Posted on Thu, Aug. 16, 2007
By FRED TASKER
Sixty miles southwest of the bustling Las Ramblas pedestrian way of downtown Barcelona lies Spain's Priorato region -- a mountainous area so empty and still you can stop your car, turn off the motor and hear only the chirps of birds.
In the 1800s, it was a world-renowned wine region. As the Spanish Civil War and World War II intervened, it dropped from favor, but in the 1980s, a few enterprising wine families began bringing it back.
It's an unlikely story: Priorato is making great wines of such minor grapes as cariñena and garnacha, with dollops of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.
Cariñena, dark as night, is held in such low regard for its harsh acids and tannins that wine author Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine calls it ''the bane of the European wine industry.'' The equally inky garnacha is faintly praised by Robinson as ``now being re-evaluated from weed to asset.''
To this doubtful blend the Priorato adds one more ingredient -- schist, a brittle, easily shattered form of quartz found in its soil. Locals say it absorbs the daytime sun and releases it during the cold mountain nights, doing something remarkable to the humble grapes. The red wines of Priorato have wowed the world's wine critics.
Maybe the soil is blessed. In the Priorato's defining myth, shepherds had a vision of angels descending from heaven, which led Carthusian monks in 1194 to establish a monastery called Scala Dei, God's Stairway. The building was sacked and burned in 1835, but gold amassed by the monks is said to be buried in Priorato.
Among the 1980s pioneers was the Perez family, under Luis, then his son Adria, who in 1992 began managing a wine-making cooperative, Cims de Porrera, made up of 52 growers who harvest 133 acres of vines at widely scattered altitudes and locations.
Capafons-Ossó, an estate run by Francesc Capafons and his wife, Montserrat Ossó, has been making red wine since 1991, but only recently began selling under its own label. Mas de Masos red is one of its single-vineyard wines.
Spanish singing star Lluis Llach co-founded a winery in Porrera, with his first release in 2000 of a wine based on cariñena and garnacha.
Also in the game is the Spanish wine giant Torres, with 240 acres in Priorato. It has sent Mireia Torres, of the family's fifth generation, to make a new wine called ''Salmos,'' Spanish for ``psalms.''
Capitalizing on the ''God's Stairway'' tradition, Torres has written on each label, in Spanish: ``Light fell on the mountainside, and life sprang from the mountains. And so we sing psalms.''
A nice conceit. One suspects the gold in the Priorato hills will be profits from its new, not-inexpensive, red wine.
• 2005 ''Salmos'' Priorat Red Wine, by Torres, DOQ Priorato (cariñena, garnacha, syrah, cabernet sauvignon): toasty oak, minerals, mocha and warm blueberry pie; $34.
• 2004 Vall Llach, Porrera, DOQ Priorato (cariñena, merlot, cabernet sauvignon): powerful, tannic and youthful, with aromas and flavors of black plums, minerals and cinnamon; $28.
• 2003 ``Solanes,'' by Cims de Porrera, DOQ Priorato (cariñena, garnacha, cabernet sauvignon, merlot): heady, lush and powerful, with flavors of black plums, mocha and cinnamon; $28.
• 2003 Mas de Masos, by Capafons-Ossó, DOQ Priorato (cariñena, garnacha, cabernet sauvignon): lush, smooth and powerful, with black cherries and a hint of minerals; $70.
Origin: Miami Herald