Priorat’s new structure

Having seen the need for a quality classification, Priorat winemakers have made it happen. Miquel Hudin reports on the result.

Álvaro Palacios,  a pioneer of Priorat
Álvaro Palacios, a pioneer of Priorat

To talk about the Denominations of Origin (DOs) of Spain is to talk bureaucracy. The DOs were drawn up not out of a grand idea of historical terroirs as seen in France, but based on what wine styles were generally made and grapes planted in a given region. While Rioja and one or two others may stretch a little beyond their autonomous community or county borders, most are bounded by modern administrative demarcations. There is no better example of how inadequate this is than the cohesive Gredos Mountains, with its slopes full of old-vine Grenache that’s split between two DOs and one Vino de la Tierra with no hope of reconciliation, as each appellation resides in separate administrative entities. 

There is, however, one DO that strives to buck the trend: DOQ Priorat in Catalonia. With a soil base comprised of 85% ‘llicorella’ (a Catalan word for this type of quartz-rich slate), it is indeed more uniform and able to present itself as a zone of which there is a defined typicity.

The winemakers of DOQ Priorat, despite having been elevated to the hallowed ‘qualitat’ (or ‘calidad’ in Spanish) classification in 2000 by the Catalan authorities, saw the need for a more layered classification that truly represents the territory, and proceeded to the next logical step of village subzones, or Vi de Vila. This process took years as everyone at INCAVI (the Catalan wine regulating body) or the DOQ offices are keen to emphasise. The reason for this is that it was not an easy task and required many rounds of yearly microvinification to ascertain some semblance of definitive territory between the villages. Nothing like this had been done before in Spain, and it hasn’t been fully replicated since.

The first level

The final result was a compromise. One village was split into two – which is why there are 12 Vi de Vila in a region with 11 official villages – and the borders of the actual villages were reshaped. In some cases, this made a great deal of sense, but in others, it was a back and forth negotiation as the final borders are generally based upon where the grapes head to vinify. So, by way of example, a viticulturist who has been taking his grapes grown in the borders of Village A to vinify in neighbouring Village B was often awarded Village B classification for his grapes where reasonable. Additionally, to be approved for a Vi de Vila, the grapes have to be sourced and vinified in the same village if the vineyard is not owned by the winemaker.

After all the bargaining and negotiating, this certification of Vi de Vila came into effect in 2009. There were, of course, criticisms, the main one being about the age of the vines. For Vi de Vila, producers can use grapes from vines of any age, whether they be five or 105 years old. This has made it difficult for the resulting wines to really show their point of origin, as centenarian grapes will make a very different wine than younger vines, even if produced in the same village and in the same style.

Despite these shortcomings, there are roughly 60 individual references out of a yearly total of about 400 in DOQ Priorat that emerge as Vi de Vila each year. Yet this is a restless DO, and in the years after Vi de Vila came into force, considerable work has been done to create an even greater system of classification, which is close to getting approval.

The second level

Since 2002, there has been a Catalonia-wide certification called Vi de Finca, which is similar to the Vino de Pago introduced in 2003 to the rest of Spain. Vi de Finca is a single vineyard certification, comparable to a French cru; to qualify, a wine of at least 10 vintages must have been made solely from grapes from that vineyard. There are to date two Vins de Finca in DOQ Priorat: Clos Mogador and the Mas de la Rosa of Vall Llach. There are two more in the works to be released in the near future, as well as others from elsewhere in Catalonia.

While these classifications – Regional to Village to Cru – seemed logical to winemakers, they still lacked anything to indicate the very highest levels, especially as Priorat has more in common with Burgundy than with other Spanish areas. Not only is the landscape varied, but it also has many small-land holders and growers that sell to a number of wineries.

Salus Álvarez, a winemaker in the village of Porrera and the current president of DOQ Priorat, explains that at the end of the 19th century, the land in Priorat was held by only a few families. By the time phylloxera arrived in 1893, the Spanish were prepared, having seen the damage it had done in France over the previous 30 years. “It was just a matter of grafting our local vines onto American rootstocks. This is where we’ve started our vineyard classification with our ‘paratges’ that descend from these old, historic landholdings.”

The third level

The Vi de Paratge (pronounced ‘paracha’) will form the next step in the new finite classifications after the Vi de Vila. This is a term that doesn’t translate perfectly to English, but which can best be summed up as a ‘zone’. These are areas that are smaller than a village but larger than even the biggest vineyards, and are historically known in the region and have a unique name. The term is potentially problematic as DO Cava is also releasing a new classification of Cava de Paratge, and they’re explaining it as a single vineyard classification for the sparkling wine region. This is not what a paratge is, so some wine critics are having trouble understanding Cava de Paratge because some of the vineyards are not a single tiny site as the name ‘single vineyard’ suggests, but whole zones.

The key difference is that in DOQ Priorat, the level of paratge is being defined by the DOQ based upon historic documents. DO Cava on the other hand has individual wineries nominate a vineyard (or collection of vineyards) for the qualification, and the winery in question can decide to revoke the paratge at any point they like. For DOQ Priorat, these will be set in stone and immovable as they form the basis for the next level of classification, the Vi de Vinya, or true ‘single vineyard’ wine.

Essentially, Vi de Vinya is very similar to the Catalan-wide Vi de Finca, but one of the key differences is the removal of the stricter limit on production yields and the 10-year approval period. Theoretically, a vineyard could be both, as they’re both a definition and classification of a single vineyard. But where Vi de Finca is the classification of a vineyard of one owner, the Vi de Vinya will, in theory, be the classification of a full vineyard, thus being more like the Burgundian Premier Cru. This in turns makes the classification of a Gran Vi de Vinya even more relevant as then it takes on the trappings of a Grand Cru. Note that a vineyard must pass through all the stages of certifications and can’t simply jump to Gran Vi de Vinya, although it remains to be seen how those with a Vi de Finca will be treated.

It might seem redundant to have both Vi de Finca at a Catalonia level and then Vi de Vinya at a Priorat level, but Álvaro Palacios explains the difference. Palacios is a renowned Priorat pioneer and owner of L’Ermita, a vineyard in the village of Gratallops, that produces the epitome of Priorat Grenache. “The Vi de Finca in Catalunya is coming at the classification from the top,” he says. “With this new system, we’re starting from the bottom, working up in a pyramid of quality based upon the typicity of the region.”

There is still a good deal of work to be done on this new scheme, as one of the key points is both the age of the vineyards and the reduction of yield the further up the ladder one climbs. Given a starting point of 6,000 kilograms per hectare for red wines (resulting in 3.9 hL per ha) for the entire DOQ Priorat, Palacios relates that a Vi de Paratge would drop to 4,000 kilograms per hectare with a minimum vine age of 15 years; Vi de Vinya is the same, but with 20-year-old vines; and then Gran Vi de Vinya at 2,500 kilograms per hectare, a minimum vine age of 35 years, and a blend that’s at least 90% Grenache and/or Carignan.

Gran Vi de Vinya has essentially been created to emphasize that the old sloped vineyards represent the pinnacle of DOQ Priorat wines, given they are the only vineyards that could meet these exacting standards. These totals are not yet official, and although subject to change, they indicate where the classifications are heading.

A long time coming

When the ‘Clos’ group – who are largely credited with revitalising the region – began arriving in 1979, led by René Barbier, there were only some 500 ha of vineyards in existence. Most of those replanted after phylloxera had been sold off in pieces or replanted with hazelnut or almond trees. The Spanish Civil War and then the mass migration of people due to the arrival of beach tourism on the nearby coast didn’t help. While rising grape prices have gone some way to preserving these old vineyards, the classification system is another attempt to regulate and define old vines.

So, in addition to being the first Spanish appellation to create a village structure – soon to be joined by a cru structure – Priorat will also be the first wine region in the world to define ‘old vines’ by establishing a minimum vine age. It’s a unique approach to Spanish winemaking, and it’s why DOQ Priorat remains a top appellation. The only other region at this level, Rioja, is just starting to allow village names to be stated on the label, let alone having a classification for them.

Change has been a long time coming, but now that it’s here, it appears that DOQ Priorat is leading the pack to a brighter and more eloquent definition of Spanish wine.

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