Driving through Priorat was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life for its breathtaking beauty, augmented by the fear of never finding a way out of that mountain range. Then again, why would I want to? Priorat is a region in northeastern Spain and home to some of the world’s most treasured wines. It is located two hours south of Barcelona, but to reach the wineries you must drive deep into the shadows of the mountains. There is one road that winds up and down the jagged cliffs of the Montsant mountain range sending you to ear-popping altitudes. The enormous, round mountain peaks glow a brick red color from the reflection of the sun while white fog floats above seemingly touching the clouds. The moment you start thinking, “How can there be vineyards here?” staircases of perfectly lined grapevine rows lead to the appellation’s oldest winery, La Conrería D’Scala Dei.
Priorat’s wines are internationally acclaimed for their authentic expression of the Garnacha grape. Garnacha, also known as Grenache, is the second most widely planted varietal in Spain after Rioja’s Tempranillo grape, but it is Priorat’s distinct terrain that distinguishes its fresh Garnacha wines from the rest of the country’s heavily-oaked style. The land is of volcanic origin made up of porous, erosion-resistant slate called Llicorella. The slate’s natural drainage and ability to absorb humidity provide water retention to act as a reserve for the grapevines. The region has little rainfall and, in addition, winemakers employ a tactic called “water stress” by not supplying any irrigation. Water restriction forces the roots to stretch and grip deep into the ground for moisture and minerals, producing berries with lower yields of concentrated juice and hints of minerality. This process is critical to the integrity of Garnacha, which, if over-watered, would lack acid, tannin, and color. The root coercion also makes the grapevines sturdy and durable against frequent windstorms.
Needless to say, when we finally got to the winery, I was thirsty. We were greeted by the winemaker and co-owner, Jordi Vidal, who gave us a tour of the grounds, poured fresh juice directly from the fermentation tanks, extracted wine aging in the French oak barrels, and led us to the tasting room to sample his matured delicacies. La Conrería D’Scala Dei is a small production winery with five employees in the town of Scala Dei, meaning “Staircase to God,” named after the inclined landscape. During harvest season, the winery hires a few seasonal employees to help handpick the grapes as the steep slopes restrict their ability to use machinery. Many winemakers believe these slopes will restrict Priorat wineries from ever becoming huge commercial operations. La Conrería D’Scala Dei sells only 85,000 bottles annually retailing for $20.00–$35.00 per bottle. Their labels include: Les Brugueres, La Conrería, Nona Petit, Iugiter, and Iugiter Selecció.
We tasted the 2012 Les Brugueres, an elegant, silky Garnacha Blanca with notes of bright lemongrass, walnut, and wet stone. The wine is impressively structured and will pair beautifully with cheese croquettes, pulled pork, and roasted veggies. The 2007 Iugiter Selecció, my favorite, is a non-filtered blend of Garnacha Negra, Cariñena, and Cabernet Sauvignon. “Iugiter” (yu-hee-tehr) means “intense” in Catalan, which is exactly what this wine is! The blend is simultaneously refined and rustic. The flavors of black fruit are balanced by earth and spice, with undertones of licorice and toasted wood that can stand up to big, hearty dishes and rich,
creamy sauces. The 2008 Iugiter is a blend of the same varietals plus Merlot, but with a completely different flavor profile. The wine has a vibrant, ruby red color with flavors of dried cranberry, green pepper, and bitter chocolate.
Garnacha is planted in vineyards worldwide used commonly as a blending grape for its spicy berry character or ability to impart higher alcohol content. Before Priorat’s success, Garnacha was recognized mainly as the key varietal used in the Rhone Valley of southern France, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the world’s most renowned wines. However, the mineral elements and minimal oak manipulation of Priorat wines have prompted winemakers in other parts of the world to experiment with Garnacha differently. In fact, generational winemakers in California, Carlo Trinchero and Josh Phelps, recently started Taken Wine Company to offer a modern spin on a Priorat-style blend called “Complicated” with Grenache, Syrah, and Carignane.
In the 1970s, Priorat had only a handful of wineries. As other winemakers got wind of this magical region’s potential, the number grew gradually to 19 in the 1990s and has since multiplied to the current total of 98! The area’s quality wines unveil the essence of the land and the passion of the winemaker. Priorat is home to the most expensive wines in Spain, but their enchanting Garnachas make them worth every penny!
LA CONRERIA D’SCALA DEI
CARRER MITJA GALTA, 32
SCALA DEI, PRIORAT, SPAIN 43379