07-03-2019

Blind tasting and finding typicity in DOQ Priorat

What do you call a group of blind wine tasters? A “fool”, a group of blind wine tasters is called a fool. I am an itinerant member of one such fool in Barcelona and the idea behind it is to have someone host said fool once a month or so and set out a group of wines that we then smell, sip, analyze, spit, and make that almighty educated guess as to what it was that just passed through our mouths.

While the art of tasting is a meticulous practice in and of itself, arranging it can be just as much so as there is admittedly a nefarious streak in any host to fool the fool by not making it easy. Put a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc next to a Napa Valley Chardonnay and you’re not going to have a hard time picking those out. Valpolicella and Côtes du Rhône or Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris on the other hand, well, that’s where things get interesting.

Enter the dark horse

In two meetings of the fool, a wine from Priorat was worked in. It’s by far and away considered the highest-quality region in Catalunya so why not, right? Well, there’s a reason that Priorat is usually only tasted at the Master level exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers and that’s because it’s a “fuck you wine“.

Anyone who has studied wine, especially WSET, will know the general description of Priorat, “A hot region with high-alcohol wines, terraced vineyards, and slate called llicorella that can be smelled in the wine as a mineral note.” The llicorella is still there, but everything else, including to some degree the terraces can be met with a general whiff of outdated bullocks.

Priorat has simply stunning wines but, to use a Catalan phrase, it suffers and/or benefits from a case of cul inquiet or “restless ass” in that given how the modern phase of the region is only about 30 years old, people are constantly changing up not only how they’re making the wine, but which grapes go into it.

A typical Priorat

So, we come to the problem of what is a “typical” Priorat. The first session of the fool saw one member bring a Clos Mogador 2015. This would seem quite easily the most perfect example, given that the founder, René Barbier is largely credited with reinvigorating the region and setting it on the exalted path it’s arrived at today. So, Original Priorat = Typical Priorat, right? Wrong…

Two of us in the fool called it as Ribera del Duero due to the massive quantity of new oak that showed which was very weird. Also, Mogador wines take forever to really open up so any newer vintage is going to be a bit tough to take apart intellectually via blind tasting–yes, there’s a lot of thinking that happens in a fool. While the norm for everyone 10 years ago, there’s also the fact that Mogador has steadily been reducing the amount of French varieties in their wines and thus, you’ve quite the vinous pickle my friends.

Or for example take Vall Llach’s top wine, now called, Mas de la Rosa. Back when it was the eponymous Vall Llach, there was all kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in there with just the smallest amount of Carignan. Now, it’s 100% Carignan and from a single vineyard. That needs the bug-eyed emoji if anything does.

In the latest tasting of the fool, this unique wine called, Triaca, which is from the same village as Vall Llach was put in the list. Absolutely lovely wine but at 65% Grenache and 35% Merlot, it’s a real oddball and unsurprisingly, no one got it, thinking it was something New World.

Wines to know Priorat

So, what’s a fool to do when including Priorat in the list? In general, as much as I love the region, I’d say to skip it as it’s going to be really tough to discern. But if the desire is unwavering, you can take one of two approaches.

The first is to go for a “typical” Priorat from what are not the young wines, but not the icon wines, with a base of mostly Grenache and Carignan as well as a few French grapes along for the ride. In this batch I would suggest:

  • Scala Dei – Prior, Cartoixa (2015 and before)
  • La Conreria d’Scala Dei – Iugiter
  • Vall Llach – Embruix, Idus
  • Ripoll Sans – d’Iatra
  • Mertixell Pallejà – Nita
  • Álvaro Palacios – Gratallops, Clos Dofí
  • Ferrer Bobet – Jove
  • Mas Marinet – Martinet Bru
  • Mas Sinén – Petit Sinén
  • Mas Doix – Salanques

This is by far not an exhaustive list but these are a great number of wines that I feel will show you what Priorat “is” in general terms. They usually have that “slatey” quality which Priorat is known for as well as the typical alcohol levels seen in recent wines. The best part is that they’re all ready to drink once released to market.

Now, if you’ve a masochistic fool then you can take it a step further and get one of the top-end wines which are going to be tricky albeit not impossible to place. These will often be single-vineyard wines and a blend of Grenache and Carignan or then each of these grapes presented in a varietal form which is a problem because if you’ve not encountered very fine Grenache or Carignan at any level, it’s going to make your head split open in any number of unseemly ways.

If you go down this path, here are a few, rather top-end wines to tickle your pain-y bone:

  • Vall Llach – Porrera, Mas de la Rosa
  • Mas Martinet – Els Escurçons
  • Ripoll Sans – 5 Partides, Ronçavall
  • Scala Dei – Cartoixa (2016 and after), Sant Antoni, l’Heretge
  • Sangenís i Vaqué – Coranya, Clos Monlleó
  • Mas Doix – Mas Doix
  • Mas Sinén – Lo Coster

Again, not an exhaustive list and there a lot of great wines coming out these days as there’s more and more of a focus on single vineyard and terroir-driven wines. By all means avoid Terror al Límit as not only do they have their own idea of what Priorat is, but said idea changes wildly with each vintage.

As for vintages, anything back to 2004 will be solid although there are exceptions. 2011 was wonky and your fool should just avoid it no matter what amazing price you find it at. 2012 is like Priorat on steroids with a hit of cocaine for good measure. Not the best of vintages but what it shows, it shows gigantically. 2014 has good wines that are only starting to show decently now but was a weird year. Similar case for 2018.

Once the 2019 wines come to market, it will mark the 10th vintage of Priorat that I’ve tasted intensively and from one end to the other, it’s like a whole different region has crossed my path. It’d be like if you started petting a dog and by the time you got to the tail, it was Queen of England. Don’t let that discourage you as there is indeed a thing that “is” Priorat but you must taste deductively and with an open mind.