THE ECONOMIC CRISIS in Spain has been in the headlines for months, yet it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on Priorat. Perhaps that’s because this tiny region in northeastern Spain has been « in a state of crisis for the last 20 centuries, » according to Valenti Llagostera of Mas Doix, the Priorat-based winery.
Mr. Llagostera and I were driving through Poboleda when he said this to me. Poboleda is one of many Priorat villages that were devastated by phylloxera—the vineyard louse—more than 100 years ago. Phylloxera not only killed all the vines but destroyed the region’s economy as well. A good many Priorat residents simply abandoned their homes, and Poboleda, like many Priorat villages, became a bit of a ghost town. « Eighty-five percent of the houses in Poboleda are empty, » said Mr. Llagostera, whose family has lived in the region for centuries.
Mr. Llagostera lives in nearby Barcelona, where he is an associate economics professor at the ESADE business school. But he and his brother Ramon also run the winery and they’re in Priorat quite often—when they’re not on the road. That may be another reason why many Priorat winemakers are only marginally affected by the economic crisis so far: They’re selling their wines all over the world.
René Barbier of Clos Mogador, a famous Priorat winery, told me he is selling his wines in places he never thought he would see, including Ukraine and the Far East. « I’ve spent a fortune on travel, » he said.
But the jovial Mr. Barbier seems to be doing quite well. He has hired an assistant specifically to handle winery visitors and even had an Enomatic wine-dispensing machine installed to service the hoards of fans. (The Enomatic allows Mr. Barbier to keep bottles open for days if not weeks, though the fabled Clos Mogador—one of the first Priorat cult wines—was on day five at the time of my visit and sadly was a bit faded.)
Mr. Barbier was the leader of the « Band of Five » who arrived in Priorat some 25 years ago. Mr. Barbier and four others, including one woman, Daphne Glorian, arrived with very little money but a burning desire to make a great wine from Priorat’s old-vine Garnacha and Carignan. (Priorat vineyards were replanted at the turn of the last century.) Their desire was quite singular in many ways, but especially because there were very few private wineries back then; the region was dominated by cooperatives. Today there are around 96 private wineries in the Priorat and just one cooperative.
“The Spanish region’s quantities are small, the reputations still large and there’s demand somewhere in the world.”
In those early years the group was so close that they gave their wines the same first name—Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos Finca, etc.—and made them in the same winery in Gratallops. (« Clos » is the French term for a walled vineyard site.) Production numbers were tiny and aren’t much larger today.
After 1992, the group split up. They began making wines separately and one of the members, Álvaro Palacios, renamed his wine: Finca became Finca Dofi and he also created another, much pricier wine that he called L’Ermita, after the hermitage on a nearby hill. Several years later, Mr. Palacios built a very modern winery just outside of Gratallops, where it looms over the centuries-old town. L’Ermita, produced in even smaller quantities, is currently the most expensive wine in Priorat—the 2009 costs $800 a bottle, and older vintages can cost even more.
I made a pilgrimage of my own to the Ermita (both the hermitage and vineyard) early one morning, accompanied by Ms. Glorian, who happened to be in Priorat as well. Ms. Glorian travels between Priorat and the States—she’s married to Eric Solomon, an American wine importer based in North Carolina.
The view from the Ermita appeared to encompass the region’s entire appellation, a wide-screen view of steep hillside vineyards—some terraced, some not—stands of pine forests, half-abandoned villages and, at our feet, great jagged shards of llicorella, the dark slate soil of Priorat. Llicorella is the secret to the greatness of the Priorat region. It’s the source of its wines’ characteristic bright acidity and mineral thread, both of which contrast well with the sumptuous richness and power of the Garnacha and Carignan (also called Samsó) fruit. (These are the two most-planted grapes of Priorat, though there are many others, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. A tiny amount of white wine is produced in Priorat, too.)
En route to the next village, we passed a sprawling, rather derelict-seeming winery. It had been founded with a great flourish in 1998 when Priorat was briefly trendy, but was now bankrupt. It was the first visible casualty of the crisis, though in the days that followed I saw a few more —unfinished wineries and some half-built hotels.
Although Mr. Palacios has made his reputation (and fortune) on wines like L’Ermita and Finca Dofi, he recently began making less-expensive wine, too—a mass-quantity wine (by Priorat standards, at least) called Camins del Priorat. It costs $22 and 50,000 cases are produced. There’s a village-specific wine from Gratallops also made by Mr. Palacios. Both are soft, approachable wines with black fruits and spicy notes—though the former is deliciously drinkable, the latter is a more complex and structured wine.
Ms. Glorian’s husband, Mr. Solomon, imports her wine and that of some other Priorat wineries. He has also launched a line called Black Slate, in honor of the llicorella. Each Black Slate wine is made in a different Priorat village by a different winemaker and costs about $20 a bottle. As a man whose wife makes a wine that costs $150 and up, Mr. Solomon thought it was important to make a wine in Priorat that was drinkable by more than a few. Plus, as he said, he was able to get good fruit.
Of course, traveling to Priorat and focusing primarily on its less-expensive offerings would be a bit like taking a trip to Burgundy and opting for Mâcon Villages over Montrachet. I tasted a good many of the wines that first brought Priorat attention and fame over a decade ago and found some truly impressive wines. Marked by captivating aromas of black currant, mocha and mineral and a dense texture that conveyed richness and intensity yet also finesse and restraint, they included notable bottlings from Mas Doix, Álvaro Palacios, Bodegas Artigas, Nit de Nin and Clos Erasmus. Most times I tasted both the 2009 and 2010 vintages—the latter identified by most producers as the best in a decade, though the lush, seductive 2009 wines are much more approachable now.
And their prices? « Approachable » would not be the word. Most were at least $50 a bottle and often much more. And yet, no producer professed trouble with sales. The quantities are small, the reputations still large and there’s demand somewhere in the world. And if all that changes? I guess Priorat winemakers will figure it out. After all, as Mr. Llagostera said: « Priorat is a story of survival. »