of caring for the vineyard before selling. Clearly he is worthy enough!

Interestingly, they are also going down the currently trendy path of making more Priorat Blanco. Their Selma de Nin is a rare blend of Rousanne, Marsanne and Chenin Blanc! That’s rare for not just Priorat but also just about anywhere in the world! And tasty too!

I love when I can taste the vignerons’ passion in a wine. The passion was very clear from Carles and Esther’s wines. And Valenti’s wines at Mas Doix, too! I can’t wait to buy some and drink some!

All in all, a fantastic day visiting and exploring one portion of Priorat. A wine region facing the challenge of sustainability with undying passion! I can’t wait to go back!

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