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Priorat: a new dawn

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We talk to Mais Doix’s founder Valentí Llagostera about Priorat’s identity crisis and how a new generation of Spanish winemakers is putting the focus firmly on terroir

From a backwater in southern Catalonia, Priorat took its rightful place on the world wine map in the early 1990s. Its meteoric rise to fame was propelled by low-yielding, old Cariñena and Garnacha vines clinging to precipitous and ancient slate slopes. The best producers including Mas Doix, Alvaro Palacios and René Barbier were making wines that were turbo-charged: rich, ripe and powerful yet zinging with vibrant acidity.

But its rapid ascent to fame created growing pains: the region has struggled to define what makes Priorat Priorat, while overzealous winemaking and the inclusion of international varieties has led to a regional identity crisis.

Fortunately, Priorat has nature on its side: its distinctive llicorella slate soil limits yields and provides these Mediterranean-climate wines with a distinct mineral freshness. Combine this with the extreme fluctuations in temperature between day and night and, an extremely dry, sunny climate, and you have the potential to produce rich yet vibrant reds.

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Priorat: troubled times

The timing of Priorat's emergence as a fine wine producer could be the source of some of its nascent troubles. Its renaissance coincided with the heyday of Robert Parker and a global demand for reds with masses of new oak, super-ripe grapes and intense extraction to maximise colour and tannin. It wasn't just the winemaking trends of the '90s that saw Priorat become the most intense, powerful and overbearing wine in Spain. Valentí Llagostera, founder of Mas Doix, explains that it had long been a supplier of bulk wine and a blending partner to bolster weaker wines from cooler climates – adding concentration, power and alcohol.

Lacking a tradition of fine winemaking, the idea of what a Priorat wine should be was fluid. Consequently, it became a region producing many different styles, leaving the wine drinker confused. Llagostera adds that the region had a real inferiority complex, with many growers believing if the wine wasn’t big, powerful and as intense as possible, it wasn’t Priorat. This mentality also led to the incursion of international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah were planted, in a bid to emulate the success of Bordeaux and the Rhône.

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From the industrial to artisan

Industrial-like estates, predominantly based in Rioja, have not been interested in reflecting a specific place but rather more focused on producing a homogenised house style with grapes sourced from as far as 300km away going into the same wine. This approach is therefore completely at odds with the concept of terroir. It is common for older vines to be uprooted to maintain high production levels and wines to undergo lengthy ageing in oak barrels to create greater homogeneity. "Spanish wines made in this way are more about a process than a place," according to Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate's critic for Spain.

Of course this homogenised style proves incredibly popular: Rioja remains one of the most successful wine exporters thanks to its reliability and high volumes, offering value for money. However, wine lovers have become increasingly discerning; there is more demand for wines with a sense of place, whether they hail from a plot of old vines or from an indigenous variety.

Priorat’s move towards a fresher, more elegant style is part of a wider movement in Spain. There's a revolution underway, with a younger generation of vignerons who have actively rejected the larger estates' approach, instead they're focusing on crafting unique wines with a strong sense of place, whether it be the saline-rich, volcanic soils of Tenerife to the high-altitude mountain-vine Garnacha from the Gredos Mountains, or the incredibly vibrant, taut perfumed wines of Ribeira Sacra.  

The intensely concentrated yet mineral wines of Priorat should fit into this more terroir-driven movement. The unique slate soil, Priorat's mountainous landscape and old vines meant that it was not possible for the region to become a Rioja lookalike. The trend toward fresher, more mineral wines aligned with a rediscovery of the region's indigenous varietals (Cariñena and Garnacha) has allowed Priorat to experience a second coming. Could Priorat be on the verge of discovering its true self?

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Will the real Priorat please stand up?

Llagostera feels there is plenty of room for experimentation in search of Priorat's true identity. The team at Mas Doix is carrying out many trials, including ageing wines in amphora, maturing Garnacha in larger barrels to avoid oxidation, and fermenting in wooden vats to achieve greater textural sophistication.

There are also more radical approaches: German native Dominik Huber of Terroir-Al-Limit doesn't destem his reds, instead practising whole-bunch fermentation, leading to an intensely fresh style. Huber believes it required a generational change before Priorat could find its new identity. Despite the varied stylistic interpretations, the goal is to better understand Priorat's voice not disguise its raw beauty.

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