Click photo to enlarge
In Alvaro Palacios' steep Priorat vineyards, mules are used to work the soil. Photo courtesy of Steve Jankowski

Photographs don't do justice to the rugged, staggering beauty of the Priorat region of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. The landscape is so steep and rocky that it's a wonder that wine can be made there at all, much less world-class wine.

Winemaking in Priorat goes back to the 12th century, when Carthusian monks established vineyards there. But many of the vineyards were abandoned during the time of Francisco Franco and the Spanish Civil War; vintner Alvaro Palacios says there were more than 40,000 acres of vineyards in 1900, but fewer than 2,000 by 1989. That's about the time a group of five Spanish vintners, led by Rene Barbier and including Palacios, rediscovered the area. The traditional grapes of Priorat were garnatxa (Catalan for grenache) and carinena (carignane), and the newly arrived vintners also planted varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah.

"My father was one of the first guys and he made a lot of mistakes," says Barbier's son, also named Rene.

The vines for Barbier's winery, Clos Mogador, were trellised, and the spacing was too wide at first. Now, spacing is tighter, and the vines are head-pruned -- a technique that allows the vines to grow like trees -- without trellises. They still use cabernet sauvignon and syrah, but the younger Barbier says they've really rediscovered carinena.

Some vintners say they're getting away from cab and syrah. Palacios, for one, says he's grafting over a lot of those vines to the traditional varieties. He's particularly enamored of garnatxa. "I believe that grenache is the queen grape of Priorat. It has music," he says. "It has a lot of beauty."

Carinena may not be as beautiful, but "the old vines of carinena are spectacular," he says.

Sara Perez, winemaker at Mas Martinet, says a lot of carinena was planted in the mid-20th century in all the wrong places. But in the right place, carinena can be very expressive of its environment, says Perez, whose father, Jose Luis, was one of the original gang of five.

"When you have a very big terroir," she says, "you have a big carignane."

The key viticultural feature of Priorat is the soil, a black slate called llicorella in Catalan. Vintners think this is what imparts a wonderful minerality to the wines. The steep slopes make mechanization impossible; Palacios, for example, uses mules for cultivation. Yields also are absurdly low, with the result that the wines are powerful, concentrated -- and, in many cases, quite expensive.

The vintners who rediscovered Priorat now produce some of its finest wines. The 2009 Clos Mogador ($100), for example, is dense and powerful, with loads of berry fruit, notes of white pepper, spice, anise, dark chocolate, firm tannins and a very long finish. It's delicious now but built to age.

Palacios has become one of Priorat's best-known vintners. He makes the breathtakingly expensive L'Ermita ($900), but you can also taste his approach in the well-priced 2010 Camins del Priorat ($20), made from mostly younger vines. It's bright and plump, with berry fruit, some oak and a touch of mineral. The 2010 Les Terrasses ($40), made from vines that are at least 60 years old, is fresh, bright and spicy. The harder-to-find 2010 Gratallops ($50) and 2010 Finca Dofi ($65) are more powerful and concentrated, but they still retain some elegance.

At Mas Martinet, Sara Perez has crafted the 2009 Clos Martinet ($70 for the 2008), which is dark and dense, with a slight roasted note, ripe berry fruit, anise and nice minerality. (The 2009 wines will arrive later this fall.)

Melis is a more recent project, a partnership that involves Victor Gallegos, general manager at Sea Smoke Cellars in Lompoc. The 2006 Melis ($63) is ripe, structured and slightly floral, with roasted berry fruit, some mineral and fine tannins. A second wine, called Elix, is a little less expensive.

Ferrer Bobet also is fairly new, founded by owners who liked the wines of France's Cote Rotie appellation in the Rhone River Valley. The 2009 Ferrer Bobet ($50), which will be available later this year, is tight and dense, with concentrated berry and spice, great acidity and firm tannins.

Not all the wines of Priorat are so pricey. One great buy is the 2010 Bodegas La Cartuja ($19), an elegant wine with spicy black fruit and mineral.

Contact Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.