Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from. The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer. I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat.
Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since. But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map. It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast.
But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction. They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties. Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.
Take Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99). At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds. As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced. The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon. But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.