The release of the “Paratge”. DOQ Priorat’s newest step up the Burgundian pyramid.

Go and stand outside for a second. All that scenery you can see in front of you with your naked eye would be what is called in Catalan a, paratge and this week, the DOQ Priorat is formally presenting the paratges as the newest level to their forward-thinking regional classifications.

Elevated from DO to DOQ by Catalunya in 2000 (and ratified by Spain in 2009), they were also the first DO in Spain to pursue a “Vi de Vila” or “Village” classification; also ratified in 2009. While DO Bierzo and DOC Rioja have initiated their own changes to follow the hallowed “Burgundian pyramid” in terms of vineyard classification, DOQ Priorat is not content to rest upon their laurels and has now released this latest building block of “Vi de Paratge” to their regional classifications.

Get to know the “Paratge”

The paratge (pronounced pa-RA-cha and also called, paraje in Castilian) seems a phrase that’s readily familiar to me in following these developments over the last three years although I realize for most, it might as well be the third moon of Saturn (that’s Tethys btw.) This level of classification is a midway point in a lengthy journey and it’s important to remember that there are the soon-to-come “Vinya Classificada” and “Gran Vinya Classificada” as a replication of Burgundy’s Premier and Grand Cru. While these are easier to understand, this rather curious entity of the Paratge is perhaps a bit more elusive.

For those immersed in the vast and endless vagaries of wine, a paratge is essentially the “lieu dit” or “climat” of Burgundy. If you want a more detailed explanation, please read up. But, given its variable definition as something that you essentially see in front of you, in a flatter region, a paratge would be quite large and in a place such as Priorat with its folded stony hills, valleys, and cliffs, it would be a good deal smaller. If you’re of a mind to have the most simplistic definition possible, it’s a “zone” that’s comprised of multiple vineyards.

One part of the pyramid

This is perhaps the least sexy part of the pyramid to build up. I have in fact had conversations with some winemakers who generally aren’t in favor of placing this Burgundian system on top of Priorat and think even less of the Paratges as they’re more focused on single-vineyard wines. But, as far as I can see, it’s a necessary link from the larger village breakdown to what will be a much smaller breakdown of individual vineyards. It would be like not having counties in the US and jumping from states to towns.

To make the leap from village to single vineyard is difficult as shown by the overall boff-job they did in DO Cava where, instead of creating Paratges, they made up this hybridized system that was, to coin a great Catalan phrase, ni carn ni peix (neither meat nor fish.) Of course now, with the Corpinnat group leaving the DO, it’s been relegated to a generally toothless categorization anyways.

But all this is to say that if you’re going to go down this route, you need to create intelligent, tangible segments of a region that are generally harmonious with one another have a reason to exist.

Building it up to break it all down

This was not easy work. Just naming the Paratges was fraught with peril as there are many repetitions of the names such as “solana” (sunny spot) or “aubaga” (shady spot.) The more difficult aspect of this will be in certifying vineyards as pitchforks will come out to defend named vineyards and brands. It will also be difficult deciding what is a “Vinya Classificada” and a “Gran Vinya Classificada”. On this front, some artillery was built into the rules as there are more stringent restrictions with harvest yields dropping and vine age as well as Grenache/Carignan content rising at each step of the pyramid.

  • DOQ Priorat has harvest yields at 6,000 kg/ha for reds and 8,000 kg/ha for whites.
  • “Vi de Vila” – 5,000kg reds, 7,000kg white. Minimum 10 years of age for vines which is something I believe is new with this revision given that no minimum age was a large criticism.
  • “Vi de Paratge” – 4,000kg red, 6,000kg whites. Minimum of 15 year-old vines. Minimum 60% of Grenache and/or Carignan.
  • “Vinya Classificada” – Same as “Vi de Paratge” but with minimum 20 year-old vines. Minimum five years of “recognition” by consumers/sommeliers.
  • “Gran Vinya Classificada” – 3,000kg reds, 4,000kg whites. Minimum 35 year-old vines. Minimum 90% Grenache and/or Carignan. Also requiring the “recognition” component.

Despite the Paratges being ready to use this year, a winemaker can’t simply toss the name of one on their label as they have to apply and have trace ability through the DOQ. This is perhaps slightly less daunting at this level but when it comes to Vinya Classificada and Gran Vinya Classificada, it’s quite clear to see that the further up the pyramid one desires a wine to sit, the more it will need to be a) old, low-yielding vines and b) only Grenache and Carignan. And this is actually the real destination for all this work as inevitably, these “Grand Cru” wines will be those already quite famous, coming from institutionally enshrined vineyards.

Plenty of Paratges in those hills there

When talking with the current DOQ president Salus Álvarez sometime back, in my head I had generally assumed that, depending upon the size of the village, there would be around 10-20 Paratges per village. Given that there were 12 villages (or village entities) within DOQ Priorat, a further division factor of 12 or so seemed to make sense for the sake of argument. These Paratges should in theory grid out individual contiguous zones within the villages with maybe 150-175 Paratges at most with roughly 100ha apiece on average.

The final total has resulted in 459 Paratges.

I’m shocked at this amount and I can understand the worries of cellars in the region as there has been something of a leap in terms of definition. Quite a few Paratges seem to be less a zone and more like a defined vineyard that either favors or contends with commercial interests and established/copyrighted names.

This is not an issue to be dealt with lightly as EU law favors place names over commercial names and thus even if you own a trademark for a wine, if it’s a name from a specific zone, such as Cirerets or La Creu Alta in la Vilella Alta, or Mas de la Rosa in Porrera, or Els Carners in Falset among countless others, anyone with a vineyard within that Paratge can use the name on the label.

This has been shown no more clearly than with Torres and Vall Llach where the latter has been producing the iconic “Mas de la Rosa”, a wine certified under Vi de Finca for the last 10 years, but now there’s a Paratge that covers the entire zone around this one vineyard and has the same name. Torres recently acquired a vineyard there and, despite legal challenge from Vall Llach is releasing a Vi de Paratge wine called “Mas de la Rosa” as well. Eventually, the Vall Llach vineyards will qualify for the “Gran Vinya Classificada” or Gran Cru with that name as it’s a superior vineyard to the Torres one, but it’s doubtful the consumer will realize the difference as Torres simply refers to their wine as “Mas de la Rosa”.

Some other well-known wines have already been protected however as shown by the fact that there is no “Ermita” Paratge in all of DOQ Priorat, except the one that covers the famed l’Ermita vineyard by Álvaro Palacios. There are indeed other ermites or “hermitages” in the region, but it’s quite clear to see that in contrary to the issue with Mas de la Rosa, this vineyard was codified in favor of one single owner and thus there will be no other wine allowed in Priorat with “Ermita” on the label. This despite official cartography maps labeling the south (now called “Coster de l’Ermita” or “Slope of the Ermita”) and west side of this hill as the “Ermita” zone and the north side where this vineyard is, “les Planes”.

In Poboleda I’ll also be curious to see what happens as there’s a similar problem to what’s seen with Mas de la Rosa. The new Salanques Paratge is very, very large. Mas Doix has a well-known wine produced from that area and named as such so this will mean that others will potentially be able to use that name on their non-Mas Doix wines well. Yes, it will say, “Vi de Paratage Salanques” but I’ve seen people confuse DO Conca de Barberà wines with Italian wines made from the Barbera grape so there’s always potential for problems.

This all feeds into my pondering at the quantity of small parcels in the Paratge classification in some villages. The parts of Falset and el Molar that exist within the DOQ Priorat are broken down quite well as they have larger zones that paint in broad strokes. That’s really how I’d imagined the Paratges taking shape.

But when you look at the “Panhandle” of Porrera which is the eastern-most portion of Priorat and there are 16 Paratges when one or two at most would have sufficed given that this is a rather homogeneous valley touched a great deal by afternoon air currents from the sea. Much of this, while final is still “in progress” and I have to wonder if some of the Paratges will be condensed in favor of sweating the finer, vineyard-level details at the Vinya Classificada and Gran Vinya Classificada classifications. Many would do well to watch how things progress in DO Bierzo because they two are certifying these levels in their vineyards now and it’s hard to see how it won’t get nasty.

Sommelier Josep “Pitu” Roca of Celler de Can Roca best summed up this work and what lay ahead at the announcement of the Paratges for vineyard owners and cellars who stated: “Well done. This is an excellent step in the right direction but be careful with the next phase lest commercial interests take over.” For anyone who is intimately familiar with Burgundy (as Pitu is), it’s easy to see that you go from having defined, terroir-driven classifications of a region to quickly having commodities. As the flurry of cash exchanges increases, the sense of history and eternity that originally defined the greatness is sadly lost and it’s why striving for higher levels of quality must always be tempered with the reality of what made a region and more importantly, its wines so esteemed in the first place.