I stood atop a ridge in north-eastern Spain, where at 500 metres above sea level I could almost touch the leaden grey skies that hung over us the entire day. Thankfully a softening breeze whipped up from the valleys, tinged with a touch of warmth and the scent of wild herbs.
Either side of me, only a few metres away, the land tumbled downwards dramatically at gradients averaging 45%; underfoot the broken slate soil that covers the area had a worrying slipperiness to it – not something that instills confidence when peering into a ravine.
I was in Priorat, the premium Spanish wine region that has rapidly appeared on the radars of Irish wine lovers in recent years. The area has an interesting history that goes back to the 12th century when Carthusian monks set up shop in the area, establishing vineyards and a priory that gave the area its name.
In 1835 the Carthusians’ land was expropriated by the state during a revolution and the land was redistributed to smallholders, before the phylloxera virus that decimated most of the vineyards in Europe enveloped the region only a few decades later. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the quality wine revolution came to Priorat and the area hasn’t looked back since. Today, it is one of only two regions (the other being Rioja) that has been categorised as DOCa, the highest quality designation for Spanish wines – not bad for an area that has only begun concentrating on quality wine only a couple of decades ago.
Priorat is nothing if not dramatic: the land ripples in verdant, corrugated ridges that ascend vertiginously before plunging just as suddenly into the mist. The roads coil in and out of sight, making even a short trip in the area a circuitous one.
There are two topographical features that Priorat is famous for. The first is its trellises, stepped terraces which snake around the hillsides and help put some sort of order on the impossibly steep slopes. The photos don’t do them justice and they really must be seen in person to be believed – the enormous amount of effort that goes into shaping the land into manageable vineyards is mind-boggling.
The second feature of Priorat is its slate-and-quartz soil, known locally as llicorella. I had heard about it before, but nothing prepared me for actually seeing it up close: instead of mud or gravel variations that we’re used to, this stuff literally looks as though thick roof slates had been smashed and scattered liberally over the area. It cracks and crunches underfoot, with shards the size of dinner plates not uncommon.
As you’d imaging this is terrible soil in which to grow anything, which is exactly the point: the result of the vines’ struggle is ripe but undersized grapes, meaning more intense and concentrated flavours, the hallmark of Priorat wines.
I was one of a small group invited to the region by the famous Torres wine family who were keen to show off the wines they produce outside of Penedès, their historic homeland which is responsible for such immensely popular wines such as Viña Sol, Sangre de Toro, and others. As well as Priorat they’ve expanded into Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rías Baixas and Rueda in recent years, and an excellent job they do in each too.
We had the pleasure of tasting both of Torres’s Priorat wines in their Porrera vineyard itself, giving the rare opportunity to sip on a wine while standing on the very soil from which it’s sourced. If ever you get the opportunity to do this, in any wine region, then please do – it’s a very satisfying experience.
Salmos is Torres’s ‘regular’ Priorat that contains Cariñena and Garnacha, the varieties typical of the region, with a dash of Syrah too, while Perpetual contains only Cariñena and Garnacha sourced from old vines aged from 80 to 100 years, chosen from select parcels dotted around the region.
Sipping on these two wines while overlooking this improbable terrain was a revelatory experience, made all the better by the two wines offering two different styles representing the “old” and “new” Priorat: Salmos, the young buck, glossy and heady; Perpetual, the old guard: reserved, gnarled and brooding. It was a spiritual experience – which is quite fitting really, given the religious history of the region.
A visit to Priorat is well worth the effort for any wine fan – it’s only a couple of hours from Barcelona yet offers a sort of timewarp to a land that time forgot, an almost impenetrable moonscape of dramatic scenery, pretty isolated villages and outstanding wine. Just be sure to bring some sturdy boots.
TWO TO TRY
RSP €29.99 from WineOnline.ie, La Touch Wines, Greystones, Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Sweeney’s of Glasnevin, McHugh’s of Kilbarrack, Ardkeen Stores Waterford, Bradley’s of North Main Street Cork, and other good off-licences
A deep and concentrated wine with dense black fruit and blueberry flavours along with spice, smoke and chocolate. Glossy and smooth, it has fantastic length and just the right amount of tannin and acidity. Lovely.
RSP €42.99 from The Corkscrew, Dublin
From very old vines, this is a far more serious affair – taut and mineral, it has an austere smokiness, high refreshing acid and nicely drying tannin.
More of a sensorial wine than a flavoursome one, this is to be sipped slowly and allowed open up over the course of a night.
Richie Magnier blogs under the pseudonym The Motley Cru at www.themotleycru.com and @richiemagnier on Twitter. The Motley Cru has been working in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.