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Spotlight on Priorat , Catalonia, Spain

Priorat is now one of the most happening wine regions in Spain, but one which fairly recently gone through huge transition. Old-style Priorat had a reputation for being rough and massively alcoholic, but since the 1990s things have changed, and now the best wines from this region are some of Spain’s most sophisticated and sought-after reds. It was awarded the DOC in 2001 (it had been a DO since 1975).

Like many world-class wine regions the secret here is spectacular terroir. Hillside vineyards with poor soils and low yielding old vines are the key. But why has it taken so long for the potential of this region to be unlocked? The terroir has always been there, but the wines now are immeasurably better than they used to be. This is probably because of the ambition and ability of the producers, coupled with a domestic market prepared to pay substantial prices for the best wines. This has encouraged investment and encouraged quality-minded winemakers not prepared to cut corners in the pursuit of the best wines the terroirs permit.

The key grapes here are Garnacha (known elsewhere as Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan). Not terribly promising raw material, perhaps, but old vines of these varieties evidently have the ability to express the Priorat terroir in profound ways. Added to this is a spattering of international varieties, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The downside is that because of small production these wines will take some seeking out, and when you find them they’ll be relatively expensive.

Roquer del Ros Odysseus Blanco 2001, Priorat
Only 125 cases of this barrel-fermented Garnacha blanco were made. It has an attractive, distinctive herbal nose, with a bright, almost grassy edge. Quite intense. The palate is distinctive, herbal and full flavoured, with the oak in the background and adding a rich, toasty, nutty texture. An attractive, full-flavoured white wine. Very good/excellent

Roquer del Ros Odysseus 1999, Priorat
40% Garnacha, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cariñena, vinified in 400 litre new Nevers oak casks and aged in barriques. Rich, ripe fruit with spicy new wood on the nose. Sweet edged. The palate is quite tannic and woody with good density of fruit, in a chunky, spicy style. Needs time. Very intense. Very good+

Alvaro Palacios ‘Les Terrasses’ 1999
50% Garnacha, 40% Cariñena, 10% Cabernet Savignon. The rich fruity nose has a herbal edge with some spicy oak. The rich, liquorice-edged palate shows more spicy wood notes and firm tannins. Bright and accessible. Very good+ (Les Terrases is relatively affordable at about £13 from Corney & Barrow, UK agents)

Alvaro Palacios ‘Les Terrasses’ 1998, Priorat
Lifted, liquoricey nose with ripe herby redcurrant fruit. The palate ripe, rich herby fruit with an almost lush edge to it. Dry spicy tannins on the finish. A very attractive modern wine that still reflects its origins, at least in part. Very good/excellent

Alvaro Palacios Finca Dofí 1994, Priorat
65% Garnacha, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a bit of Syrah and Merlot. Ripe, sweet berry fruit with tarry, spicy complexity on the nose, although it’s just a touch muted. Mature, herbal notes emerge after a while. The palate is soft and rich with some vivid fruit and tannic structure. Spicy finish. Nice stuff, although it hasn’t developed as much compelling bottle-age character as I’d hoped for. Very good/excellent (current release will set you back £40 or so)

Alvaro Palacios Finca Dofí 1997, Priorat
Very deep red/purple. The nose shows dark fruit, complex spices and oak influence. The palate is really interesting: it is dense, tannic and spicy but there’s some lovely minerality and herby complexity. The minerality is particularly striking and the oak isn’t at all dominant on the palate. Dry tannins dominate the finish, and it seems quite alcoholic. Very good/excellent  (tasted March 2002)

Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita 1999, Priorat
This is a blend of 80% Garnacha, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cariñena. Opaque purple colour. Massively rich and intense nose, displaying a tarry, minerally lift, spicy, liquoricey complexity and a fresh-ground coffee edge. There are also some sweet herbal notes. The palate shows a huge concentration of spicy, berry fruit with massive tannic structure underneath. There’s a lot of oak evident but there is also good acidity and a strong mineral streak. Hard to assess so young: the sweetness of the fruit and oak makes it approachable now, and it doesn’t lack elegance, even thought it’s a big wine. Remarkable. Excellent (expect to pay in excess of £100 per bottle)

Rotllan Torra ‘Balandra’ 1997, Priorat
This winery was founded in 1984 by Jordi Rotllan Torra. 50% old vine Garnacha (old vine at this estate means 90–100 years old), 25% old vine Cariñena and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in new American oak barrels. Quite a serious rich, spicy nose with dense berry fruit. The palate is savoury and chunky with lovely acidity supporting the juicy berry fruit, firm tannins and herbal complexity. Spicy finish. Concentrated and slightly old fashioned, but lovely. Very good/excellent  

Rotllan Torra ‘Amadís’ 1997, Priorat
45% old vine Garnacha, 20% old vine Cariñena, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 5% Merlot, aged in new French oak. Very intense nose of vivid, exotic berry fruit, liquorice and spice with a tarry edge. Striking, although perhaps a little oaky at the moment. The palate is remarkably rich with an acidic, almost salty tang. Very mineralic and spicy with firm tannins on the finish. Very good/excellent

Masia Barril 1995 Priorat
75% Garnacha, 25% Cariñena; no wood used. Old fashioned nose with a touch of lifted acidity, showing caramel, spice and berry fruit. The palate shows sweet, concentrated fruit flavours with good tannic structure. Quite harmonious but old fashioned. Very good+ 

Cartoixa d’Scala Dei Gran Reserva 1991, Priorat
100% Garnacha. Fading in colour at the rim. Herby, leathery edge to the nose which shows caramel-style fruit. The chewy, savoury palate is mature with a minerally edge. Attractive in an old fashioned style; a good food wine. Very good+

Cartoixa d’Scala Dei 1996, Priorat
100% Garnacha. Quite exotic, with rich, liquoricey, minty fruit on the nose: opulent and new-oak influenced. The palate shows savoury, minty fruit with lots of oak and firm tannins. Concentrated and rich. Very modern-styled; almost Australian. Very good+

Costers del Siurana Clos de l’Obac 1997, Priorat
35% Garnacha, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, 10% Cariñena, aged in new French oak. The nose displays distinct blackcurrant fruit with a berry edge. Very fruity. The palate shows attractive berry and blackcurrant fruit with juicy acidity and a chocolatey, spicy finish. Modern style. Very good+

Mas Igneus FA206 2000, Priorat
70% Garnacha, 20% Cariñena, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Syrah, aged in 2 year old barrels for 6 months. Classy label. There's an intriguing herbal, mineralic twist to the richly fruited nose. The palate displays dense fruit with good acidity and a chalky, mineralic edge. Nicely poised and classically styled, capturing some of the Priorat 'terroir' character. Very good/excellent (£9.99 Waitrose)

Most of these wines were tasted at La Vigneronne, September 5th 2002. Exceptions: Finca Dofí 1997 tasted March 2002; Les Terrasses 1998, June 2002; Mas Igneus, October 2002.

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