Our Visit to Clos de L’Obac in Priorat
|Very old vines in Gratallops|
Priorat is one of those wine regions that seems to struggle a little bit in reputation. Those who really know their wine are familiar with it and typically rank it among one of the best wine regions in the world. Many casual wine drinkers, though, have never heard of this little gem nestled in the mountains of northeastern Spain about 2 hours from Barcelona.
The winemaking tradition in Priorat is long and storied. Carthusian monks started making wine at the Scala Dei monastery in the 12th century, and the region continued making wine for centuries until it was devastated by phylloxera in the late 19th century. Phylloxera didn’t just destroy the wine industry here, it essentially wiped out entire wine producing towns. The pre-phylloxera population of Priorat was about 25,000 people. In 1979, when the area saw what would prove to be the beginning of its resurgence, there were only 1200 people left in the area. There were deserted homes and properties everywhere, but there were also a lot of available vineyards that had old vine Garnacha dating back to just after the phylloxera infestation. At this time there were some young and eager winemakers who believed that the land in Priorat was something special, and they set out to prove that great wines could be made in Priorat, especially near the village of Gratallops. This group included well known names in the wine world like Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier as well as a young gentlemen named Carles Pastrana, who started the Costers del Siurana winery, which is better known by the name of its flagship red, Clos de L’Obac. Early on, they shared winery facilities and worked together to restore the former glory of the region, and 33 years later I think its safe to say that they succeeded.
|The beautiful Priorat landscape|
Our visit to Priorat really began with the scenic drive in to the area. The land itself is stunning with hills, steep cliffs, and valleys everywhere that are all lined with mostly terraced vineyards. The Montsant mountain range in the distance provides a perfect backdrop for this spectacular visual experience. The soil in Priorat is so rocky that the average backyard gardener wouldn’t believe that anything can grow in it. The local Catalans call is llicorella, and it is a mixture of different colored slate and shale with some mica mixed in and very little actual soil. The rocky nature of the soil is part of what makes the terroir here so special. Vines are forced to work extremely hard to get nutrients and water. In many spots the roots go down well over 50 feet into the rocks, which helps to insure that the vines don’t get overwatered in the rain or under watered in the dry summers.
|The entrance to the winery|
Upon arriving to the winery, we were immediately greeted by Carles Pastrana himself who would be our guide and host for the next 2.5 hours. Carles is one of those charming, magnetic personalities who makes you feel like a long time friend in a matter of minutes. He took us through his whole operation, which is producing about 30,000 bottles annually from his estate vineyards. He explained how everything works in his winery, and he shared with us some of his winemaking philosophy. In an age when so many wineries try to produce a consistent house style from year to year, Carles believes that wine should be vintage specific and that each year’s wine should express what happened in the vineyard in that particular season. Carles referred to this as allowing each vintage to express what the “hand of God” brought that year. He also relayed a great story about a conversation he had with Robert Mondavi on this topic. Mondavi told Carles that he strives to make Opus One taste the same every year, to which Carles replied, “Then why do you put a vintage on the label?” I would have loved to see Mondavi’s face upon hearing that question. Carles and his winemaking team is also passionate about their barrel program. They use only French oak since they feel American oak imparts too much sweet flavor, and Carles passionately believes that “wine should taste like wine and not wood.”
The winery itself is small and charming, and Carles displays some fantastic photography of vineyards, barrels, roots, fermentation tanks, and just about everything related to the winery. After our tour it was finally time to get to tasting the wines. The tasting room was absolutely first class. Our wines were all poured in great stemware and covered with these really neat glass lids. The glasses were on a personalized paper placemat with each wine label printed just below the glass.
|The tasting table with the custom|
glass tile ceiling above.
Our first wine was the 2008 Kyrie, which is 35% Garnacha Blanca, 30% Macabeo, 30% Xarello, and 5% Muscat. It had a honeyed, floral nose with notes of white stone fruit and apple. The body was medium-full and it had very nice acidity that led to an unusually outstanding finish for a white. Carlos said his team set out to make a white that can age for 10 to 20 years, and I think its fair to say that his mission has been accomplished. The 2008 Kyrie would pair perfectly with shellfish and would also work well with other seafood and many cheeses.
The second wine was the 2004 Miserere, which Carles described as the feminine counterpart to his masculine Clos de L’Obac. The wine was deep purple in color and had intense blackberry fruit dominating the bouquet with a floral element in the background. The wine is a blend of 27% Garnacha, 27% Tempranillo, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the remainder evenly split between Merlot and Carinena. On the palate I got great fruit with layers of smoke and spice from the Tempranillo that added a deeper level of complexity to the wine.
Our third wine was the flagship 2004 Clos de L’Obac, which was absolutely fantastic. The blend is 35% Garnacha, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 10% Merlot, and 10% Carinena, as it is in every year its been made. This consistent blend from year to year is part of Carles philosophy that vintage should be unique and express the ‘hand of God.” In your glass, the wine is deep purple in color. The nose has fantastic blackberry and black raspberry fruit with a hint of cherry as well, but it is the fresh minerality that really completes the bouquet. You can almost smell the llicorella in your glass. The wine is very well balanced with beautifully integrated tannins and a very nice, long finish. This is truly a world class bottling. Carles also gave us a taste of the 2002 Clos de L’Obac which was similar but much more delicate and nuanced that the more powerful 2004 vintage. It was a very obvious example of what different vintages can bring to the same vineyards.
|Our personalized tasting placemats|
The last wine we tasted was the 2006 Dolc de L’Obac, which was the rare fine red wine that is sweet. The wine leaned more towards red as opposed to black fruit than the dry reds we tasted, and it also had a sweet caramel flavor to it that thankfully wasn’t the overly burnt caramel that results from over-toasting of barrels. Its also interesting to note that the sweetness did not come with the thick, syrupy quality that so many sweet wines have. Carles told us that making this wine was a real challenge for his team. He was very concerned about how to stop fermentation. He didn’t want to use high amounts of sulfites nor did he want to go the route of fortification as he feels that the high alcohol completely changes the flavor of the wine. In the end he decided to quickly freeze the wine to kill the remaining yeast and stop fermentation with 50-60 grams/liter of residual sugar. I am generally not very big fans of sweet/dessert reds, but I may have finally found my match here. This was very tasty and unique.
|Carles Pastrana with Lynne and me|
tightly clutching my cool new briefcase.
After we finished tasting and hearing Carles plentiful and colorful stories, we got up from the tasting table to buy some wine. Before I bought anything, though, I asked Carles about a wooden Clos de L’Obac briefcase he had on display in the tasting room. He told me that is was a prototype that he designed for Porsche who is going to order a few hundred of these cool looking briefcases that hold 5 bottles of wine in the padded inner compartment. When I asked Carles how much he would want for the prototype, he simply said “if you like it, its yours - take it.” I thought that my perfect day couldn’t get any better after this, but Carles proved me wrong. Upon learning that a couple in our party was celebrating their 5th anniversary, he disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a bottle of 1990 Clos de L’Obac that he gave to us and insisted that we open and enjoy at Cellar de Gratallops, where we were going for lunch. This 22 year old Priorat was simply stunning and a perfect end to the single best winery experience of my life.