The rise and rise of Priorat wines

CF: For those who do not know Priorat, can you describe the region?

FW: For those who enjoy being out in the countryside, D.O. Priorat is perfect. Despite being only 2 hours’ drive from Barcelona, its hilly and mountainous terrain makes it feel like another world. The region is special, not only because it is protected from the northwest by the mountains of the Sierra de Montsant, but because of its famous and unusual soils. It is when you see the Llicorella, a dark-brown and almost reddish slate, that sparkles in the sun and gives Priorat its essence, that you know you have arrived.

CF: What is the (brief) history of Priorat as a wine-making region?

FW: A really brief version. Priorat only really got noticed on the global stage from the decade and onwards of 1985. Having seen its potential, 2 winemakers by the names of René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios, bought land and planted new vines. After convincing others to follow suit the co-operative of 5 wineries pooled their grapes for the first 3 vintages in a shared winery, making one wine under 5 labels. From 1992 they all went their own way, but the popularity of Priorat had already taken off. With a whole range of wineries and producers, Priorat now produces some of Spain’s most heralded wines. A bottle of Álvaro Palacios’ 2016 L’Ermita En Primeur (not bottled yet, and not released from the winery yet) could now set you back around €1,685 a case of 3 x 75cl, excluding tax. But I’ve always considered the real heroes to be the Carthusian Monks of Scala Dei, who had cottoned on well before the 80s, and had been growing grapes and making wine since the 12th Century!

CF: What type of wine is the region traditionally associated with?

FW: The most planted grape varieties in D.O. Priroat are red: Cariñena and Garnacha (to all those French drinkers, that’s Carignan and Grenache), but you can also find Syrah, Cab Sauv, and Merlot, amongst others. Annual rainfall is often less than 16 inches, which forces vine roots to tunnel down deep, through the gaps and faults in the Llicorella slate, just to find water, and resulting in very low yields of full-bodied, powerful, concentrated wine. Typically these wines have a ripe fruitiness and good levels of minerality – sublime and ideal if paired with wild game (like venison, rabbit, duck or hare), or even barbecued vegetables, beef stew… Oh! the list goes on…

CF: How are Priorat wines ranked alongside say for example ‘Riojas’?

FW: More or less everyone I have met who has drunk a glass of wine has heard of Rioja. Wines in Rioja are typically made in a subtle, elegant style with maturation in American Oak. It’s an all-rounder of a wine, with red fruit flavours and pronounced aromas of vanilla. Although very tasty, many wine drinkers find the region of Rioja can lack variety. Priorat offers those who wish to take the next step in Spanish wine, to something a little more complex. The pioneers, René and Álvaro, left Rioja to adventure into Priorat, and now produce deeply coloured, full flavoured wines, typically with concentrated black fruit and toasty aromas from French Oak. But other producers in the region are more experimental, including international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

CF: Do they have an international presence?

FW: Very much so. Everybody knows about Rioja, and anyone interested in wine knows about Priorat. I’ve seen first hand fine wine buyers from all around the world cast their eyes straight over a well known Rioja offer, but light up when they see an adventurous new Priorat wine.

CF: How many vineyards currently are operating in Priorat as far as you know?

FW: Before the days of Barbier and Palacios, I believe there were more or less 3 wineries. In 2016, 40 producers picked grapes. So as you can see, a huge increase in popularity.

CF: For anyone thinking of investing in a vineyard in the area, what kind of opportunities are there?

FW: In an article written by wine critic Jancis Robinson, I saw Chateau Lafite Rothschild valued at €3.7 billion. I know that sounds a bit large, so let’s take the lesser known Chateau Kirwan: €65 million. Priorat offers wine lovers an opportunity to buy a winery, house and vineyard, that could be producing fine wines, for roughly €2 million – €15 million.

CF: Realistically how commercial would the purchase of a vineyard be as an ongoing business? Or is it simple a ‘passion investment’?

FW: Well, it could be either, or both. It completely depends on the estate you choose. The beauty of Priorat is that you can “make it your own”. There are lots of lovely estates around that have vines planted and harvested, but the house has been left abandoned – this is the perfect passion investment. But now and then you can also find a gem of a commercial investment. Many of the winemakers I have met are born and bred in Priorat, and although they’re producing great wine, their knowledge of export markets is limited and therefore they struggle to sell. But combine them with an international investor and you have a recipe for success.

CF: What kind of person / people do you think suits this kind of lifestyle?

FW: A purchase like this is for someone looking for a long-term project. The best opportunities are found in estates that need renovating, and when I say renovating, they are quite often producing 20,000 bottles now but should be producing 50-60,000 bottles. Once the initial house renovation is done, it’s ideal for a family’s summer break, or maybe even to help in the harvest season – the most social time of year. But ultimately buying a vineyard property is a retreat, but the kind of retreat where you have your own wine on tap all year round – the dream!

CF: What advice would you give to a potential buyer thinking of buying a vineyard?

FW: Keep your minds open. Common misconception of vineyards is that they include a huge chateau and elegant driveway, like those in Bordeaux. Priorat buyers need to remember they have the history of the land, and they have the opportunity to be part of something subtly smarter and more elegant, with the option to make their own history in the world of Fine Wine. Also, patience is a virtue in the wine world​ so I’d also say take your time. You’re not going to be producing world renowned wines on the second day, so in the meantime, soak up the beautiful natural landscape and enjoy the romantic wine growing world!

CF: Can you name your best value-for-money Priorat?

FW: Of young wines that I’ve tried recently, I’d split it down to 2 wines:

  • Entry Level: 2014 Lo Tros, by Vinergia at about €20 a bottle (€14 if you buy locally with Six Wine Stories)
  • Higher End: 2010 Clos Mogador at €70 a bottle, or €134 for a Magnum from VinoVi Vinoteca

To find out more about Priorat wines contact Francis via email

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