In the twelfth century, Carthusian monks from Provence arrived in the remote Tarragona province of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, carrying with them grape vines to plant for the purpose of making communion wine. In this rugged and mountainous landscape, they established a monastery at the foot of the flat-topped Montsant massif, today the heart of the world-famous Priorat wine region.
The soils here, called llicorella (Catalan for "licorice") are composed of loose, broken tiles of black and reddish-brown slate, mixed with particles of quartzite. On steep, craggy hillsides — some with their own microclimates — vines of Grenache and Cariagne grapes are planted in sinuous stone-walled terraces that rise from a few hundred to over 2,000 feet above sea level. In these poor soils the vines struggle, sending their roots deep into the stony ground in their search for nutrients and water. But as is often the case, the more stressed the vine, the sweeter the grape, and in the last few decades the Priorat region has been producing world-class varietals that have become the elite of Spanish wines.
But 25 years ago these wines were virtually unknown. The phyloxera pest had decimated vineyards throughout Spain and farmers had abandoned the region. Then in the early 1980s, a group of young pioneering winemakers arrived to revitalize the ancient vineyards. Their success was immediate.
Today more than 90 wineries in the Priorat region are producing bold, elegant Grenache/Cariagne blends, powerful in color and depth of extract, with layered flavors of black fruits, blueberries, licorice, and herbs. High levels of alcohol and the naturally sweet jamminess of the grapes are balanced by integrated tannins and fresh acidity, and the slate terroir lends a distinct backbone of stony minerality.
While Priorat’s deep-rooted old vines impart complexity and intensity of flavor to the grapes they bear, they also produce low yields that must be harvested by hand. For these reasons Priorats can be some of the most costly of Spanish wines.
Expert Wine Recommendations
The Chicago Wine Company in Wood Dale
- 2006 Chateau Tronquoy Lalande, $25, dark ruby in color, this elegant Merlot/Cabernet/Petit Verdot blend offers up luscious aromas of currants and blackberries mingled with spices, herbs and oak.
- 2014 Michel Chapoutier, Les Vignes de Bila-Haut $13, a Grenache Blanc-based white blend from the Roussillon wine region, it boasts a fruit-laden palate balanced by fresh acidity.
Geneva Wine Cellars in Geneva
- 2013 Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc, $25, pale straw in the glass, redolent with fresh aromas of pineapples, oranges, pears honeydew, limes, and jasmine flowers. Loads of vibrant acidity and flavors of citrus and tropical fruit on the palate.
- 2014 Caves D’Esclans Whispering Angel Rosé, $20, this pale-colored Rosé from Provence overflows with flavors of strawberries, raspberries, peaches and citrus, backed by a harmonious balance of acidity and minerality.