A Drink From The Porron
Priorat: From Ruined Villages and World Fame Comes a Fresh Perspective
I have a fond memory of the first time I went to Priorat in 1997. That year I had gone to a trade show looking for wines from Spain as a possible way to expand a very nascent portfolio. As I trudged through the halls, I was overwhelmed by oceans of wine that lacked any imagination or individuality. At some point, it dawned on me that no Catalans were present in this hall. Having lived in Catalonia and being acutely aware of their independent streak, it became clear that they would be as far as possible from their compatriots. My search led me to an entirely different area, and there I stumbled on a small stand with a large crowd. A gentleman was pouring a vibrant wine with an exotic aroma and flavor. I had never tasted anything like this before in Spain; these were wines that reminded me of the wild herbs and wet earth of the Northern Rhône. My brain, intoxicated with the memory of this garrigue caused me to change my plans to travel from the south of France to northern Spain. What I saw there was a landscape as I had never before seen. Beautiful mountains projected out of the earth; they had a raw and powerful appearance with old vines clinging to the rocky hillsides. Monasteries and ruined villages reminiscent of a glorious past dotted the landscape. The area took a stranglehold on me, and for many years I traveled to the region and began to try to understand this captivating place.
The Downfall and A New Generation
I discovered that depending on the hillsides (costers) and their exposures you could have radically different wines. What was clear to me was that this was one of the great terroirs of Spain. This all came to an end when we parted with our supplier over differences of opinion. During that time I saw the region expand aggressively and produce wines that were victims of the times. The wines lost their sense of place in a race to be the biggest and most expensive wine of Spain. Its fame became its downfall. Then in 2016 (almost 20 years after my first visit to the region), another gentleman approached me asking for us to taste their wines from Priorat. I had never heard of this winery, which was surprising, but they had holdings in a village that was dear to me in the region: Torroja del Priorat. This was the village that I had said to myself would be the starting point for us to return to the area. What I tasted were wines of a place with a clear vision. They were personal wines unobscured by process and reminiscent of that garrigue that had so gripped me 20 years ago. I traveled to the region to find out more about the wines and the land where they came from.
I met Jose Mas in the southern part of the denomination, and we traveled north through vineyards he farmed. He said he would take me to a place that I would recognize, having known the wines we had imported in the past. When we arrived at the site, he asked if I remembered it. I said I didn’t and he insisted I think hard. As we drove up the very steep hillside, I still was lost and not recognizing anything, that is until we got to the top of the site. As I peered down at the vertiginous drop, I immediately realized the great vineyard in which I was standing. It was one that I had always come to but from the top of the mountain never from the bottom. This site in Torroja was the place I had vowed to return to, known locally as Clos Alzina at the top of the old farmhouse, Mas Alsera.
Costers del Priorat: A Fresh Perspective
Costers del Priorat was founded by several partners bound to the land. Starting with a small plot planted in 1934 in Bellmunt, Costers del Priorat now owns 25 hectares spread over four villages. Jose Mas Barbera, who is the leading force here, sees a new vision for the region. His work in four very privileged sites allows him to focus on the different terroirs of Priorat but with a unique twist. The majority of his plantings are Carignan based, and this includes his two most important sites. This ancient grape variety, long ago maligned, is now viewed by many as a perfect variety for this extreme landscape. Carignan can withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations of the region to produce wines of exceptional aromatic complexity. All of this is comes in an incredibly delicately packaged structure. Jose achieves this elegance by allowing the wines to guide their evolution without ever forcing their trajectory. By utilizing the yeast from the vineyards and placing the wines in a multitude of vessels that allow air exchange, Jose achieves power through elegance. His exploration of amphora, cement, demi-muids and large foudres are the key to unlocking the minerality of these wines.
I am excited this year to introduce the new single vineyard wines from Costers del Priorat; Clos Cypress from Bellmunt and Clos Alzina from Torroja. Also, some extremely limited wines, made in a style harking back to the Roman origins, are also going to be released.
- André Tamers
In the Press
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