The Wine Palate
Not many countries have developed their wine industry over the last 20 years as drastically as Spain.
I think that you could still ask most people to name a Spanish wine and the region that they would come up with is Rioja. While Rioja is indeed a region where top quality wine is made, there are many others that are producing world-class wines that are often being compared to Bordeaux First Growths and Burgundy Grand Crus.
Modern viticultural techniques are being applied in conjunction with creative use of Spain’s unique terroir to create wines that have both native character and modern smoothness. One of my personal favorite regions is the Priorat, a region with seemingly impossible conditions and ancient history.
There are certainly many factors that lead to the quality of these wines, but one of the most significant is certainly the soil and aspect.
The soil is comprised of thin and volcanic pieces of slate called llicorella. This is the factor that gives the wines of Priorat there minerally flavors that they have become so famous for.
Another quality factor is the climate. Priorat is located in eastern Spain at the base of the Pyrenees and thus has a somewhat Mediterranean climate. There is almost no rain and plenty of sunlight during the summer, which ensures quality ripening of the grapes.
All of the above factors seem to be a formula for great wine production, but the wine makers do have another set of difficulties on their hands.
While the mountains create many different microclimates that facilitate a plethora of grape varieties, they are also really steep. This makes harvesting and cultivating extremely difficult and dangerous. The winemakers have cut terraces into the mountainsides that make it necessary for people to walk. This also ensures that harvesting is done by hand, which promotes quality selection and smaller wineries.
The other most significant factor in the quality of Priorat’s wines and one of the most interesting parts of the whole story is that of the region’s winemakers. Priorat’s red wines can be broken into two basic categories traditional and modern.
The old-style wines have a tendency to be overly alcoholic and a little abrasive. The new-style wines are full, fruity, minerally, and well balanced.
The modern wines are made by a group of younger winemakers that have brought experience of some of the finest houses in the world. One of the main characters is the Bordeaux-trained Riojan, Alvaro Palacios who has worked at Chateau Petrus and in Napa Valley. He produces one of the finest wines of the region biodynamically, the infamous Clos l’Ermita. This region is full of ambitious, young, and educated winemakers striving to make some of the best wines in the world.
The red wines of Priorat are massive and vary significantly in flavor profile from wine to wine. The two main grapes are Garnacha (a.k.a. Granache) and Carinena, though Cab, Syrah, and Merlot are often used in lower percentages to create balance and complexity.
There are also white wines and rose wines made in the region that can be quite delicious, but they have not reached the level of production that the reds have. As Utah drinkers, Priorat is a particularly good choice.
While they may be relatively expensive, they mostly fall under the 10,000 cases small winery discount. A few in the state that I particularly recommend are the Comma Vella, the Clos Fonta, and the Clos Mogador. Happy Drinking!
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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