Rioja gets all of the attention. Spain’s leading wine growing region is synonymous with Spanish red wine, and known for its rugged, dry climate that perfectly suits Tempranillo grapes. Rioja is one of two DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) in the entire country, the highest classification for Spanish appellations.
Who could possibly be the other region to be on Rioja’s esteemed premier summit?
It’s not even a region that specializes, or really even grows, Spain’s darling Tempranillo. The signature grape is Grenacha. Think of this region as the exciting, vibrant Rhône compared to Rioja’s classic, grand Bordeaux.
The region in question would be the Priorat. Located in Catalonia, the Priorat is a two hour drive south from Barcelona (a city known more for its cocktails and sangria than being near a major wine epicenter), and roughly 40 miles inland from the Mediterranean Costa Daurada (not to be mistaken with the Costa Brava northeast of Barcelona where El Bulli was located in the town of Rosas).
Being near the sea and a mountainous region without much altitude, it’s not surprising that the wines here pack lots of punch and stay in the middle ground of stature. When dining recently at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, I perused the phone book-sized wine list (now on an iPad in 2012, of course), looking for a middle-of-the-road red to complement chicken and pigeon, along with not being overpowered by an upcoming beef dish. Pinot Noir might be too light. Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon certainly would be too forceful.
Then the sommelier yanked the iPad out of my grasp. He knew what would be perfect. Onto the stage stepped this formidable red blend, exuding captivating energy, like when a singer or an actor is just one step from being noticed by the major show business agents and studios. The Closa Batllet presents a composition of 65% Cariñena and 22% Grenacha, and then is rounded out with Syrah and Merlot. Yes, this does certainly sound like a Rhône blend, Catalan pizazz style.
Everything evokes night time with this wine, from the deep violet hue to the lunar-evoking label. Campfire, twigs, and blackberries hit the nose, bursting with character almost to the point where the wine seems a bit rebellious, in a prudent, thoughtful manner. It’s truly riveting.
A good amount of oak helps define the medium tannin body, aided by aging for 15 months in 75% New French and New American oak barrels. The soulful color certainly speaks to a heavier style wine, but the spices and lighter touch to the body demonstrate how this is a lighter, assertive effort. The Priorat is known for its unique terroir consisting of black slate and quartz soil, leading to the spicy, almost wild characteristics in its grapes.
Closa Batllet is the estate of the Ripoll family, one of the region’s most renowned grape growers, but not one of the best known winemakers. That’s because the family’s vineyards were used by the local wine making cooperative for their coveted grapes until young Marc Ripoll returned to his family’s winery and started making his own wine in 2000, at barely over 20 years old. The Ripoll grapes are grown on steep, terraced hillsides in the village of Gratallops and are all organic and biodynamically grown.
The vine disease phylloxera, that devastated much of the European wine industry in the late 19th century, didn’t spare the Priorat. That’s why the region’s vines, including those of Closa Batllet, are all roughly 90 to 100 year old vines. There is plenty of classical refinement in the Closa Batllet of 2007. Yet there is all sorts of racy, almost sexy energy.
The Priorat might still play second fiddle to Rioja for the Spanish wine headlines. With the emergence of obscure Spanish white varietals like Albariño and Spanish sherry worldwide, the Priorat is now becoming a deserving, well-chronicled region. Closa Batllet is certainly at the forefront of the Priorat’s surge. Put down the iPad and discover this invigorating wine, sure to add persistent warmth on any winter night. Yes, it’s perfect with chicken, pigeon, and even that filet mignon.