How Spain got its Priorat right

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Rioja and ribera del duero represented the twin peaks of Spanish wine quality until the 1990s. Only Miguel Torres in Penedès gave either of them a run for their pesetas.

Rioja and ribera del duero represented the twin peaks of Spanish wine quality until the 1990s. Only Miguel Torres in Penedès gave either of them a run for their pesetas.

Since then, Priorat, an arid mountainous region tucked into the steep, rugged hinterland of the Sierra del Montsant, west of Barcelona, has emerged as an unlikely pretender to the Spanish wine throne. At £100 a bottle, the region's most expensive wine, L'Ermita, has become a modern Spanish icon.

This recently acquired reputation is due to the way that Priorat is producing powerful, deep-hued red wines in a re-invented style which appeals strongly to lovers of New World-like richness and concentration.

Priorat's challenge might appear recent. It is in fact one of the oldest wine regions in Spain. The name comes from the Priory of Scala Dei, the first Carthusian monastery built in Catalonia in the 13th century. With little flat land, apart from the bottom of the Siurana river valley, many of its hard-to-work, steeply terraced vineyards were abandoned in 1960s for more profitable work in the towns and cities. By 1989, only 800 of the 17,000 hectares planted since 1900 remained. Most of the wine went to co-ops to be sold in bulk.

Ten years before that, however, a band of pioneering small growers already realised that there was liquid gold to be extracted from the region's heritage of old vines. Based on the garnacha (France's grenache) and cariñena (carignan), an essentially Mediterranean blend makes Priorat, broadly speaking, Spain's answer to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Cabernet sauvignon and syrah were brought in to the mix to add a veneer of international respectability.

A second wave of newcomers to the region, led by the dapper riojano, Alvaro Palacio, brought confidence, technique and the ability to articulate the special nature of Priorat's wines to the outside world.

"There was a kind of mystique associated with the old vines of Priorat which was always referred to in Barcelona as 'that good, strong vinegar'," says Palacio. "It made a strong impression on me and I came here with the ambition of making a classic Spanish wine." In 1993, Palacio bought the steeply terraced vineyard of L'Ermita, later erecting an ultra-chic wood, glass and stone cellar in the hills opposite the village of Gratallops. Today, L'Ermita is not just the most expensive wine from Priorat but one of the priciest in Spain.

The nights are cool, and the vines have to struggle for nutrition from soils made up of crumbly layers of iron-red slate and glittering mica. As if extracting blood from a stone, the old vines, with roots that penetrate deep into the crumbly slate, yield wine often in quantities of less than a kilo per vine. This hard-won harvest helps produce powerfully fleshy plum, cherry and damson-like wines that combine herby minerality and incisive freshness.

Demand for Priorat is so considerable that grapes are 10 times more expensive than six years ago. The high prices of the wines reflect both increased cost of production and the fact that Priorat is now the hottest ticket in town. With pride in the land restored, there could be another price to pay. New vineyards plantings are estimated to bring the region to over 2,000 hectares by next year. According to the acclaimed winemaker Sara Perez at Mas Martinet, a lot of big companies are "coming in and diluting the appellation" with young vines. It would be a shame if Priorat were to become a victim of its own success.