Spain is a remarkable country. I was lucky enough to get there a couple of times in my youth -- way before I got into wine and way before there was significant Spanish wine to get into. I found it to be a surreal and awe-inspiring place. I remember traveling on my Eurail pass on the AVE (the bullet train) and looking out the window at this barren, beige landscape with cute little old men and women in teeny towns watching as the train passed by. Most of Spain seemed rural to me and it wasn't much of a stretch to understand why authors and artists dreamed up such fantastic ideas while living here -- Picasso, Miró, Dalí, and Cervantes needed color and bright, quirky ideas to spruce up the dry, rocky land that pervades the Iberian Peninsula on which they lived. Priorat and Rioja are the only two regions that can claim to be regions of the highest quality or DOCa. Pretty big stuff and easy to understand once you've had one of the wines from either of these places, but especially Priorat. The Vall Llach Embriux (means bewitching, FYI) is the bottom of the line for Priorat and is still one of the most delicious wines I've had all year. The winery is the pride and joy of opera singer Lluis Llatch, who founded it in 1992.
In some respects, the modern wine industry has experienced that same freedom that these cultural icons probably felt. When faced with a barren landscape it's easy for imaginative people to dream up something amazing to fill it!
Spain is, without a doubt, a wine nation. There's evidence that wine has been made here since 4000 - 3000 BC, and that more sophisticated methods were brought to the country by the Phoenicians who hung out in Spain around 1100 BC. The country is home to over 600 native grape varieties (although 80% of the wine is made out of 20 grapes!), and monks, Romans, and even the Moors (yes, they were Muslims going rogue) produced and consumed Spanish wine. The wine was shipped to South and Latin America to satisfy the colonists. Rioja was designated as a quality region for wine in 1650 and the French sought disease free vineyards in north-central and northeastern Spain when fleeing grape plights at home (that spread mostly from the U.S. Don't WE feel guilty? Although I have to say, my family was still bumping around Russia, Germany, and Austria then, so I'm not taking blame for it!).
But even with that rich history, the last 75 years have been what wiped the slate clean for Spain's wine world and made it start from scratch more recently. Military coups that resulted in a Civil War, World Wars, and a 40 year oppressive dictatorship under Franco removed nearly all investment and innovation from Spain's wine world (Rioja and Jerez/Sherry were the only areas that were somewhat spared given their long-standing reputations). With no regard for wine quality or artistry, liquid plonk made from the worst quality grapes poured forth en masse and Spain gained an embarrassing reputation for easily browned, over-alcoholic wines...until it started getting some EU cash, that is.
In the last 15 years, Spain has learned that membership has its privileges. Once it joined the EU, money flowed in and winemakers -- old and new, foreign and domestic -- got capital to invest in the vineyards and the wineries (I think it's hilarious that most wineries who have Web sites mention how clean the facilities are. Don't we usually assume that's the case? But they feel they have to mention it given the legacy of crap wine, I guess.). With money and democracy, the barren landscape shaped by Franco started filling in and the results are impressive.
Now Spain's star has risen. Quality wines from native grapes grown in their native areas, and some French varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, to name a few) that complement the indigenous ones have found great success. Spain now has a thriving industry with amazing wines from nearly every region and the ability to build and maintain wineries that make great wine -- they are clean, they are modern, and they've got ownership who know what they are doing. That's a good thing.
Let's face it, Americans benefit from the EU subsidies too. Spanish wine prices are way lower than what the wines are worth, and that makes them fabulous values. Mostly, you'll find great wines for under $15 but there are some regions in Spain where the wines command high prices, and there is a reason for it. Priorat is one of them.
Priorato or Priorat as it is called in the native language, Catalan, is a small, isolated region 100 miles west of Barcelona, in northeast Spain. It's steep, with horrible, rocky soils that cause the vines to struggle to produce few measly grapes. Funny enough -- this is THE recipe for great wine. Grapevines that produce fewer berries, that need to dig deep for nutrients, but that are grown at elevation and have a good amount of sun exposure and low rainfall produce the finest wines in the world. Priorat is a candidate for this title.
The area has a special soil called llicorella (I can say that in Spanish, but I don't know how it's said in Catalan, if you know, let me know please!), which is brown slate and mica. It reflects sunlight and conserves heat to really ripen the grapes, which grow on steep terraces at altitude. The topsoil is thick and heavy, so the vines have to dig deep down into the ground for water and nutrition. The temperature is extreme -- with long, freezing winters and very hot summers. There's nearly no rain here. Sounds kind of harsh, no? Well, it is but that's why the wine is so damn good!
The region follows the same pattern as the rest of Spain from an historical bent -- Carthusian monks came in and set up shop. The Prior had control (hence Priorat, the name of the region). About 2000 years later, in the 1830s, the state took over the land from the church. Unfortunately a few decade later the vineyards were destroyed by disease and replanted with almonds and olives. Wine wasn't put on the map again until the 1980s when René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios came from Rioja and started making kick-ass wine mostly of Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (a native grape called Carignan in France), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Robert Parker, the then Don of the wine critic world (you know, before Wine For Normal People came along, of course! I kid, I kid!), gave rave reviews. Prices shot up and this little region never looked back.
I do warn you about this wine, if you like rich wines and try it, you are in trouble. This can only lead to more desire for more Priorat wines and complete annihilation of your wallet...but I gotta say, it may be worth it. It really IS kind of bewitching!
The Wine: Vall Llach Embriux
Where It's From: Priorat(o), Spain
The Grapes:38% Garnacha, 26% Cariñena, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 6% Merlot
Color: Nearly opaque, this wine was crimson or blood red. It looked dark and rich, and was unique in color. Since this didn't show any purple tones (usually wines that are purple are less acidic) and was red as red can be, I was thinking that the wine would be on the acidic side, which I really love.
Smell: This was so perfumed and it had a dozen layers to it. First it was like dark violets and wet potting soil. Then it was blackberry, blueberry, and plum. The wine required a ton of decanting or swirling -- with that aromas just kept on coming, as more air broke up the chemical compounds in the wine and let it come out of its shell. Tobacco, cedar chips. and dark cinnamon/nutmeg smells popped out of the glass. It had high alcohol, so there was a bit of the cilia singe effect, but with all the other cascading aroma it just added to the mix of goodness. What a wine.
Taste: Stunning. The taste was like the smell and the texture just added to the experience. It was creamy and silky and soft but also had great acid and was dry. My mouth felt both massaged by the wine and cleaned out by it. It was a great sensation and one that you can only get when you start heading up the quality scale in wine. This fired on all cylinders.
Food: As I am wont to say -- this requires some sort of brown food/sauce. Mushrooms for the vegetarians (always a staple in Spanish tapas, FYI), tuna for the fish-etarians, and beef stew, roasted or stewed red meat are what this wine requires. Anything lighter in flavor and this wine will kill the dish. Powerful wine needs rich, powerful food.
Drink or Down the Sink?: This wine (or their higher tiers which I'm sure are otherworldly) or another equally delicious wine from one of the 85 producers in Priorat HAS to be on your list of reasonable splurge wines. As normal people, we're not drinking $30 bottles every night, but next time you're in the market for something a little nicer, do it. I swear you won't regret it if you like rich red wines. There are three places, in my opinion, where Garnacha/Grenache blends kick serious butt -- Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhöne, South Australia, and here, in Priorat. Drink it.
How to Shop For a Wine Similar To This One: Here's the deal: It's easy to find the Spanish reds section these days, but not as easy to find wines from Priorat. I find a lot of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, some Monastrell (great bargains and delicious, so grab that too! We had the brand Hecula and it was rad), and an occasional Garnacha but shops are a little light on the Priorat. I'd recommend seeking out a shop that has more than one wine from here and asking about the difference in profile. They should all be really high quality, but the person running the shop may be able to tell you the small differences between the brands (if not, hop online and look for tasting notes, or email me and I'll try help you!). Either that or just order the Embruix online -- you won't regret it!
Priorat and Rioja are the only two regions that can claim to be regions of the highest quality or DOCa. Pretty big stuff and easy to understand once you've had one of the wines from either of these places, but especially Priorat. The Vall Llach Embriux (means bewitching, FYI) is the bottom of the line for Priorat and is still one of the most delicious wines I've had all year. The winery is the pride and joy of opera singer Lluis Llatch, who founded it in 1992.