LAUREL PRIORAT SHINES AGAIN

Sometimes it is interesting to go back to the beginning.  In 1988 Daphne Glorian, at the time employed by an English Master of Wine in his Paris office, decided to spend her life’s savings on 17 terraces of hillside vines just outside the village of Gratallops.  Newly minted friends René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios encouraged her and together with Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, they pooled their talents and resources to make a new style of wine in a region rich in history but that had only really produced sturdy wine for the local markets.  In 1989 the modern Priorat was born.

Fast forward to today, and Clos Erasmus is considered one of the elite producers of the Priorat.   Their body of work is impressive and includes 98 (twice), 99 (three times) and 100 (twice) point efforts as reviewed by Robert Parker. The problem with Clos Erasmus through the years has definitely not been quality, but quantity.  There has been precious little to go around. Old vine Grenache, Carignane and a little Cabernet fruit make magic in Priorat in the right hands, and Daphne, along with her current super-star winemaker, the diminutive, dreadlocked Ester Nin are at the top of their game. 

These rustic hillsides produce wines of great power and character, yet in Ester’s hands also retain a surprising elegance.  Bordeaux had something like a three century head start on these folks and one has to appreciate how far Priorat has come in a mere three decades.  Like Bordeaux, particularly things like Chateau Margaux’s Pavillion Rouge or Lafite’s Carruades, Laurel is a ‘second’ wine comprised of the younger vines on the property, plus some declassified Clos Erasmus.  It is also another poster child for our mantra of buying little wines from the very best producers because they have better fruit, more talent, greater commitment and higher standards.  As with the first growth sourced examples we cited earlier, It is a ‘second’ wine only relative to its exalted sibling. 

Bottled unfiltered and unfined, the wine has a little bit of a wild side which gives it an exotic element, but it is absolutely packed with character and screams of its class and breeding.  We have followed Erasmus since the 90s and have tasted most of the offerings of Laurel along the way.  It seems like they are working at a higher level these days, which is saying a lot. The 2016 Clos I Terrases Priorat Laurel is once again a sensational effort and arguably worthy of ‘best yet’ considerations.  Laurel has always been impressive but it seems Ester is refining her touch. The vintage didn’t hurt either.

The Laurel 2016 shows fruit flavors of currant and black cherry, plus notes of coffee, cocoa and that insistent minerality from the llicorella (yic-o-raya) black slate soils makes Priorat a very special place for grapes.  It is aromatic, inviting, layered and remarkably engaging.  It delivers plenty even if you aren’t feeling cerebral and just want to relate to it on a purely hedonistic level.   If you need some numbers, this second wine received 93 points or better in every vintage since 2004 save one (2010, curiously enough the only vintage reviewed by Neal Martin during a very short stint as Advocate’s Spanish reviewer).   All the numbers aren’t in yet, but Jeb Dunnuck opened the topic with a 95 point review.

Dunnuck’s narrative makes the point, “The 2016 Laurel is sensational stuff and, in truth, matches several older vintages of the grand vin (Clos Erasmus) in quality. A blend of 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 16 months in a mix of oak, concrete, and amphora, this deep purple-colored beauty offers up a fresh, vibrant bouquet of blueberries, crisp plums, violets, and spring flowers. Possessing full-bodied richness, beautiful depth of fruit and richness, and a fresh, elegant style, it’s a brilliant wine that’s going to evolve gracefully for 10-15 years.”

Is there such a thing as a ‘blue chip’ second wine?  We think so. 

A ‘POTENTE’ DEAL FROM PRIORAT’S NEIGHBOR

One of our greatest beefs about most of the ‘value’ wines out on the marketplace these days, besides the obvious inconsistencies and marginal quality, is the absence of ‘soul’. By the time all of the blending of appellations, wood staving, dilution because of high production in the vineyards, and using additives and/or residual sugar to cover that up is done, what you have can be legally called wine. But it is usually an amorphous glob of fruit with little personality or grace.

If you have wondered why we often go far off the beaten path to find exciting wines to drink, it is because such places are typically unfettered by the influences of ‘control groups’ and ‘market surveys’. They make what the land gives them and, if they have the skills, offer up some of the more compelling and character-filled beverages out there. Apparently, Eva Lopez is of the same mind. She founded a company called Cuvee that is working in Spain to find “… vines, trustworthy wineries and wines that respect terroir, fruit, traditional winemaking and of course exceptional value.” While that slogan sounds like a lot of things you might hear out in the marketplace, the results we have seen are clearly are out of the ordinary.

For this surprisingly pure, authoritative mouthful, she hooked up with a locally owned, accomplished cooperative located south of Priorat called Celler de Capcanes. We have sold wines from Capçanes before, perhaps the most recognizable being Mas Donis (from nearby Tarragona) and Costers de Gravet (from Monsant). They know their business in an area that has been producing wines since the Middle Ages but whose most recognizable appellation, Priorat, was only designated in 1989.

Montsant’s official history is even shorter having achieved its designation only in 2001. Priorat is best known for powerful wines grown in rugged, high altitude, naturally low-yielding vineyards covered with a black shale called llicorella (yi-kor-ra ya). Montsant, carved from the broader Tarragona appellation, shares many of those characteristics…the naturally low yields, higher altitude (even a little higher than Priorat), and that unique llicorella terroir. In general, they differ from Priorat by not being as unyielding in their youth and considerably less expensive, both extreme positives.

The Cellar Capçanes Montsant Potente 2016 (potente literally means powerful/potent in Spanish) comes from a unique spot of vines up to 50 years old in Capçanes’ highest vineyards. The blend is of classic regional varietals Garnacha and Carignan (called Samso around these parts), along with Cabernet and Merlot. The grapes are hand harvested, destemmed, and macerated in cement tanks then aged nine months in oak (from new to 5-yr-old barrels).

The resulting wine is quite ‘potente’, particularly for the price. To say that even this jaded Spanish wine-pioneering crowd was blown away would be an understatement. This is not just another face in the crowd. Pure, expressive notes of wild red and black berries that taste like fruit not candy, competing notes of spice and savory, and an underpinning described as ‘crushed rock’ which alludes to the influence of that local slate all buttress this uplifting juice with plenty of stuffing and an abundance of soul.

We are not alone in our enthusiasm for this character-filled beverage. Josh Raynolds of Vinous Media writes, “Bright violet color. Spice-accented red/blue fruits on the nose, along with a suave floral overtone. Lively and incisive on the palate, offering mineral-inflected boysenberry and raspberry flavors that show a Pinot-like light touch. Silky tannins add subtle grip to the finish, which leaves a zesty red berry note behind…90 points.”

From James Suckling, “Very attractive nose of black cherries, sage and chocolate. Ripe and generous with nice, warm tannins that fill out the full body very nicely. Long and very harmonious finish. Drink or hold…93 points”

Given that this wine comes in through the most aggressive importer we work with, and a finger or two in the markup pie are skipped, means we can offer this tasty, versatile Montsant for a song at $9.98. Montsant is still kind of under the radar, though we have been fans of the region for a long time. You will likely never have a better opportunity to find out why.

THE BEST LAUREL EVER?

Sometimes it is interesting to go back to the beginning.  In 1988 Daphne Glorian, at the time employed by an English Master of Wine in his Paris office, decided to spend her life’s savings on 17 terraces of hillside vines just outside the village of Gratallops.  Newly minted friends René Barbier and Alvaro Palacios encouraged her and together with Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, they pooled their talents and resources to make a new style of wine in a region rich in history but that had only really produced sturdy wine for the local markets.  In 1989 the modern Priorat was born.

Fast forward to today, and Clos Erasmus is considered one of the elite producers of the Priorat.   Their body of work is impressive and includes 98 (twice), 99 (three times) and 100 (twice) point efforts as reviewed by Robert Parker. The problem with Clos Erasmus through the years has definitely not been quality, but quantity.  There has been precious little to go around. Old vine Grenache, Carignane and a little Cabernet fruit make magic in Priorat in the right hands, and Daphne, along with her current super-star winemaker, the diminutive, dreadlocked Ester Nin are at the top of their game.

These rustic hillsides produce wines of great power and character, yet in Ester’s hands also retain a surprising elegance.  Bordeaux had something like a three century head start and one has to appreciate how far Priorat has come in a mere three decades.  Like Bordeaux, one of the best values in exceptional wine comes from the second wine of Clos Erasmus called Laurel. From the younger vines on the property, plus some declassified Clos Erasmus, this is the Catalan equivalent of Chateau Margaux’s Pavillion Rouge or Lafite’s Carruades. It is also another poster child for our mantra of buying little wines from the very best producers.  Typically Laurel is a pretty sensational drink, but Ester and the gang have outdone themselves this year.

Flavors of currant, black cherry, coffee, cocoa and an insistent minerality from the llicorella (yic-o-raya) black slate soils makes Priorat a very special place for grapes.  The 2015 Clos I Terrases Priorat Laurel screams of its class and breeding. In fact this version is the best we have tasted.  It is aromatic, inviting, layered and remarkably engaging.  It delivers plenty even if you aren’t feeling cerebral and just want to relate to it on a purely hedonistic (sensual) level.   If you need some numbers, this second wine has received 93 points or better in every vintage since 2004 save one (2010, curiously enough the only vintage reviewed by Neal Martin during a very short stint as Advocate’s Spanish reviewer).   The wine in question, this lovely 2015 Laurel, registers at 95 points with Advocate.

Clos Erasmus and Laurel are not vineyard designations, but they do begin to take shape in the vineyard. Meticulous farming and observation take place throughout the year so by the time fruit starts to reach the cellar in autumn, most of the blends have already been mapped out by Daphne. When the primary fermentations are winding down these decisions begin to coalesce and wines intended for Laurel are racked into a combination of 20hl wooden tanks, second- and third-fill 228L French oak barrels and clay amphorae. It rests for 16-18 months before final blending and bottling.

At this point we’ll defer to Luis Gutierrez, whose review supplies most of the relevant technical information as well as well as a rousing endorsement, “The 2015 Laurel is the second wine here, and it has evolved with time. It’s a transparent and bright blend of Garnacha with 20% Syrah and some 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from vines between 11 and 22 years of age. The blend is different each year, as the vines are becoming older and wiser. It shows extremely aromatic and expressive, open and elegant. It really does not show any heat; on the contrary, it feels quite fresh. It’s not a muscular wine—it’s very elegant. Part of the wine matured in amphora, and there’s no more pigéage (since 2012), only very soft pump overs just to keep the cap wet. The extraction is a lot lower than in earlier years. This is nothing short of spectacular. ..”

Jeb Dunnuck provided an early revieew on this one as well, “ … it boasts a deep purple color as well as perfumed notes of resinous herbs, blackberries, liquid violets and pepper. It’s rich, concentrated, and voluptuous, yet pure and elegant on the palate. It’s undoubtedly the finest vintage of this cuvée I’ve tasted …95 points…”.  Amen to that.  This is a release we have looked forward to every year since we first ran across the 2005 some years ago (we’ve been following Erasmus since the late 90s), and this one is special.  Do not miss it!