Scala Dei Prior Priorat 2003
wine pixies

Scala Dei Prior Priorat 2003

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.

Verdict: I like it, and I like its price.

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Priorat: once obscure, now on everyone's lips.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Scala Dei Winery

Scala Dei and the Sierra de Monsant.

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