Despite eight centuries of wine production, the Catalonian region of Priorat (known as
Priorato in Castillian Spanish) spent most of the twentieth century on the road to extinction.
The region, southwest of Barcelona, is sparsely populated, rocky, and ill served by roads and
other infra-structure. Phylloxera hit the region in 1900, not long after the sale and dispersal of
the lands of the Carthusian monastery of Scala Dei, which had been the hub of Priorat
winemaking. The primacy of the nearby tourist coast nearly depopulated Priorat starting in the
1960s. When René Barbier and a few fellow producers using modern winemaking techniques
formed a cooperative and put their wine on the market only in 1991, no one then knew that
instead of being a novelty, the late twentieth century wines of Priorat would herald the
phoenix-like rise of an exceptional region.
While the enthusiasm of Robert Parker, Jr. for the initial vintages had something to do with
the region's initial popularity, Priorat's unique terroir provides the sticking power.
Priorat is protected from the arid winds of the northwest by the Sierra de Montsant (“holy
mountain”). The soil, called llicorella, is brown slate studded with glimmering
quartzite. Though the area receives little rainfall, the cool soils reward ardent vine roots with
ample moisture from water pockets deep in the carboniferous slate if they dig down ten or
twenty meters for it. There is a lot of talk around stressed vines, but here in Priorat the
equation works beautifully, resulting in low yields, highly concentrated wines, and—do the
math—some stratospheric prices. Priorat is on the map to stay now, having generated major
outside investment, new roads, good restaurants and a tourism industry.
La Conreria de Scala Dei is located in the village of the same name, within sight of the ruins
of the Scala Dei monastery at the foot of the Sierra de Monsant (the term Scala Dei is Latin
for “Ladder to God”). The winery is co-owned by Josep Mitjans, Jaume Sabater and
winemaker Jordi Vidal. The Scala Dei Prior 2003 Priorat is $28. The wine is 65% Garnacha
(Grenache), 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11% Syrah. Visually the wine is a medium to deep
intensity purple with nice clarity. The nose is pronounced, bringing notes of vanilla, cedar,
clove, allspice, violet and especially a wave of deep berries, particularly black raspberry. This
is a dry wine, with firm acidic tang and concomitant fruit extraction. The well balanced fine
grained tannins are an especially enjoyable feature. The palate brings successive waves of
stimulation: garrigue, black plum, prune, black raspberry, raspberry, dried cherry, bitter
chocolate, clove and vanilla. Of all these themes a good tangy ripe red plum is foremost. The
wine sees little new oak, and you can tell: you sense well-used and well-integrated wood,
which is in keeping with the wine's essential balance in all categories. The long finish has a
touch of the chocolate's bitterness, but eventually resolves to nicely-concentrated ripe berry
and plum. Both acidity and tannin speak at the end as they lead at the beginning.
The year 2003 was a hot one to be sure, and Scala Dei has done nicely in bringing this one
through from vine to wine in good balance, keeping the alcohol to 14.5%. Perhaps part of this
success can be attributed to the blend: just enough Cabernet to give fullness, structure and
tannic punch while yet favoring the brilliant fruit of the Garnacha and profiting from the spice
and the rounding tannins of the Syrah.
I like it, and I like its price.
Wine Pages Home
Priorat: once obscure, now on everyone's lips.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman
Scala Dei and the Sierra de Monsant.
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