Stunning wines, rich and opulent, emerge from Priorato

High in the Serra de Montsant mountains 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, an intrepid group of winemakers has banded together to take an ancient, fallen wine area and restore it to past glories.

It's called Priorato.

It's an old story: an area widely respected in the 1800s, devastated by the phylloxera plant louse plague of the early 1900s, unable to recover for nearly a century. Enter then the colorful winemaker René Barbier, known as "The Hippie" for his iconoclastic ways, who persuades a handful of colleagues to cast their fortunes in the Medieval villages of the harsh mountains.

They bring the usual -- computerized equipment, state-of-the-art wine knowledge, ambitious new ideas -- and apply it to the mineral-filled, hard-rock soil, digging terraced vineyards into slopes too steep for tractors.

The wines come from new wineries such as Clos Mogador, under Barbier, and Costers del Siurana, under Carles Pastrana, and old but modernized wineries such as Cellars Scala Dei, which translates as "God's Staircase" for a 12th century shepherd who had a vision of angels ascending by ladder into heaven.

Out of respect for history, they plant the ancient, native grapes, garnacha and cariñena. Intent on making international-style wines that will attract buyers worldwide, they add the noble varieties as well -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, tempranillo.

Today, as their wines begin to arrive in semi-reasonable quantities in world markets, wine aficionados are literally stunned by their power and opulence -- with aromas of red raspberries and licorice, opulent flavors frequently compared to warm blueberry pie.

"We're trying to make wines that are different enough to catch a certain market," says Pastrana.

"Connoisseurs are always looking for small, private wines that are not multinational in style."

These aren't supermarket wines; their prices will limit them to true wine lovers.

"They will never be cheap," Pastrana says. "They're too hard to make."


These wines were tasted at the wineries; some may be available here only in earlier vintages. Prices are approximate.

Highly Recommended:

* 2000 Clos Mogador, Priorato, Spain (garnacha, cabernet sauvignon): intense aromas of violets and licorice, opulent, huge body, rich flavors of warm, spicy blueberry pie, big ripe tannins, endless fruity finish; $30-$40.

* 2000 Clos de l'Obac, Cellars Costers del Siurana, Priorato, Spain: (garnacha, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, cariñena): aromas of anise and roses, spicy, zingy and youthful, with rich blackberry flavors and a bitter almond finish; $38-$45.

* 2000 Miserere, Cellars Costers del Siurana, Priorato, Spain: (garnacha, cariñena, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, merlot): sweet violet aromas, medium body, very dry, flavors of dusty cinnamon and black raspberries, long, fruity finish; $18.

* 2000 Dolc de l'Obac, Cellars Costers del Siurana, Priorato, Spain (cabernet sauvignon, syrah): red raspberry liqueur aromas and flavors, slightly sweet, very fresh, very full body; $75 per 500 milliliter bottle.

* 2000 Vall Llach, Priorato, Spain (cariñena, merlot): rich sandalwood and mineral aromas, powerful black raspberry flavors, rich and opulent; $30.


* Onix, Vinicola del Priorat (Cooperative), Priorato: fruity red raspberry aromas and flavors, light body, fairly tannic; $9.

* 2000 Cartoixa, Cellars de Scala Dei, Priorato, Spain, (garnacha, cabernet sauvignon, syrah): minty aroma, intense red raspberry flavors, lively, medium body, fruity finish; $20-$30.

* 2000 Embruix, Cellars Vall Llach, Priorato, Spain (garnacha, merlot, syrah): fragrant sandalwood and cedar aroma, lively red raspberry flavors, spicy, even zingy; $25-$28.