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Prioritizing Priorat and its villages

Val Llach' unveils its Vi de Vila
Val Llach' unveils its Vi de Vila
Tracy Ellen Kamens

When everything is at stake. Well, nothing was actually at stake, but steak was certainly on the menu when we chose to open several wines from Val Llach of Spain’s Priorat region. Founded in 1992 as a joint project between Lluis Llach (a well regarded Catalan singer) and Enric Costa, Val Llach is situated in one of Priorat’s oldest towns, within the village of Porrera. Enric’s son, Albert Costa, now serves as winemaker.

Winemaking in the Priorat region dates to the 12th century when monks emigrated from France and built a Cartusian monastery here, bringing their viticultural and vinification knowledge with them. As monks, they gave the name Priorat to the area in which they settled, which literally translates as land under control of the Prior.

Today, there are more than 5,000 acres of vines planted in Priorat, but before phylloxera (which arrived in 1890), there were fourfold as many vines. After the epidemic, the majority of people moved to Barcelona and elsewhere to make a living in something other than viticulture.

The few who survived on grape growing did so with the production of bulk wine. But, during the 1980s, the area saw its first recognition of quality wines from Priorat, eventually earning Spain’s highest quality designation – DOCa.

Despite Priorat’s international acclaim, the region is still quite isolated and desolate. Moreover, it is not for the faint of heart. Most producers are relatively small, producing an average of 30,000 to 100,000 bottles annually. They must contend with extreme conditions: very cold winters coupled with fog and very hot summers with temperatures up to 40oC. But, the rewards are worth it – intense, ageworthy wine based primarily on Garnacha and supplemented by Cariñena.

While the Priorat DO was established in 1954 and elevated to DOCa status in 2000, it wasn’t until 2009 that a more granular classification was created – that of Vi de Vila, or “village wines.” Those wines bearing this designation must be produced from grapes grown entirely within one of 12 newly defined sub-appellations within Priorat and must also meet additional quality measures in both the vineyard and winery.

Val Llach recently added a Vi de Vila wine to its portfolio, which also includes Embruix, and Idus among the wines it produces. Produced from younger (15-20 year old) vines, the Embruix sports a symbol of the full moon on its label, underscoring the wine’s moniker, which translates as bewitching as well as the winery’s interest in biodynamics. The blend of Carinena, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah was hand harvested and spent 14 months aging in a combination of second and third year French oak. The Embruix 2011 (SRP $25.00) is well balanced with vibrant fruit, beautiful acidity and notes of plum, black cherry, vanilla and spice. Named for the Ides of March, the Idus 2009 (SRP $50.00) shares a similar grape composition, but in different proportions and spends a little more time (16 months) in newer (first and second year) French oak.

Val Llach’s Porrera Vi de Vila 2010 (SRP $65.00) is the first vintage of this wine and is produced from old vine (with an average age of 80+ years) Carinena and Garnacha sourced from four different vineyard blocks within Porrera. Dating back to 1204, this tiny village is home to 450 residents as well as rocky hillsides where these grapes are grown. The wine is quite complex with pronounced aromas of black cherry, meat, oak, vanilla and spice, which are joined by plum, wood and wet leaves on the full-bodied palate. With its high acidity and firm tannins, this is a powerful and ageworthy wine, needing time to develop more fully, but it definitely went well with our steak.