“Thirty years ago, Priorat was dead” says legendary Spanish cook María José Sevilla. “But I remember Tony Lord [first Decanter editor] saying ‘watch this space,’ that if people had imagination then the region would be big.”
It’s 10am on a Friday morning, and the wine swilling round our glass suggests that there has been no shortage of imagination whatsoever. We’re at Mas Martinet, whose vineyards – at 600 metres – are the highest in the Priorat region, in north east Spain. The morning’s drive wound steeply uphill, our elbows digging into each other in the back of a jeep, with the wheels teetering on the edge of hairpin bends. As we climbed higher, the top flattened out, and opened up to reveal views over the whole region.
We watched the October sun peak over the crescent-shaped ridge, which wraps round the Priorat valley. It coaxed the coats off our backs, and threw light over terraces carved into the hillside. There, we tried a 100% Grenache Els Escurçons made from the grapes grown at our feet – I could almost taste the slate underfoot, and pick up the wild fennel and liquorice wood scent which caught in the breeze.
As we looked over Priorat, Sevilla reminisced about the region. “The wine wasn’t even being bottled thirty years ago” she explains. Although just 150km south west of cosmopolitan Barcelona, Priorat was still a rural enclave in the mid-eighties: “Farmers worked the terraces with animals and a produced a tiny yield of wine, which was sometimes contained around 18% alcohol.” Across the border Burgundy and Bordeaux were gearing up for some of their best years. Priorat was still finding its feet.
It wasn’t that viniculture was new to Priorat. It’s thought that Grenache grapes were first brought to the region by the Carthusian monks who founded nearby Scala Dei monastery in 1163. When the phylloxera louse hit France in the late 1800s, it was indeed Priorat’s 5,000 hectare vineyards which many winemakers called on. But when phylloxera spread further west and devastated Priorat’s vineyards, the winemakers weren’t as quick to get back on their feet. In fact, replanting didn’t start until the 1950s, and even then, only 600 hectares were cultivated over the next 20 years.
It’s here that the story starts to get exciting though. Enter René Barbier, a winemaker who had been working in Rioja. Round 1979, Barbier became inspired by the potential in Priorat, and decided that was where he would buy his first vineyard, and lay down roots. “The hippy movement was very important for me” Barbier shyly smiles when we meet him. Barbier hides behind a thick beard, or behind the wheel of his beautiful old wreck of a Mazda. He shuffles gently over the soil in tie-up peasant espadrilles, as if careful not to disturb the precious earth. Along with four other winemakers, Barbier converted an abandoned chicken farm near the village of Gratallops, and started making wine. Exceedingly good wine.
The fact that the region’s modern-history barely spans 30 years, combined with the non-conformist approach of its pioneers seems to have set the tone for Priorat’s future. Contrary to its slow start, Priorat isn’t playing catch-up. It’s forging new paths. It’s almost as if being liberated from a grand wine tradition has propelled Priorat forward, enabling the relatively-rootless region to run free. It’s not self-aware, or bogged-down in heritage. Priorat is dancing to its own beat.
Chalked on the wall at Mas Martinet is a Carlo Dossi quote: “The crazy people are opening the ways on which wise people are stepping.” It sums up the progressive mood I sense over the four days I spend in Priorat. No old duffers. Jut ‘crazy people’, providing the ‘imagination’ Lord deemed necessary for the region to grow. As we enter the Mas Martinet winery, sales manager, Magi Batllevell, laughs about time he spent living in Mile End, and a couple of years working as a croupier on a cruise ship before he moved to Priorat. Inside, a girl studying viticulture a university grins down from a ladder next to a barrel. It’s her last day of work experience at Mas Martinet. And then in comes Sara Pérez , owner, winemaker and mother of four.
Tanned and petite and beautiful, she’s not your stereotypical winemaker. Pérez’s face lights up as she speaks, eyes bright with enthusiasm and her wild gesticulations building to a sort of flamenco, fingers clicking and wrists flicking toward barrels in the winery. Pérez’s parents moved to Priorat when she was nine years old. She took over the vineyard from her father in 1996, and now runs it along with another vineyard belonging to her and her husband, René Barbier Jr.
Pérez’s schemes at Mas Martinet are progressive and exciting. She wants to move away from imported grapes (Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon), and focus on native varieties (Carignena/Garnacha). She is experimenting with ‘field blends’ (blending at the beginning, rather than fermenting separately and then blending). Pérez points to the amphoras outside – ceramic containers, used by the Romans thousands of years ago. They are a fraction of the cost of traditional oak barrels, and don’t interfere with the flavour of the grapes. “Try some” – someone reaches for the glasses and kicks a plastic bucket across the concrete floor toward us, forget the spittoon. It bumps against a demijohn of 100% grenache which Batllevell laughs is ‘staff breakfast’, and the tasting begins.
Hang on. I reassess my surroundings: a no-nonsense tasting, an emphasis on native grapes, historic ageing techniques, focus on ingredients, focus on pure flavours. Suddenly the trends in Priorat winemaking seem familiar. There’s a Noma-like loyalty to the earth, to produce, to region. A hesitance to intervene or to tamper too much. There’s the stripped-back style of modern restaurants which encourage diners to focus on the ingredients, on the taste – not the faff. Suddenly the grand, oaky wines I associate with regions like Bordeaux start to seem pompous and dated, in comparison to what’s happening here.
One of the most distinctive things about Priorat’s wine is the amount that the terroir impacts the taste. “Drinking a young Priorat can be remarkably like sucking a stone” says Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. “In the nicest possible way, of course.” I’m reminded of the ‘Terroir’ vodka which Tony Conigliaro makes for Colebrook Row by actually infusing the spirit with flint.
The other tangible effect that the volcanic black slate has on the wine, is the heat. The black slate absorbs the 38°C long August afternoons – so much so, some of the winemakers have taken to spreading straw over the dark earth to help keep the vines cool. But it’s impossible to avoid the impact the heat has on alcohol levels, and most (perhaps all) of the wines we tasted were between 14.5-15%.
[Nb. A tip I picked up is that big-alcohol reds should be drunk round 16°C. María José Sevilla recommends 10 minutes of chilling in a fridge before opening to serve at dinner, especially on a hot day, when the temperature really does need bringing down.]
Blistering heat aside, it’s a marvel that any vines can flourish on a 70 degree slope. If the sharp angle doesn’t wash away the scant rain that falls from the sky over the summer, then the craggy, slate ‘soil’ certainly can’t retain it for long. On several occasions, I saw a root poking out of a rock, only to look metres and metres upwards, and see a resilient little vine which had wheedled a slender into a hairline fissure. Miraculous though it seems, the result is that yields are low in Priorat. The official maximum of grapes grown per hectare is 6,000kg – but the 2008 harvest averaged 2,700kg, so didn’t even get close.
The sad reality is that it means that Priorat wines aren’t cheap. But I’m already keen to try more. So when I get my dream René Barbier-replica-Mazda, I’m embarking upon the 1,000 mile road trip back to north east Spain. I’ll fill the van, bring a load back and then crack open a bottle, so you can come round, and try out Robinson’s stone-sucking analogy for yourself.
My Top 3 Wines from Priorat
1. Martinet Bru 2011, Mas Martinet
Gourmet Hunters, €18,20
As we tasted this, someone suggested that it was a good ‘beginners’ wine for Priorat. Then a long pause. Followed by the suggestion that there was something a little darker about it, a real bite. Unapologetically tannic, with liquorice wood, green herbal notes.
2. Dido Blanc 2013, Vinus La Universal
Gourmet Hunters, €13,95
A big, mouth-filling white which is reined back by its freshness. Enjoyable acidity. A lovely revitalising white for the start of the evening.
3. Brao 2012, Acustic Cellar
Long and chewy; black berries with hints of vanilla and bitter cacao. Having tasted a lot of Priorat wines over three days, Acustic Cellar’s Brao 2012 felt very representative of the region, and was pretty flipping exciting.
Where to Stay: At the top of a hill in a town called Gratallops was a very sweet little hotel called Cal Llop, which I couldn’t recommend more if you are travelling to Priorat. Functional bedroom, with a generously-sized, and beautifully-tiled bathroom. Buffet breakfasts included continental meats and cheeses, fruits and yoghurts. Perhaps the best part was the hilltop terrace. A glorious place to sit at sunset with a cold beer from the bar.
Where to Eat
On a Budget: There was a small restaurant in Gratallops called Restaurant Piró, a neighbourhood joint serving traditional Catalan dishes: stuffed aubergine, rabbits, snails – I had a bean and squid stew which was so creamy, so rich. Even better, a starter, main course, pudding and house wine is just €18.
Blow Out: We were lucky enough to eat at El Celler de l’Aspic twice during the trip, and to sample the chef’s legendary ‘arroz con…’ (‘rice with…’) which, on that occasion, was with rice with … cuttlefish and artichoke. An elegant space, a huge range of wines, and negligible mark-ups (we were told that locals wouldn’t eat out if the mark-up on wine exceeded 1-2%!)