All about the Wines of Priorat DOQ (Spain)
BEST GUIDE OF PRIORAT WINES FOR WINE LOVERS
El Priorat is a wine region located South of Barcelona, around 2 hours drive. It is sort of remote, since no highways crosses the area, and there’s only one national road, the N-420, that passes by the main town Falset. But from there, it’s a drive through local winding roads up the hills to get to the vineyards and the cellars. It’s a very scenic land, surrounded by higher mountain ranges, the Montsand, and limited by small rivers such as the Siurana.
It’s also one of the smallest Spanish wine regions, covering only 17,629 hectares (43,562 acres) from which only 1/8 is planted with vineyards. There’s a little over 500 wine makers in the Priorat area, who mostly specialize in premium red wines of a mineral quality that make them very different from the overly famous Rioja – the most popular red wines from Spain.
History of the wines of Priorat
The beggining of wine making in the Priorat region
The name of the Spanish Priorat wine region means "priory", a small monks monastery. That takes us back to the 1100, when the Carthusian monks arrived from Provence (France) founded the Escala Dei priory bringing with them the wine making knowledge that would allow them to make their own mass wine. It was the beggining of a long wine making tradition in the area that would last centuries. The monks owned the land in Priorat, that was worked by the local farmers, considered their vassals.
The foundation of the priory has nothing to do with wine, but it’s a cool legend, so let me share it with you: It is said that King Alfons the Chast sent two knights around the country to find the perfect place for the Carthusian monks to settle down. When they arrived to the are the were stroke by its beauty and asked a sheperd about it. He told them that there was a pine tree there, from where rose a ladder to heaven that the angels used to go up and down. The King decided to offer the monks that land, and the monastery was built next to the tree. The priory was called Scala Dei, in latin “Ladder of God”. Cool, isn’t it?
Wine making flourished in the Priorat during centuries, and when in 1835 the minister Mendizabal expropiated the lands of the Catholic church in Spain. That’s when the local farmers became the owners of the Priorat states and continued producing wine. Unfortunately, a few decades later the plague of the phylloxera bug arrived, destroying all the vines. The farmers had to move to the big cities to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, and the vineyards were mostly abandoned.
In 1954 the government of Franco’s dictatorship created the Priorat wine appellation. But it wouldn’t be until 1989 that things would really start moving. It was then that wine maker René Barbier arrived followed by other wine enthousiasts, and attracted by the unique characteristic of the Priorat land and its vines. They implemented French wine making techniques and un until 1992 the first 5 pioneers shared the same crops, cellar and wine albeit each sold it under their own brand.
One good marketing move was to name their wines after the French (but also Catalan) word “clos”, that means enclosed or walled area – refering to their small vineyards. It gave their wines an exclusive feel, that matched perfectly the high quality of the product. In 1993 Alvaro Palacios launched his iconic L’Ermita, and since then the internatioal interest on Priorat wines rocketed.
What makes the wine from Priorat special
Licorella soil and steep terrain
The Priorat lands are characterized by its steep hills of 15 to 60% gradient. The vines are planted mostly in small terraces, or “costers” in Catalan. That complicates the care of the vines, and makes it very difficult to use machinery for the harvest. As a result, the Priorat vineyards are tending more and more to natural, organic and biodynamic agriculture and the grapes are often harvested by hand. The higher production costs of the wine making, united to the small harvests are one of the reasons for the premium pricing of the top Priorat wines.
Grapes and old vines
The two traditional grapes used for Priorat wine are Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan). They make the base of the beautiful reds of the area. However, there’s no regulation that stablishes a percentage of them in the blends, and the use of other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is also quite common. Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir are rare, but not unheard of. Only a 5% of the total harvest are white wines.
One of the interesting characteristics of the local vineyards is the existance of many old vines, 70 years old or more. Their production is very small, but the flavor of their grapes produces very intense and fruity wines. You’ll notice notes of red fruits such as black cherry, currant and sun-dried plus.
The Priorat wine DOQ
DO vs DOQ (or DOCa)
Priorat became a DO in 1954, and was awarded the DOQ title in 2000. The current regulations that stipulate the characteristics required for a wine to be granted the Priorat DOQ label date from 2006. That includes the geographical area covered by the DOQ as well as the quality standards of the wine making procedures. For political reasons, even if DOQ and DOCa are basically the same (just Catalan vs Spanish names), the Spanish Governement didn’t approve the Priorat DOCa until 2009.
The Priorat DOQ has also introduced since 2009 a classification system to recognize the personality and uniqueness of its wines called “Noms de la Terra” (names of the land). They are “vins de vila”, “Vins de paratge”, “Vins de vinya classificada”, Vins de gran vinya classificada” and “Vinyes velles”. Not all the best Priorat wines have adhered to this new classification yet, even if most of them support it: some established brands don’t have the need of additional labels for their marketing strategies.
Vins de Vila
The DOQ Priorat is divided in 12 sub-zones, that correspond to its 12 municipalities within Priorat: Bellmunt del Priorat, Gratallops, el Lloar, la Morera de Montsant, Porrera, Poboleda, Scala Dei, Torroja del Priorat, la Vilella Alta, la Vilella Baixa, Masos de Falset and les Solanes del Molar (these last two being districts of larger towns).
The denomination “Vins de Vila” (village wines) is applied to those wines made with grapes exclusively grown in one of the 12 villages (9 municipalities) listed above. They are wines committed to the local territory, that express the personality of a particular area of Priorat.
Vins de Paratge
Paratge could translate as “terroir”, “lieu-dit” or “domaine”. The label applies to wines coming from a particular state that has been recognized for its uniqueness and historical importance. They are wines that talk about a particular location in Priorat, its landscape and climate. The Priorat DOQ keeps an inventory of around a few hundred “paratges” and their land registry number. Most of the time, these wines are named after the state the grapes come from.
These are wines coming exclusively from “Classified vineyards”, individual states with at least 80% of the vines being 20 years old or more. Their exceptional particularities deserve being bottled separately, and the result is remarkable wines.
They are the Priorat equivalent to French “premier” wines, and sometimes you’ll also see them referred as “Vi de Finca” (state wine). In order to become a Vinya Classificada, the wine maker needs to request the DOQ approval.
Gran Vinya Classificada
Similarly, these are wines coming exclusively from one single “Classified great vineyard”, a state with at least 80% of the vines being 75 years old or more that produce exquisite wines, unforgettable and almost legendary.
The age of the vineyards is not enough, though. In order to be granted this label it has to be approved by on a plenary session of the Priorat DOQ board. Then the harvest and the wines need to pass regular controls. So far there’s less than a handful of certified Gran Vinya Classificada wines. This label is comparable to French “grand crus”.
Not all the old vineyards produce wines that deserve being awarded the Gran Vinya Classificada label. But they do deserve being protected and tracked.
This is why the DOQ Priorat has created an additional label for the oldest vineyards – those 75 years old or more. They are very rare, but nonetheless they express the personality of the Priorat and its ancient wine making tradition.
Besides the “vins de terra” classification, there’s also a more standard classification that refers to the aging time of the wines, and it is pretty much standard all over Spain. Criança wines (crianza in Spanish) age at least 6 months in oak barrel, then at least 18 months in bottle. Reserva wines need at least 12 months in oak barrel and at least 24 months in bottle. And finally, Gran Reserva wines stay a minimum of 24 months in barrel and 36 months in bottle. Still, some other cellars prefer to go by Vi de guarda (aged wine), requiring at least 18 months in oak barrel plus 6 months in bottle.
I hope to have inspired you to try now the best wines from Priorat
Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.
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