Understanding DOQ Priorat’s village wines: Vi de Vila

While it’s important to understand the Vino de Pago & Vi de Finca classifications of Spain & Catalunya as they’re region wide, one that’s actually much more interesting and evolving is that of “Vi de Vila” or the village wine certification you find in DOQ Priorat. Until 2017, this was the only one in Spain and even though DOC Rioja now has a similar creation with Vino de Municipio, the Priorat standards are still more strict overall and more established.

These certifications find their official establishment to be from 2009 but in actuality, wines exist from 2007. Why? Because at the core of Vi de Vila is a much more intensive traceability pact that a cellar needs to sign with with the DOQ before they get started on making Vi de Vila. Yeah, it’s not something you can just decide on a whim once you start harvesting. The parcels from where the wine will be sourced need to be set aside at least one year previous to actual harvest.

This may seem a bit annoying for the winemaking as one can never know what the future holds when it comes to wine but it makes a good deal of sense given how it all fits together and that a wine isn’t finally certified as “Vi de Vila” until it’s bottled. This is why we really don’t know how many there will be for a given year until some time after the vintage. For 2007, there ended up being only eight wines. It was a modest start to say the least but now with the 2016 vintage, there have been 55 wines certified as Vi de Vila. For 2017, there are currently 72 awaiting final certification. If all the wines in process are certified, it will mean that around 20% of all the wine labels produced in DOQ Priorat (assuming about 350 individual, regularly-produced labels each year) are certified as such and represents a pretty massive endorsement since its small beginning.

It all starts in the vineyard

Out in the vineyards, the first regulation is that all the vineyards going into a Vi de Vila wine must be in the same village as the cellar. I’ve never fully agreed with their stipulation as there were a number of cellars that were grandfathered in and have vineyards in other villages that they’re able to vinify at their cellars which are not in those villages. These include: Vinícola del Priorat, Agrícola de Poboleda, Álvaro Palacios, Ripoll Sans, Clos Erasmus, La Conreria d’Scala Dei, and Cesca Vicent. In the official documents there are also: Cooperativa de Torroja del Priorat, Cooperativa de Bellmunt del Priorat, and Cooperativa de Porrera but these aren’t producing wines that I know of. It’s only Ripoll Sans that I know produces his Ronçavall of grapes from Torroja and has Vi de Vila of that village while his cellar where he makes it is in Gratallops.

The problem here is that once you have a few exceptions, you sorta break the principal and I’m quite curious as to why Palacios is in there as he only has his Gratallops Vi de Vila wine and his cellar is in Gratallops. It must be some clause that was created which was never acted upon as all the documents state that village certification requires 100% of the grapes to be from the village named on the label.

Important to note that the legal village boundaries don’t match the Vi de Vila boundaries (more detail). The original boundaries, when it comes to winemaking are well, kooky. There’s a bit of land next to the side of Gratallops with a restaurant that’s within the boundaries of Porrera. Escaladei is within la Morera del Montsant. Also, la Morera has this weird dagger of land that cuts off the east swatch of Poboleda. And holy crap, la Morera is just massive in size for a village of only 158 official residents!

This was all addressed when building the system from the ground up and the lines for vineyards were recast in terms of “Where are these grapes growing and given their vineyard, which village profile are they most likely to have?” Thus you end up with 12 villages for Vi de Vila when there are legally only 11 and the 12 are: Bellmunt, Escaladei, Gratallops, El Lloar, la Morera de Montsant, Poboleda, Porrera, Torroja, la Vilella Alta, la Vilella Baixa, Masos de Falset, & Solanes de El Molar.

But after this, in terms of the blend, all DOQ Priorat grapes for either reds or whites are permitted. The only stipulation is that for reds, if both Grenache and Carignan are used, they must be at least 60% of the blend. If just one, then it’s a minimum of 50% of the blend. There is no such requirement for the whites but as they’re only 6% of production, they’re but a drop in the bucket with a lot of experimentation happening–in a good way.

This requirement has been open to criticism on two fronts. The first is that if you’re trying to create singular zone definitions for the wines, why are foreign, French grapes allowed in there? Grenache and Carignan are the traditional/native grapes of the regions and, in keeping with varietal labeling laws, many winemakers and myself included feel that they should be at least 85% of the blend. The other issue is vine age. You can use grapes that come from a vine planted three years previously or one that was planted 103 years previously. There is no limit and in turn this has led to a large degree of variance. I’m not sure if this will be changed in the future at the Vi de Vila level, but it certainly will on the future Vi de Vinya and Gran Vi de Vinya so apparently, the criticism was heard.

Making a village wine

For Vi de Vila vinification, there’s no magic that needs to be performed. All the standards of the DOQ are the same. The only item that absolutely must be observed is that the wine from the certified vineyard be vinified in recipients that are separate and marked from the other wines of the cellar. Again, you can’t just suck off a couple hundred liters one year and slap the name on it.

Much like vine age, there are no additional aging requirements. You can make a fresh young wine with no oak or a Gran Reserva that sees two years in barrel. All of that is quite flexible. But, when it comes time to label, there are a number of size of font regulations and other bits to make sure it stays within the standards of the DOQ. This part is overall quite easy aside from the tastings where they review all the wines blind by a panel to assure they meet the “standard of the stated village”. What are these? Well, this is where things get a bit murky with the whole system and where many have criticized the entire project although the winemakers in the region as well as myself would state that any criticism is based upon not having spent time to truly learn what is unique about the various folds, valleys, and vales that make up the complex geography of DOQ Priorat.

Distinct Vins from distinct Viles

Much like the European Union, it’s far easier to dismiss the project of Vi de Vila than to actually understand it. Most people who are against it are sommeliers who find it burdensome to explain to customers although then I’ll see them swooning about a Puligny Montrachet from Burgundy or how their preferred commune in Bordeaux is St. Estèphe. The currency of the wine world is double standards or so the old white men in it don’t tell me…

I will most definitely concede that if you wanted to attack Vi de Vila on any front, it’s that probably too many of them were created. But here’s the problem: if each of the villages didn’t get it, they would have had a civil war on their hands so they did what they could to keep everyone happy.

What are the more redundant ones? Probably that Bellmunt, el Molar, and el Lloar could have been merged into a single entity. I find the wines down at this southern part to have a more unifying profile as it’s hotter and they see more wind. On some front, the wines can be nearly like DO Montsant as it buffets up against these three villages. Then again, as the Siurana River separates these Bellmunt from the other two, perhaps a more consistent and distinct profile will emerge with more wines.

The other ones are la Vilella Alta and Baixa. These are both small villages and are very, very similar in terms of climate and situation. They are however unique as while similar to Gratallops, they don’t have as much sun exposure but they aren’t quite as cool as what you find further up the valley in Escaladei which has proven to be a cooler, moderate climate in the region that’s been excellent for Grenache. Having passed through these two and tasted many of their wines, I can’t see how a “Les Vilelles” name would have been more appropriate but then again, the peace must be kept.

But that’s about it as the other villages have quite distinct characters, especially when talking about Gratallops and Porrera. Of course it could just be that these two villages have the greatest number of cellars and village wines so we see more examples out of them.

And that’s one of the problem as despite the big jump in the overall production of Vi de Vila wines, there still aren’t that many and so it is often hard to find a consistent character. But, once there are more cellars in say, Poboleda and especially la Morera, we’ll see much more defined aspects coming from them as well given how cool their climates are and that la Morera is the highest village in DOQ Priorat.

The real fault in any wine critic who defiantly states that there “is no difference in Priorat Vi de Vila” or “the only difference is in the winemaking or grapes used” is that they’re being arrogant. You have to learn these villages intimately and taste their base wines, grapes, and definitely walk through the vineyards at various points throughout the year, year after year, to actually understand what’s going on here with Vi de Vila.

Does it have more room to grow? Indeed and grow it well as the DOQ authorities are currently working on subzone classifications within the villages call Vi de Paratge that will be breakdowns of anywhere from 20 to 40 named, unique, historic zones. So, if you thought learning the villages was a pain, just wait! But this is really just a stepping stone and while some wines may emerge within this, the real meat and potatoes will be the Vi de Vinya and Gran Vi de Vinya certifications that will effectively be Premier & Gran Cru levels of wines. That’s where it’s going to get really interesting. And yes, there are those arguing against this, even from within the region but it will be interesting to watch it evolve as long as it doesn’t flounder like Italy’s DOC/DOCG system or even more locally with the Vino de Pago.

And it all culminates in the premise I’ve been floating for some time that if you want to find a Spanish equivalent to France’s terroir-obsessed Burgundy, the lovely hills of Priorat await you.