Making Priorat a Priority
By James Molesworth, tasting coordinator
Recent Wine Spectator tastings have indicated that Spanish wines may be the world's most exciting new wines. Despite the often well-deserved hype surrounding new hotshot California Cabernets from producers such as Colgin and Araujo Estate Wines, and cult Bordeaux like chateaus Valandraud and Le Pin, Spain's new direction gets my vote for the most interesting trend to watch.
The best examples of Spain's new exciting wines are coming from Priorat, a small region located 90 minutes southwest of Barcelona. Settled by monks who brought their Grenache (called Garnacha in Spain) vines with them in the 11th and 12th centuries, the area has a long history of winemaking. Yet only recently has Priorat begun to receive recognition outside the region. (For more on Priorat in general, refer to our latest annual report on Spain.)
That recognition should be credited in no small part to Alvaro Palacios. Palacios, only 33 years old, comes from the large and venerable Rioja family of Bodegas Palacios Remondo. He was sent to Bordeaux by his father to learn winemaking at the side of Christian Moueix, winemaker behind the famous Pomerol chateaus Petrus and Trotanoy. Palacios became obsessed with making world-class wine, and he returned to Spain after his apprenticeship with the intention of making Spain's greatest red wine. To the surprise of his family, he was determined not to do it in Rioja.
Spain's winemakers are a very traditional bunch, resistant to change in their techniques. Palacios felt that for him, while respecting Spain's winemaking tradition was important, achieving his goal would require some new, untraditional ideas. Therefore he sought other areas of Spain in which to stake his claim--away from the rigid rules of Rioja.
So Palacios, along with several other winemakers, followed Rene Barbier, another Rioja family expatriate, into Priorat in 1989. The group's members each agreed to purchase at least 7 acres of vineyard land, and they shared a common vinification facility for their first few vintages with the understanding that each would eventually build his own bodega. Now these producers--Clos Dofi, Clos Mogador, Clos Martinet, Clos de L'Obac and Clos Erasmus--are all well into their sixth or seventh vintages, and each has helped to establish Priorat at the forefront of today's new wines.
Recently, Palacios visited our New York office and provided us with a sneak peek at his '95s and '96s. His wines, Clos Dofi and L'Ermita, come from two separate vineyards planted primarily with Garnacha. The Dofi vineyard--which also contains Mazuelo, Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot--is about 12 years old. The L'Ermita vineyard--containing about 80 percent Garnacha, with the rest Cabernet and Mazuelo--was planted in 1940. Palacios purchased it a few years after his initial purchase of the Clos Dofi vineyard. Palacios' first vintage from Clos Dofi was in 1989; his first from L'Ermita was 1993.
Though his first vintage of Clos Dofi was commercially available in the United States, no other wines from Palacios were available here until the '94s, which were released last year and reviewed in our Sept. 15, 1997, issue. The 1994 Clos Dofi was rated 92 points and the 1994 L'Ermita was rated 94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
The upcoming '95s and '96s were impressive in our tasting. They are large-scale wines loaded with plummy, raspberry flavor. While they are big, muscular wines, they possess great harmony and elegance as well as vibrant acidity, sweet, lush tannins and nuances of coffee, chocolate and minerals. Furthermore, Palacios' two wines are quite different from each other, with the Dofi providing more lush fruit and the L'Ermita leaning toward more gamy, animal tones and nuances.
Noninterventionist is the winemaking approach here, and no expense is spared. After fermentation, the wines can spend up to 30 days macerating on the lees for maximum extract and color. Aged in new French oak barriques made to Palacios' exacting specifications, the wines are never filtered. Only a light egg-white fining is done to take out any larger particles of yeast or lees.
"I wanted to push my dreams of making a great Spanish wine," states Palacios. "To start in Priorat you need character. We were a group of crazy romantics--because making wines in Priorat is difficult, it's not for profit."
The difficulty comes from Priorat's geography. The terrain is extremely rugged, with steep hills that make mechanical harvesting impossible. These steep hillsides, however, provide excellent exposure to the warm daytime sun and cool evening ocean breezes, which provide ideal growing conditions. Because of the constant erosion of the hillsides, the vines are forced to burrow deeper into the earth to survive, providing grapes that express more of their terroir. This terroir manifests itself in the differences in the two wines.
"The geography acts as a natural filter," he adds. "Large wine companies come to Priorat because they have heard of its potential. But they look at the terrain and say, 'This is impossible,' and they leave. There are only a few of us here, and we like it that way."
Palacios is no isolationist though--just a perfectionist who is fully aware of the intensive, hands-on type of labor needed to produce great wine. He is very aware of what is going on in the wine world--he makes regular trips to New York for Wine Spectator's Wine Experience and he still has ties to Bordeaux and Burgundy, where he obtains his barrels--and he has decided that now is the time to unveil his wines to the world.
Palacios is especially proud of his L'Ermita, as the age of the vineyard is rare. "After the phylloxera epidemic and the Spanish Civil War, there were few vineyards left intact. Many people planted Mazuelo, which is easier to grow, rather than the Garnacha. Old-vine Garnacha is hard to find now, but I think it is the true expression of Priorat."
The 1995 L'Ermita will retail for approximately $150 a bottle, the Dofi for about $45 a bottle. As you might expect, production for both is small, with Clos Dofi producing about 1,200 cases in '95 and L'Ermita producing about 400 cases. The '95s should be available by April. There is also soon to be a third wine from Palacios, Les Terraces, made from purchased grapes and designed to be consumed earlier than the Clos Dofi or L'Ermita. The 1996 Les Terraces will be available later this year.
Though they will be pricey and hard to find, Palacios' wines are worth the search--even if just for one taste. The other wines coming from Priorat also deserve attention. Try putting them in blind tastings of top California Cabernet or Bordeaux, or even of Rhones, and see what happens.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from tasting coordinator James Molesworth. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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