Priorat (Priorato in Castilian) is a small, favored area within the greater Tarragona region that benefits from a hot, very dry, sheltered, and hilly microclimate; distinctive mineral-rich brown slate soil (llicorella); and a good stock of very old Cariñena and Garnacha vines, with the steepest and best sites concentrated around the town of Gratallops. A group of five Priorat wine makers led by René Barbier essentially reinvented this area, beginning with their releases from the 1989 vintage. Priorat wines have been on fire ever since, with a reputation for superconcentrated, high-octane Priorat wines from traditional varieties supplemented by mostly new plantings of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Spain has more acres under vine than any other country and ranks third in production behind Italy and France. Much of this output continues to be hot-country jug wine made to satisfy the everyday thirsts of the domestic and greater European markets. But many inexpensive Spanish wines that once were rustic, tired, or dried out have been replaced by bottlings that are lush, round, ripe, and cleanly made. Regions that previously made blended Spanish wines that were virtually too strong to be bottled on their own, such as Tarragona, Valencia, Yecla, Jumilla, and Toro are now firmly in the table wine business, even if these wines of Spain can be alarmingly high in alcohol.
At the high end are exciting new bottlings from the historically important Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions in north-central Spain and from the wild, hilly Priorat in Cataluña, in the northeast corner of the country. A new generation of Spanish wine makers has begun crafting wines in a distinctly modern international style: deeply colored, very ripe, and high in alcohol, generally aged in a high percentage of new French oak, and often quite pricey. The majority of these wines are based on Tempranillo, Spain's most distinguished red variety. While the ultimate quality and longevity of these Spanish wines are yet to be proven, these new bottlings have unquestionably captured the attention of wine drinkers both inside and outside Spain.
Although much of Spain bakes in the sun for at least half the year, the country actually covers a vast range of climates-from the cooler and much wetter Atlantic-influenced northwest, to the arid, blazing Mediterranean south and southeast-so vintage generalizations are tricky with Spanish wines. Moreover, the majority of Spain's better vineyards lie at relatively high altitude, where summer nights are cool even when afternoons are stifling. " e wines and is perfect with any chocolate dessert.
Soft, palate-caressing wines, with notes of red cherry and nutmeg
Grilled meats, stews, hearty fare
The Carignan grape suffers from the curse of high yields. Until recently the most widely planted red-wine grape in France, Carignan comes from vines that can produce as much as 11 tons of fruit per acre. These high yields mean that there's plenty of wine to go around; often more than the market can handle. This lack of interest is exacerbated by the tendency of high-yielding vines to grow poorly concentrated fruit, especially in the absence of devoted efforts at pruning in the vineyard.
Certainly, there is fine justification for the efforts, sponsored by the European Union, to pull Carignan vines from vineyards in France in the last decade. The surplus of wine was undeniable. Much of this wine had little to recommend it. But when produced from very old vines that are carefully tended, Carignan can help craft characterful and concentrated wines. The best examples of this grape come from the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation in southern France. Even here, Carignan is rarely used to make single varietal wines, as AOC regulations require that it be blended with other grapes. Consequently, it is generally mixed with Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Other appellations in southern France, including Costieres de Nîmes, Corbieres and Minervois, also produce interesting, and reasonably priced blends incorporating the Carignan grape.
For single-varietal expressions of Carignan, look to Sardinia. Here, the grape yields palate-caressing wines with aromas and flavors of red cherry and nutmeg. Again, the success of the grape is highly dependent on the wine-maker, but with the proper care, these wines can be quite interesting. Look to wines from Santadi, arguably the best cooperative on the island.
Some California producers have also begun making single-varietal bottlings of Carignan from old vines. Look to Ridge Vineyards and Bonny Doon for reliable examples.