Tasting & Tapas: DOCa Priorat

November 18, 2020

On one of our past Virtual Experiences we delved into the divine wines of DOCa Priorat, which is one of 12 Denominations of Origin in the Catalonia autonomous community.

Priorat comes from the word ‘priory’ in English, referring to a monastery headed by a Prior. In the 12th century, the Carthusian monks arrived in the area and began to plant vines and make wine, though not the high quality wine we now associate with the Priorat region.  Raúl told us that the area used to produce something closer to vinegar than today’s wine!

The true birth of the region as a wine mecca began in the late 1970s with the arrival of René Barbier, a Frenchman who came to Catalonia with his winemaking family and, along with his pal, Álvaro Palacios, transformed Priorat wines forever. The Barbier family had once been respected as winemakers themselves but had struggled and lost everything, requiring René to shift gears and begin exporting wines for others, specifically the Palacios family from la Rioja.

René was far from your average, suit and tie wearing salesman. He travelled around from job to job in his van, where he slept between sales pitches. He preferred the somewhat vagabond lifestyle and the freedom of his four wheels over the chic hotels his employer would have preferred to put him up in. 

While working for the Palacios family in the 1980s, he built an unsuspecting friendship with the young Álvaro Palacios, a high society man who outwardly did not fit at all with René´s hippy, free-spirited image. However, Álvaro had fresh, new ideas that attracted René and together they took up the task of convincing the older generations of Priorat that they could in fact make great wines because they had a fantastic product. The duo began by assisting already established wineries and then eventually broke away to create their own wines. 

The first wine produced by Álvaro and René was called Finca Dofí and this is the wine that Raúl says has absolutely changed his life because it is so amazing! The name Finca Dofí (or, delfín in Spanish, dolphin in English) is a nod to the idea that a workhorse, or someone doing the grunt work to get a job done behind the scenes, is referred to as a “delfín¨. Raúl explained to us that Álvaro was thought of as the delfín in his partnership with René, so the wine name pays homage to him.

Priorat is said to have the magical combination of old vines (cariñena and garnacha), good soil (slate), and perfect weather.  Álvaro and René found the ideal plot where all of these elements came together in just the right way and they called it Finca Ermita because it faced an hermitage.  L’Ermita produces the most expensive wine in Spain, selling around 1000 euros a bottle. Raúl tells us he does not believe it is worth the high price tag! However, he explained to us Álvaro’s reasoning behind this exorbitant price.  Palacio’s says he had to go vine by vine, making individual cuts on each to change the varietal from cariñena to garnacha all by hand on a very steep slope, a process which proved to be quite laborious. Raúl points out that another important factor in the high price is how little product is able to be produced on the plot, and in Priorat in general. In Ribera del Duero, for example, the maximum production is 7000 kilos per hectare. In Priorat, the maximum production is just 2000 kilos per hectare and, on L’Ermita, it is as low as 500 per hectare, according to Raúl. 

Raúl explains that there is something almost mystical about the situation at L´Ermita because its north facing slope, covered in slate, retains just the correct amount of heat during the day while it is bathed in sun and releases only a small amount of heat at night, creating a perfect growth situation, completely unique to the area.

Clearly, to this brilliant odd couple, René and Álvaro, the Priorat wine region owes a great deal. Their success has influenced a new, younger generation of “hipsters” who have brought with them original ideas for making fresh, less complex wines with funky, unique labels. The region has now achieved worldwide recognition, with many of its wines even being showcased on the menu at El Bulli, the Michelin 3-star restaurant considered one of the best in the world before its closure in 2011.

We hope you are inspired by this fascinating wine friendship to gather together with us and Raúl this Saturday for mouth watering wine and tapas, Priorat style!

By Meg Emmitt

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