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On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers takes a journey through the arid, mountainous region of Priorat. This DOCa has a long history of wine, but it wasn’t until modern times that things got interesting. Tune in for more.
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I just found out that armadillo means “the little armored one.” That is so cute. They can swim and hold their breath underwater for six minutes.
What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair. We’re going all the way north, and then we’re going all the way east, and then we’re going up a little bit more to the northeastern corner of Spain — a little place called Priorat. You may have heard of it. You may love it. Let’s get into it.
Wine lovers, there is an autonomous Spanish region in the northeastern part of Spain called Catalunya. This place is wild. Like everything in wine, there have been humans in this part of Spain making wine since the Phoenicians. That’s not the important part of our story. The important part of the story is what happened in the 12th century. Before we talk about that, let’s talk real quick about Catalunya. This is a very cool region geologically because it is just south of the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees does not define this region. The Pyrenees is actually an absolutely stunning visual backdrop of this region, but this region does have its own mountain range. This is why I love this place — Catalunya. If you want to go back to our Cava episode, this is where Cava happened. Cava happened towards the coast because what’s really neat about this place is in the northeastern part of Spain — in Catalunya — it’s a very Mediterranean climate on the coast, of course. As you go inland, it starts getting hillier and hillier and hillier. As you get further into the hinterland of the Catalunya region, you hit the Montsant mountain range, which is a mountain range that literally parallels the coast and protects everything towards the coast from what’s going on between the Pyrenees and this mountain range.
What I love about this is when you’re coming in from the coast, you go inland and you’re basically in the hills of the Penedès. This is where Cava is made. This is a very Mediterranean climate. As you get further and further inland, things get crazier, more arid, more dry, more infertile, and higher elevations. You’re working your way up into the Montsant mountain range and in this hilly, steep place, this arid region in the 12th century, a sect of Carthusian — I think that’s how you say it — monks from Provence made their way into this place and built a priory — built an abbey. Of course they did.
What did they do? They started planting vines. Why not? They started planting vines. It just so happened that in this hilly, arid, mountainous place there are villages spotted throughout this area. Now, the monks in the 12th century, they do the wine thing. We know this, right? Monks do wine, and they do it well because they’re in isolation most of the time. They have nothing else to think about. You know what I’m talking about? The villagers saw what was going on and they wanted to start doing it.
We have in the 12th century, a cropping up of this small wine activity in the hilly, mountainous regions of Catalunya. Now, I’m not really sure if it was thriving or self-sustaining, but everything seems to have been going great until the 19th century.
In this little area, and in Spain, well in the — phylloxera guys — it gets to Jerez and then it works its way up, gets into the mountains and phylloxera hits this little, wonderful thing going on in the mountains around this priory and the story, wine lovers, is the same. It devastates the region.
The thing is the rebuilding. We usually talk about the phylloxera thing and then the rebuild. It takes a long time to rebuild. The thing about this place, we talked about it. It’s a lot of hills. It’s mountainous. They consider it very inaccessible. It doesn’t have a lot of trade routes. When phylloxera comes and destroys this place, it doesn’t come back for more than 50 years. There was wine being made, but not on a large production scale, not on a commercial scale. Then after World War II in the 1950s, wine production on a large scale does come back to this little area, but unfortunately, it’s in the form of co-ops.
Now, co-ops are great these days, but back in the day before the E.U. was around, there wasn’t a lot of upkeep, maintenance, or the introduction of new technologies. It was a very stagnant business — the co-op. The wines that were coming out of these co-ops were not being taken care of at the time. It was: just pump it out. It’s a little bit harsh — a lot of tannins, not a lot of developed fruit. It was just co-op wine. Then in the 1980s, a man by the name of René Barbier was born in Tarragona, which is a coastal town in Catalonia. If you’re in Tarragona and you look west, you’re looking at the Montsant mountain range, then the Pyrenees. He was a French winemaker, even though he was born in Spain. He was a Spanish-French winemaker, but he was trained in places like Bordeaux. He was trained in Limu. This guy comes into this place and it is just rife with co-ops, but he doesn’t see that.
What he sees is this beautiful, mountainous, hilly region with all these little peaks and valleys. He sees this soil and it’s called llicorella, which means “licorice.” It’s oxidized granite and slate. It’s extremely infertile. He’s like, “Wait one second here. There is potential here for great wine.” It’s arid. It’s infertile. The elevations are right. He also noticed a very significant amount of very old vines.
He starts conceiving of this idea, born in Burgundy, called the Clos, C-L-O-S. We talked about in the Burgundian episode, it means “a walled vineyard.” He goes about his business beginning to revive the wine industry of this hilly area inland from the coast, inland from the Penedès in the Montsant mountain range. This sparks a lot of interest. The wines he began to make — the first wine he made was called Clos Mogador. It got a lot of attention because the wines in this area were thick and big and robust, but balanced and powerful. People are like, “Wait a second, this is really cool.” Other people in the area are like, “Wait a second, this is a great idea and I think I want to do this too.”
All these independent winemakers in a world rife with co-ops before the EU was around started breaking through and making their own wines and defying the co-ops. In the Spanish appellation system, the highest tier — the most elite — is the DOCa. Anything in the E.U.-compliant tier, you have the highest appellation designation which is going to have more restrictions, the highest quality of grapes. The price is a little bit higher. The yields are a little bit lower.
For a long time, Rioja was the only DOCa in Spain and it was awarded in the 1990s. This is what’s wild about this little hilly area we’re talking about here. It’s because of the work of René Barbier and all of his followers — the people that came and said, “You know what? I’m going to do this too” — because of the age of these vines and because it’s not easy to make wine here because the terraced vineyards are so steep, this became the second DOCa in Spain. It’s just really wild how Rioja, the storied region of Rioja, has a DOCa.
This kind of “Johnny newcomer” here also gets a DOCa because of the work in the 1980s. They end up naming this region — this DOCa — Priorat, which is named after that priory that was first installed in the 12th century. By the way, the name of that abbey — that priory — was called Scala Dei, which means “stairway to heaven” or “stairs to heaven,” because this priory was so high up in the air, if you look at it, the stairs are going up, and you’re going up to heaven because you’re really high on a mountain.
Because the United States loves big, full-bodied wines — we’re kind of changing now. We’re more into acid-forward stuff, but we were into big, full-bodied wines for quite some time. That’s why the super Tuscans did very well here while Priorat, small production stuff — quite expensive — makes it onto the American market and we embrace the hell out of it. In the early 2000s, early aughts is when it really started ramping up on our market.
What is going on here? What kind of wine is made here? 41 percent of the land under vine in Priorat is Garnacha. 23 percent of the land under vine is Carignan. That gives you an idea of what’s going on here. Because of the arid nature of this place, the wines are intense, dry, big, high in alcohol, a good amount of tannin, and the fruit is like — wine lovers — it’s thick. It’s a thick, textured, beautiful wine, as we know from Provence and from the Rhône, Garnacha thrives in heat. It loves heat. This place is arid and hot.
That soil is well — the thing about this soil is just like the stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they do believe that this llicorella, this licorice, oxidized granite, and slate, does absorb heat and then reflects it back up into the vines. A lot of these vineyards are terraced. They’re literally terraces carved into the actual perimeters of these hills. Not all of them are terraced. There are some little valleys, but a lot of these vines are terraced.
Garnacha and Carignan here really work well together. They do have some acidity to them. You get these big, full-bodied wines, but the acidity is just right. If it’s done in such a wonderful way, which they often are, you get this big, powerful wine, but it lifts on the palate. They’re super great and they’re often blended, but sometimes they’re single varieties. Also, there’s about 10 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon in the area. That makes sense. There’s a little bit of Syrah and a little bit of Merlot in the area. That’s how this place rolls. They do blends, they do single vineyards, they do single varieties.
There’s also some white wine made here, but we’re not going to see a lot of that on the American market — maybe in the urban areas like New York, San Francisco, and stuff like that. They work with Garnacha Blanca, which is awesome. Then Macabeo and Pedro Ximénez. Macabeo and Garnacha — well, Garnacha Blanca, there’s not a lot of it out there, but there’s literally, like, 1 percent of Macabeo in there and there’s less than a half of a percent of Pedro Ximénez which they make fortified wines from. Had to let you know that just in case it — you know — because Priorat, it’s popular here, so they might have some stuff out there. I don’t know.
As far as how they classify these wines, in the past, there were ways to classify them that no one really paid attention to, but in 2019, they did something really cool. I don’t think I’ve seen this anywhere else. I love this. They actually named — they created their own five-tier classification system, and they gave it the coolest name, “Els Noms de la Terra,” or “The Names of the Land.” Doesn’t that sound like, I don’t know, some fantasy novel or something? It’s just so cool, and the five tiers are interesting.
Well, let me just get into it and I’ll tell you as we go. The first tier is DOQ Priorat wine, which is basically the generic label. It just means that the wine is made within the basic requirements of the region for location, the age of the vine, and the variety.
Then the second tier — this is really the interesting one — this is the one that you’re going to have fun with out there on the American market. Vi de Vila, which is wine from one of 12 specified villages, and they’re all over. There’s 12 of them, and they’re on the market, and it’s kind of fun to go around from wine shop to wine shop. Or if you’re visiting a city, if you’re visiting somewhere, go to the wine shop to see what kind of Vin de Vila from Priorat they have.
I don’t know. The way I look at it is that these 12 villages were the villages surrounding the abbey that really got excited back in the 12th century when the monks were doing their thing. You know? Pretty cool. I’m not going to list all the 12 villages, because number one, I’d probably butcher all of them, and there’s 12 of them. You can look them up online and — I don’t know — it’s fun to go out and search for them.
Then we get into the pricey stuff. Portage wines are very similar to how Argentina is trying to classify its wines, meaning it’s very terroir-driven. We’re having a wine that is expressing a specific terroir.
Then you have the fourth tier, which is Vinya Classificada, which is their single vineyard designation where 80 percent of the vines are at least 20 years old.
Then you have the fifth and final tier, Gran Vinya Classificada, where 80 percent of the vineyard must be at least 35 years old. It’s kind of cool that this classification system is more about the age of the vines, and that’s really what Priorat is about. Well, the age of the vines is a big deal. Not all the vines are really old, but there are a lot of really old vines there. It’s kind of part of their history. It’s almost like they give five tiers, and within those five tiers, they’re representing everything that they’ve been doing since the 1980s and actually, since the 12th century, which is just awesome.
These wines are expensive, but these wines are spectacular. If you’ve heard of Priorat, there’s a good chance if you’re in — I don’t know where you are in your wine journey as always — but there’s a good chance if you’re in wine, you’ve heard of Priorat. It may have been a little bit confusing. I really hope this episode got you right where you needed to be. As always, if you’re drinking Priorat, you should tag me on Instagram, that’s @VinePairKeith. I want to see that. Let’s talk next week. Got some listener questions to answer. All right.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
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