Feature Story

Classifying Priorat
Tradition Meets Terroir in New, Site-Specific Designations

Alvaro Palacios’s L’Ermita, planted between 1900 and 1940 Alvaro Palacios’s L’Ermita, planted between 1900 and 1940
Scala Dei’s Masdeu is one of the highest vineyards in Priorat. From its perch at 2,624 feet, the surrounding landscape looks like a mosaic. The mountains point in all directions, dotted with the green of vineyards, the black of slate, the red of clays and the imposing chalk white of the Sierra del Montsant.

Under the ancient stands of cariñena and garnacha vines, the black slate, or llicorella, may be the most renowned factor of the region’s terroir, imparting a distinctive mineral character to the wines.

But from Masdeu, the terroir looks much more complex. Not only because the soil in that vineyard is clay and chalk rather than slate, but also because the wild peaks of the surrounding mountains hide hundreds of nooks among their slopes, hundreds of microterroirs that the locals know and have always differentiated.

This region has been planted to vines since the Carthusian monks moved in and began establishing vineyards in the 12th century. Today, vines cover about 43,500 acres, spreading around 12 vilas, the small medieval villages built of stone.

All these mountaintop villages are connected by paved roads, but imagine their isolation in the Middle Ages. Before René Barbier, José Luis Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Dafne Glorian and Alvaro Palacios arrived in the area in 1989 and put it on the world map of wine, each vila made its wine in the village cooperative. Each village’s wine had its own distinct identity, from the intense, sturdy, acidic carignan of Porrera, the nearest town to the sea, to the fragrant and broad garnachas grown in the heights of Scala Dei, or the ripe, voluptuous reds of Bellmunt, to the south, where the slopes are softer, the soils more fertile and the climate warmer.

Until 2009, the region’s wines were bottled simply as “Priorat.” Then the Consejo Regulador established a new category, Vi de Vila, “the wine of the village,” to identify wines grown 100 percent within the borders of any of the 12 towns. This year, the Consejo has proposed further refinements to the system, adding new designations: Vi de Paratge are wines from small areas within a town’s borders that have long been known to produce wines of special character; Vi de Vinya Clasificada and Gran Vi de Vinya Clasificada are designations for single-vineyard wines.

“We know that this is just version 1.0 and, soon, new and improved versions will come. We are just learning, and all this is still very young.” —Alvaro Palacios
Priorat is not alone in this new crusade to identify the specific origin of its wines. Other regions, such as Bierzo and Rioja, have also announced changes to their classification, as has the Consejo for Cava. These new regulations will allow producers to label their wines with the names of the towns of origin or the vineyards from which they come, and that information will carry the same importance as the name of the region, which, until now, has been the only classification for wines in Spain that referred to the place of origin. In the past, Spanish wine legislation focused on what happens in the winery, with aging requirements for designations such as Crianza or Reserva.

Of all the new classifications that have been presented in Spain, Priorat’s seem to be the most exhaustive. Salus Alvares, president of Priorat’s Consejo Regulador, told me that the work has taken them 12 years and that, when they tried to define the paratges, for example, they studied all the important areas in detail, making a file of each of the 400 classified paratges, with aerial photos, dimensions, topography and records from historians and geologists.

However, the proposed requirements for vineyards classified as Vi de Vinya Clasificada have some unusual parameters. Such a site must have at least five years of international recognition, ten years for a site classified as Gran Vi de Vinya Clasificada. Why external opinion should be a decisive factor is an open question. The Vi de Vila and Vi de Paratge are based on the land, its history and local tradition, yet the single-vineyard wines are subject to recognition from outside the zone. What will this recognition entail? Perhaps the Consejo will set some kind of minimum average point score from critics; or maybe it will be based on price.

Further, the Vi de Vinya Clasificada requires a minimum vine age of 25 years, the Gran Vi de Vinya Clasificada a minimum of 35. What is the difference between a wine from 25- and 35-year-old vines? It’s hard to say, but it does raise a different, more crucial question about the way producers might think about their vineyards in the future. The great heritage of Priorat is in its old garnacha and cariñena vineyards, plants that have survived for 80 to 100 years or more. Could this classification lead to growers gradually replacing those ancient, less productive vines, while still meeting the vine-age requirements for the top classification as set by law?

Even if there are many things to correct, a number of producers are enthusiastic about the proposal. And, in the end, the real value of these new classifications in Priorat and throughout Spain is that, for the first time, the concept of territorial diversity is being codified into Spanish law

This story was featured in W&S October 2017.