Going to Priorat DOQ, Spain? Trust me, you need ‘Vinologue Priorat.’

Vinologue Priorat
By Miquel Hudin and Èlia Varela Serra
Leavenworth Press, c 2014Vinologue

When I plan a trip to a wine region, I look for the unusual, the unique, the outlier – whether they be grapes, terroir, winemakers or the regions themselves.  I search out wine experiences the average drinker doesn’t think of, or know to look for.  I pay close attention to details, and I notice when others do too.  I aim to maximize my time and, of course, good food and great people are always a necessity.

Bearing these goals in mind, when planning a trip in January 2015 to Spain’s other top wine region, Priorat DOQ, I got down to business about 3 months ahead of time.

‘Why Priorat,’ you ask?  Or perhaps you ask ‘What is Priorat?’  One of only two top level DOs (Denominación de Origen) in Spain – the other being Rioja DOCa, which virtually all wine drinkers have heard of – Priorat DOQ has been producing wines since the 12th century.  The Q is Catalan for Qualificada instead of Rioja’s DOCa, Calificada.  And just to make it more confusing, it’s called Priorat DOCa in Castilian.

But even before the Carthusian monks were busy pressing and fermenting grapes, the Romans were active there.  Winemaking in Priorat has a looong history.  These wines experienced a rebirth of sorts in the 1980s after Scala Dei’s Cartoixa 1974 attracted several enterprising winemakers to the region.  With extra attention paid to the unique llicorella terroir and modern vinification and ageing practices, the wines soon became world famous.

I learned about llicorella and Priorat when studying for a wine exam and decided to visit after attending my graduation ceremony in London. I started by tracking down wineries mostly via the internet, but on occasion I struck out; not all are the hot-tweeting-instagramming-facebooking social media messes we’d like to think they are.  And let’s be honest, it’s the invisible ones you often really want to track down and visit.

So, Priorat fits the criteria – the unusual, the unique, the underdog.  Wanting to maximize celler visits during our whirlwind three days,we figured after driving was factored in, we could probably manage seven.  But when finding contact points became more difficult, my husband googled ‘Priorat wineries guidebooks’ and up popped Vinologue Priorat by Miquel Hudin and Èlia Varela Serra.  When we realized we could order via Amazon.com and get a copy in a week, the deal was done.

A Catalan-speaking, transplanted American living near Barcelona who has written a few of these helpful books on hard-to-research wine regions (including close by DO Montsant), Miquel is a respected wine writer who definitely knows his stuff.  I tracked him down before and after our return and asked him some questions.

How did Vinologue get started?
Being originally from the West Coast of the US and after several trips to Europe, I was constantly frustrated at the lack of wine coverage in travel guides.  There was generally a page or two at most, even in destinations with decently notable wine regions.  I saw a niche need for wine lovers such as myself and set out to create the first books in 2007 which were for Dalmatia, Croatia and Bosnia–two regions with surprisingly good wines that are oft overlooked.

What took you to Priorat and made you decide to write about those wines in the first place?
Like many, I’d tasted the wines of Priorat while still living in the US and found them to be too over-the-top and I had little interest to taste more.  These were the late 1990s and early 2000s vintages.  I was invited to visit the region in 2012 just after publishing the book for Empordà (more popularly known as Costa Brava) and was very impressed by what I saw.  Many people visit Priorat but find it hard to contact cellars or find their way around to what’s open.  There was definitely a need for a full, proper book for this remarkable region.

How much time does it take you to prepare those detailed tasting notes on each wine for each celler?
The raw time of tasting took us about two weeks in total for the latest edition of Vinologue Priorat with nearly 400 wines.  We could, in theory, do it in four tastings as is often done when critics taste an entire region, but it doesn’t do the wines justice and we try to taste as slowly as we can.

How are you able to maintain your objectivity between cellers and wines?Everything is tasted blind which goes a very long way to eliminating any partiality and has let to some surprising results, such as a 12€ wine from the cooperative in Gratallops being rating as one of the top wines in the region.

I was happily surprised by the white wines we tasted there.  What style changes have you seen occurring with the wines and the winemakers in Priorat DOQ?
Much fresher and lighter wines, but still very much Priorat.  While at 15% alcohol for many of them, they’re much lighter on the palate these days.  The oak profiles have been massively reduced which is allowing more of the actual wine and in turn, the region, to come through.  Since the first edition of the guide there have even been some cellars that have eliminated oak altogether from their wines.  Also, the generally under-appreciated whites continue to be an evolution and are in an excellent state currently.

What was your biggest surprise when compiling the book?
The typical model in Spain (and other regions to varying extents) is for someone to create a guide that the cellars have to pay to be included in.  As we strive to create objective, independent guides, the cellars don’t pay a cent for inclusion in the Vinologue books and this was a tremendous surprise.  Some were even concerned if they didn’t pay that it would adversely affect their scores–another unfortunate practice in Spain.  Now that they’re aware of how we function and that we strive to be as neutral and open minded as possible to the wines, everyone was much, much happier to hear from us.

Your section on suggested drives and sightseeing stops is excellent.  What other value-added opportunities to you offer to interested wine tourists and which do you recommend as being most important?
Priorat is quite small and so everything worth seeing in the DOQ is included in there.  Naturally I very much recommend the Vinologue Montsant book as well given that they truly cover the full scope of wines coming from the region.  But beyond the Priorat comarca, I highly recommend that people take a trip to Miravet to see the castle and ceramics and, if up for more driving, the wines of Terra Alta or the very south of Baix Penedès are worth tasting as well.

What changes can we look forward to in the second version?
More!  There are 10 new producer profiles for 114 in total, 60 new wines, and in total, 48 pages more material that cover new restaurants and hotels that have opened.  When we started the research for the first edition in 2012, a lot of changes were still happening due to the financial collapse of 2008.  In the last three years these have leveled out and the second edition was really needed to have everything up-to-date.

I’m already planning my next wine vacation.  What other wine regions do you have plans to conquer?
I never truly know.  We’re always interested to hear suggestions.  Possibly one in the south of France and we have an author who’s been working on Istria, Croatia.

This guide made our Priorat wine touring more informed, better prepared and easier to navigate.  As we don’t speak Catalan or Spanish, the explanations provided substantially helped our greater knowledge and contributed to an outstanding vacation in this off-the-beaten-path wine region.  It enabled us to hit the ground running, visit a blend of famous as well as relative newcomer cellers and alerted us to points of interest and restaurants we wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

‘Outstanding’ and highly recommended.

About winellama

I love wine...and finally decided to do something about it.
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