By Alexis Abel
In early July, in the cool, subterranean cellar of his Priorat winery, Spanish winemaker Jordi Vidal, discussed the complexities of wine production as he used a syringe to extract samples of wine straight from the barrel. Vidal poured the wine from the syringe into his own glass, took a small sip and smiled. Pleased with the results, he poured a small sample into each of our glasses and eagerly awaited our feedback.
Vidal’s winery, La Conreria D’Scala Dei, is one of 50 wineries in the Spanish Priorat region. My husband, Marco and I, along with two fellow foodies, Andy and John, were visiting La Conreria on a wine-tasting excursion, part of our three-day Catacurian culinary vacation. The mountain landscape in southern Catalonia, in which La Conreria is situated, overlooks the breathtaking Mediterranean Sea. But this rugged terroir, with soil comprised of black slate and quartz, creates robust red wines from the Garnacha Tinta, Carinena, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes planted here. Since the 1990s, Priorats have been renowned worldwide for their complexity and powerful flavor.
Earlier that day, we’d spent two hours stumbling through the ruins of the 12th century Cartoixa d'Escaladei, a Carthusian Monastery, for which the winery is named. It was the contemplative and solitary Carthusians who originally brought viniculture to Priorat. The monks controlled the region until 1835, when the land was seized by the Catalonian government and sold off piecemeal to small landowners. Wine continued to be produced in the region until phloxyerra insects devastated the grape vines in the late 19th century. Nearly 12,000 acres of vineyards were destroyed, causing financial ruin that led to the emigration of entire families out of the region.
In 1979, Spanish winemaker Rene Barbier, who had been producing wine in the Rioja region, purchased land that would lead to the eventual resurgence of the Priorat as an important Spanish wine region. Barbier, along with other enterprising winemakers, planted new vineyards and began producing wines that would change the Spanish wine industry.
Earlier that week, we had visited one of Priorat’s first wineries, Costers del Siurana, headed by charismatic owner and winemaker Carles Pastrana. It was Costers del Siurana that produced one of Priorat’s first and most famous wines, Clos de l’Obac, the first vintage of which appeared in 1989.
Pastrana was an impressive showman as he described his complex wines with a smile and faint smirk. Wine tasting, he said, should be like making love, something the Spanish find particularly enticing since it was nearly banned under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Pastrana disdains the overly intellectual oenophiles that come to Costers del Siurana armed with their textbook-style approach to wine tasting.
Made from a blend of Garnacha, Cabernet Savignon, Syrah, Merlot and Carinena, Clos de L’Obac is matured in new French oak casks and then bottled without filtering to retain its complexity.
Another Costers del Siurana standout is Kyrie, a white wine that Pastrana spent years developing. Made of four white grape varietals grown on only 2 ½ acres of slate and sedimentary earth, Kyrie has a big structure and complexity that make it more akin to a red wine than a white.
Compared to Pastrana, Vidal seemed less the showman and more the businessman. He was quick to tell us that marketing is as much a part of Priorat’s success as its excellent soil, creative winemakers and complex, fully rendered wines. Vidal himself knew this when he decided to move his winery from a small, medieval village house to a grand and modern mountain tasting room three years ago. The new La Conreria D’Scala Dei is all glass and metal, adorned with modern art and breathtaking views of both Vidal’s vineyards and the nearby Montsant mountains.
Priorat wines have enjoyed international success since the 1990s. As suspected, they are hard to come by in Lincoln. Trader Joe's, 3120 Pine Lake Road, offers an introductory option for those new to Priorat wines. Rêves Priorat Spanish Red Wine, $9.99, is a blend of Carinena, Garnacha Tinta and Syrah and has notes of black cherry and tobacco. On first taste, the oak is overwhelming, so I recommend decanting for an hour before drinking.
Two other local stores I spoke with, The Still, 6820 South 70th Street, and Meier’s Cork and Bottle, 1244 South Street, had large selections of Spanish wine, but nothing in stock from Priorat. Both stores indicated that they would be able to special order.
For online sources of Priorat wines, try klwines.com, where you can find La Conreria D’Scala Dei’s Les Brugueres, a spicy white made from 100% Garnacha Blanca, for $29.99. Wine.com also offers a variety of Priorat wines.