New Arrivals from Priorat's Finest: Scala Dei, Terroir al Limit, Nin-Ortiz, and Mas Martinet

12/14/15 -

Legend tells of how King Alfons "The Chaste" sent two of his knights to reconoitre the land in search of the ideal place for the Carthusian Order to settle in Catalonia. When they reached the foothills of Montsant they were immediately struck by the extraordinary beauty of the area and they requested information about the place from a local shepherd. Besides informing them, the shepherd told them about a supernatural phenomenon that had been occurring for some time in the middle of the valley. On top of the highest pine a ladder appeared by which angels ascended to and descended from heaven... The knights duly informed the king, who offered those lands to the Order. The Carthusians built the altar for the church dedicated to Santa Maria on the site of the tree. History gave the monastery its name and generated an iconography with deep roots in the region. (Anna Figueras, The Priorat)

The foundation of the monastery of Scala Dei in 1194 gave rise to the constellation of feudal farming villages that became what we know as Priorat today, as well as its modern winemaking history, but the purity and power of this Catalonian region’s wines and terroirs were admired throughout antiquity for their heady fragrance, power, and concentration. The precipitously steep and rugged cliffs of a variety of slatey llicorella soils, for which Priorat is famous, evolved approximately 400 million years ago from Paleozoic schists, and dominate the dramatic, series of spiraling vineyards, valleys, and mountains in the Priorat landscape. There are granitic, clay, and calcareous terroirs in the Priorat as well, but it is the llicorella that is most identifiable in the region's wines -- its dark, mineral flavor and elegant tannins virtually replicate pulverized, powdery slate.

Before phylloxera struck in 1893, killing all vineyards in its path, the vast majority of Priorat was covered in vineyards (a staggering 93.5% of cultivable land in the town of Torroja, for instance, was planted to grapevines). Replanting post-phylloxera was stalled by world and civil war, rural depression, and depopulation, as was the formation of the official Denominació d'Origen to establish boundaries for production and protect the Priorat name and its growers. Today the area under vine is around 2000 hectares, a fraction of its former area, and Priorat is a coveted DOQ (Denominació d'Origen Qualificada), though the highest and steepest former vineyard sites seem to be abandoned for good.

In the olden days, Prioratins made powerful red wines in large concrete tanks, predominently from Garnacha (Garnatxa in Catalan), though many other Meditteranean grape varieties were planted as well. (The Priorat was also a major supplier for the brandy trade.) The 1970s and '80s saw a revolution in the region and its style, with the arrival of gifted young winemakers from elsewhere in Spain and Europe, who were passionate about harnessing the Priorat's spirit and the potential of its soils and vines. The now-canonical wines of René Barbier (Clos Mogador), Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus), Carles Pastrana (Clos de l'Obac), Alvaro Palacios, and Josep Lluis Pérez (Mas Martinet) opened the world's eyes to Priorat's promise and power. Simultaneously, a new style emerged marked by oak aging in small barrels and blending of Garnacha and Carignan with non-native grape varieties.

Decades later, the wineries of Priorat display a wide range of winemaking styles. The producers featured below are at the forefront of a movement to push the Priorat into the future by reviving the methods of the past. Organic and biodynamic farming and inclusion of whole clusters play  increasing roles in the best Priorat wines of the new generation, who are looking to resurrect the elegantly structured, terroir driven wines of the past. Old fashioned winemaking methods did not require de-stemming clusters of grapes. On a recent visit to the historic winery at Scala Dei we learned that, in absence of official records, the best evidence in attempting to date the winery's decision to shift toward an overtly modern style is a receipt on file for a de-stemming machine purchased in 1977. At Scala Dei and across the region, small barrels and new oak have been supplanted by larger neutral vessels that allow the grapes and soils to shine most clearly: large foudre, concrete tanks, and the almighty amphora.

Today the winery at Scala Dei is headed by winemaker Ricard Rofes who, after tasting Scala Dei's original bottlings from the 1970s, made the bold move of reverting from aging in small oak barrels to the more traditional concrete tanks. His single vineyard bottlings are the most impressive and pure expressions of Garnacha from the region's lesser-known calcareous and clay terroirs. Today, we are pleased to offer his basic bottling from llicorella soils, which is an excellent introduction to the distinctive fragrance, broad fruit, and freshness that is possible from Garnacha vinified without affect – it is harmonious, lush, and complex at an affordable price.

Down the road in Torroja del Priorat, a postcard-perfect town of 160 people set in the side of a mountain, Dominik Huber of Terroir al Limit (also a great admirer of Scala Dei wines from the '70s) ushers his biodynamically farmed Carignan and Garnacha grapes into vivid, refreshing translations of vineyard and vintage alike. Terroir al Limit started when German-born Huber and South African luminary Eben Sadie met at Mas Martinet winery as young men in 2000. They united under a shared interest in the potential of Priorat's extreme and forbidding, yet life-affirming terroir to establish Terroir al Limit. Today, with Dominik at the helm, Terroir al Limit is the source for Priorat wines that translate the pulse and potency of the region for wine drinkers looking for a lighter-bodied and versatile style of Priorat.

Ester Nin and her husband Carles Ortiz are enlightened practitioners of the most exacting and profound biodynamic farming in the region (possibly in the world, considering the inherent rigors of farming Priorat's poor rocky soils and near-vertical costers or slopes). Tremendous sacrifice and energy is required to farm with the rigor of Nin and Ortiz: eight passes with a mule and plow per row of vines in their Planetes vineyard takes Carles a full week of work; weeding it by hand takes four workers 1.5 days -- a very different process from the hour or two required to apply herbicides to a chemically farmed vineyard. To feel and smell their pillowy licorella soils is to gain a sudden awareness that even the vineyards we admire the most in the area could be considered compacted in comparison to Nin and Ortiz’s soils. Walking their vinyards, Planetes and Mas d'en Caçador, is a powerful experience. The single vineyard bottlings, Planetes and Nit de Nin, from 70-100 year old, low-yielding plots of Carignan, Garnacha, Garnacha Peluda, with a number of white grapes as well, display an ethereal beauty commensurate with Nin and Ortiz's commitment and connection to the life and health of their land. Full-bodied, fragrant, and exotic, Priorat wines exude a sense of occasion, making them some of our most popular, gift-worthy and feast-worthy selections this time of year. Cheers! Ariana Rolich

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