During a recent skiing outing, I shared the chairlift with Dan and Uschi, two peer friends in the same ski group in which I participate at Sunday River. On our way up to T-2 I became aware that Dan is a wine enthusiast. In the ensuing conversation we exchanged some thoughts and stories about our respective wine journey when suddenly I heard the words Priorat, putting a smile on my frozen face. To be precise, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Dan, who grew up in Minnesota, talk about wines from Priorat. Why was I surprised? It’s not that folks in Minnesota don’t know about Spanish wine. The surprise rather was caused by the intersectionality among skiing, my better half Denise Dudette’s origins, the midwest, and Spanish wines. I will explain shortly. For now, l would argue that it’s quite unusual to find someone outside Spain to be fluent in Priorat!
In the spirit of transparency, Denise Dudette, AKA Bruce Springsteen (the Boss) and a source of inspiration for this blog, also grew up in the midwest, in Waupaca, WI to be exact. She’s also familiar with Priorat and Spanish wines at large for two reasons: First, I am a Vinopath who explores wines from every corner of the planet, so yes, we have enjoyed together our fair share of Priorat wines, one of my favorite wine regions in Spain.
Secondly, she lived in Valencia, a stone throw away from another B-Side wine region, Utiel-Requena. But, I admit that this is a topic for another blog altogether. What I enjoyed the most about my conversation with Dan was the momentarily and yet deliberate disregard for A-Side Spanish wines such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Jerez. I have an appreciation for the aforementioned wines, however, I truly treasure when I hear folks expressing themselves eloquently about often overlooked wines or what I refer as B-Side wines. I have a particular soft spot for the ‘overlooked’ wines for reasons that go far beyond the scope of this blog.
But what are B-Side wines? First let me offer a short 30,000 ft view of what a B-Side means in Vinyl records vernacular. In the late 80’s and early 90’s while Rioja dominated the shelves in the Spanish section of wine stores, the same way Vinyl records ruled the shelves of music aficionados. Around the same timeframe, Priorat was struggling to choose which route to take, tradition or modernity. At stake was sticking with traditional grapes from the area such as Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan) or modernize fostering international types such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Frac and Merlot. The agonizing debate was raging unabated. By the turn of the 21st century, Priorat was emerging from obscurity, I started seeing more B-Side wines in wine stores at the same rate I started seeing more CDs at Tower Records. Well, at least throughout wine and music markets such as Boston, New York, DC, LA, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. Let’s step back a bit on the history of Vinyl. In the 1950 music record companies assigned double-sided Vinyl records with an A-Side and B-Side at random. As technology advanced and competition in the music industry grew in the 60’s, record companies included a “monoaural” version and a “stereo” version of the same song on promotional singles (45 rpm records). To complicate things, in the apogee of Vinyl records most AM radio stations didn’t play songs in “stereo” since they didn’t have the technology for stereo broadcast. FM radio stations on the flip side, didn’t like to play songs in “mono.” By this time companies reserved the A-side for songs that were primed to be a hit, or the songs they wanted radio station to play. You see, The B-Side was an afterthought mainly to make sure that LP records would be worthwhile buying by including more songs in LP Vinyl album (or cassettes) and in some cases filled the B-Side with song just to fulfill contractual obligations. The songs on the B-Side’s were often overlooked because, in an oversimplifying fashion, borrowing form professor George Plasketes, B-Side songs were not crowd-pleasing, just like my B-Side wines.
With this in mind, I have chosen to share a couple of my favorite B-Side wines: Priorat and Montefalco Sagrantino. In my analogy I called Priorat and Montefalco Sagratino B-Sides because not many people outside Spain and Italy have heard of them, let alone tasted them. Wait, what? Yes, these two wine regions actually produce exceptional wines at exceptional values which is why I was exciting to talk Priorat with Dan.
As usual, for the uninitiated let’s explore Priorat, a DOC (Catalan for DOQ) located in the province of Tarragona in area in northeast Spain, known as Catalunya. Barcelona is ostensibly the most famous city in the area. What makes the wines of Priorat, besides the tried and true careful wine-making, terroir and climate, is the zeal by which the region’s wine entities strictly follow the guidelines set by the DOQ governing body (Consell Regulador). Priorat produces both white and Red wine but by now most readers know I focused on Reds such as the wines pictured below, Gratallops and La Vilella Alta, both produced by Bodegas Mas Alta under the Black Slate label. Priorat has a long history with church almost as if its wines came to exist through divine intervention. According to the Consell Regulador History Page, Carthusian monks tended the vineyards from the XII through the XIX century. In fact, the name itself is derived form the Prior of Scale Dei (Latin for God’s Ladder).
B-Side Wines from Spain
I feel it’s important to review a few terms to better understand the unique nomenclature of Priorat wines. There are currently only two DOQ in Spain: Rioja and Priorat, where the term Vino de Pago indicates that a wine has been made from a specific vineyard. While this is also true in Priorat with Vi de Finca classifications, it is actually much more sophisticated and intriguing that of “Vi de Vila”, literally wine of the village, is a certification you find in DOQ Priorat. What makes it even more interesting is that it follows a Burgundian-esque concept of more specific Village Nomenclature (twelve in total), each with its unique character and that is because of the unique permutations of grape growing in each village. BTW, the traditional grapes allowed in Priorat, more specifically in these Villages are Garnacha Tinta, Cariñena, Garnacha Peluda, along with the international grapes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly Syrah, making for very complex, spicy and unmistakably Priorat! What I found ironic, frankly, is knowing that there aren’t plantings of Tempranillo in Priorat, although there are plenty of its surrounding Monsant Region. Enough rambling about the regions and B-Sides wines, let us get on with the actual wine-tasting. The first iteration I tasted was a 2017 Black Slate from Gratallops, which comes from the oldest registered Estate in Priorat. The wine opens up a bit flat on the nose with light notes of mushrooms. On the palate, the first sip feels rich, oozing dark fruit flavors. As I swirl the glass to let it oxygenate a little bit, the color is deep purple. More on this in a moment. I let it sit for almost four hours, while I was braising a local shank of Maine-raised beef. After aeration, the wine developed aromas of blue berry, black berries, spices and slate! Straight up. I could taste a chalky notes of earth giving way to espresso notes on the finish. No wonder why my palate picked up those notes, Vi de La Vila is grown on Schist, a close relative to Slate, hence the name on the label Black Slate. August Vicent, the winemaker, used Garnacha Negra, Cariñena and Syrah, where it was aged in both concrete and French oak. This means to me, that the spice I detected comes almost entirely from the Syrah as the contact with oak was kept to a minimum.
The second Priorat iteration was a 2017 Black Slate from from La Vilella Alta, where the grapes are grown in licorella and clay limestone. Right out of the gate, the wine offers intense and alluring aromas of earth, spice and cherry fruit. On the palate, the wine is rich, dark and deep with notes of black cherry and coffee flavors wrapped in mouthfiling tannings that ease up to reveal a long, spicy and stony finish. Really impressive! The wine maker, Bicente Oçafrain, used Garnatxa, Carinyena, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah from vines that range from 15-60 year old and letting an indigenous yeast do its magic. Before bottling, the final wine is aged half in concrete tanks and half in French oak (30% new).
Whether you like the style of Priorat wines or not, one thing is clear. Priorat has emerged from the 80’s and 90’s obscurity to a world class success. As I previously indicated, there are only two DOQ in Spain and its ranking, as you are undoubtedly gathering, is still ruled by the A-Side Rioja wines. Still, the B-Sides wines of Priorat in my blog, are second to none. As usual, the truth is in the bottle.