Some things are expensive because they're famous. Priorat got famous for being expensive.
The little Spanish wine region, not far from Barcelona in the northeast, was a viticultural ghost town 25 years ago. There were vines on the parched, lunar landscape, but many had been abandoned by struggling locals seeking more fruitful – pardon the pun – work elsewhere.
Today Priorat is home to what is often cited as Spain's highest priced wine, L'Ermita (though the red usually ranks neck-and-neck with Dominio de Pingus from trendy Ribera del Duero). L'Ermita is yours for $800 a bottle when you can find it. Pressed mainly from the low-yielding, concentrated fruit of 75-year-old grenache vines, it was created by Alvaro Palacios, a dynamic member of an established wine-making family from Spain's best-known region, Rioja, far to the west.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Palacios was part of a small band of merry Priorat visionaries who saw gold in them thar hills where others saw misery. First among the five modern pioneers was Rene Barbier, whose name now graces a brand owned by the big local sparkling-wine producer Freixenet. But it was L'Ermita, with its impressive inaugural 1993 vintage, that put the place on the map.
Within short order, Palacios's dense, intensely fruity yet fresh and marvellously elegant red garnered gushing reviews, most notably from powerful U.S. critic Robert Parker, who immediately took to the oaky, voluptuous profile. As sharp a salesman as he is a vintner, Palacios began jacking up the price. Eye-popping prices sadly soon became integral to Priorat's identity and cachet.
Mind you, the wine is indeed handsome, and the region had a good backstory. Many of the vineyards had been tended as far back as the 12th century, when Carthusian monks founded a priory that gave rise to the name (Priorato in Spanish and Priorat in the local Catalan). Grenache, a key variety of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in nearby southern France, loves Mediterranean sunshine but also needs parsimonious soils to achieve satisfying structure and avoid the pitfall of simplistic, raisiny ripeness. It finds that discipline in the stony substrate of slate and quartz known locally in Priorat as llicorella.
Add a modern touch of maturation in fine new French-oak barrels, for vanilla-like richness and tannic backbone, and the resulting wine can be sublime and cellar-worthy. The largely grenache-based wines of Priorat (often blended with French varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah) are versatile but particularly compelling with stews, roast lamb and roast pork.
Finding good Priorat for less than the price of a couple of tapas plates at a Spanish restaurant can be challenging. For that reason I'm impressed with several of the selections released last week at Vintages stores in Ontario. The products are joined by a few equally attractive selections from Rioja (mixed in below, along with a Scotch-whisky nod to Robbie Burns Day) as part of a spotlight feature on modern Spain. Nothing famous. But nothing too expensive.
La Perla del Priorat Clos Les Fites 2006 (Spain)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $30.95
This is an ideal 8-year-old: displaying attractive traces of age yet still tight and astringent with cellar-worthy tannins. It might, in fact, improve with up to 10 years of rest. For current enjoyment, this ripe mix of mainly grenache with carignan, cabernet sauvignon and syrah measures 15 per cent on the alcohol scale and comes across with cherry, black pepper, incense and church-pew wood.
Mas Perinet Perinet 2005 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
There are five grapes here: carignan (a.k.a. mazuela), syrah, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and merlot. The cab and merlot might have yanked this Priorat red in a French direction, but the wine is strongly Spanish. It's also showing its age, with a leafy, dessicated quality, which pleases me but which may ward off some consumers. The fruit is tangy, backed by a tannic spine and spice.
Planets de Prior Pons 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
The vines range from 10 to 60 years of age, comprised of grenache, carignan, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. This Priorat red's on the fresher side of the spectrum, full-bodied and juicy with cherry-berry fruit and lively spice. Serve with pork loin or grilled pork chops.
Clos Gebrat CG+ 2010 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $20.95
Clos Gebrat exemplifies Spain's capacity for fetchingly youthful fruit in a country sometimes criticized for clinging to old-school oxidized flavours. That's interesting given that it hails from a winery, Vinicola del Priorat, that – in contrast to most others in the region – dates back almost a century. Full-bodied and concentrated, the blend of grenache, carignan, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah shows succulent plum, cassis, cherries and herbs on a supple body.
La Cartuja Tinto 2012 (Spain)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95
A Priorat blend of grenache and carignan, it's juicy, with a kick of spice. Main problem: It tastes like a $16 Côtes du Rhône.
Ontanon Reserva Rioja 2004 (Spain)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $25.95
Ten years old and going strong, here's a pretty Rioja, mediumfull– bodied and juicy, with notes of plum and dried cherry backed by sticky tannins and a minerallike tingle. Leg of lamb would be a nice accompaniment.
Baron de Ley Gran Reserva Rioja 2007 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
A whiff of coconut from the oak adds a pleasant top note, along with a hint of cedar, to the plummy, dried-cherry characters in this aromatic red. More leg of lamb, please.
Hart Brothers Finest Collection Aged 14 Years Single Malt (Scotland)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $119.95
Robert Burns, born 255 years ago on Saturday, would have toasted the modern Scotch whisky boom, which – if industry projections can be relied upon – is set to continue well into the future. Independent bottlers the Hart Brothers sourced this spirit, made in 1998, from Clynelish Distillery, which is about to embark on an expansion to meet anticipated global demand. That's one fine single-malt distillery, owned by giant Diageo, and a key source of spirit for Diageo's leading blended Scotch brand Johnnie Walker. The classic Clynelish sea-breeze saline quality is in evidence here, along with toasty-bread, smoke and caramel flavours. It's delectably oily yet not heavy, even at 46-per-cent alcohol.
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The Flavour Principle, a new cookbook and drinks compendi um by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, is in bookstores everywhere . It's published by Harper Collins.