Abbott and Costello, black and white, peanut butter and jelly. These are just three polarized dyads that truly complete each other, and for me, the same is true of two grapes from the Catalan segment of the Iberian peninsula, namely Garnatxa and Carinyena (to use their Catalan-language spellings).
Those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that I’m a bit of a stickler for any given (Old World) region building their contemporary wine cultures on the traditions of their pasts, and for me, this process begins with grape varieties. The precise origins of Garantxa and Cariyena is still fairly hotly debated, but the latest/ best scholarship places their origins in what is now Aragon, but for centuries, Aragon and Catalunya (who are next-door neighbors geographically) were culturally and politically entwined, so these two grapes are for all intents and purposes as Catalan as they are Aragonese.
Unfortunately (as least as far as I’m concerned), over the last 20 or 30 years, Priorat has been too reliant on French/International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier and more than a few others as well. Why? Well, they are fine varieties all, and using good raw materials is extremely important, but beyond that, their name recogniton (read “marketability”) far outstrips the notoriety of Priorat’s local varieties as well as the identity of the Priorat region itself. The problem with this “International” approach is that these varieties, though they will grow just fine in Priorat’s extreme terroir (semi-arid, with long, hot and sunny days, and often very chilly nights, even in the summertime, with lots of friable, slatey soil), these foreign varieties behave very differently in this sort of environment, and consequently do not reach the levels of quality and longevity that they would in Bordeaux or the Norther Rhone.
Garnatxa and Cariyena however, because they are native to this region, truly thrive in this terroir, and indeed actually need this often harsh terroir to show their best aspects. Garnatxa and Carinyena planted in the cool and rainier Loire region in France for example would produce thin and unbalanced wines if the vines produced any fruit at all, or even survived long enough to produce this inferior fruit; both of these vine varieties have been known to just up and die when planted in the wrong spots.
But when Garnatxa and Carinyena are in their wheelhouse terroir (like Priorat) however, Garnatxa is allowed to fully realize its maximal exhuberant, sweet and sour red-fruity nature, and the Carinyena can completely express its earthy, dark-fruited and highly structured, often somewhat austere character. These two grapes in an optimal growing region like Priorat make the perfect foil for the other, each nearly perfectly filling in the other’s gaps.
Further, in the pursuit of a very “contemporary” style, all too many wines from Priorat are over-exposed to new oak flavors, which along with all of the non-native varieties, serve to almost completely obscure any notion of tradition, terroir and even a basic balance in the final product. Happily, the producers of this particular cuvee` also avoid this pitfall by aging the wine for only a short stint in oak (10 months) which only subtly contours and polishes the wine, allowing grapes and place to shine. This is Priorat as it should be.
I paired this powerful but still quite elegant and balanced wine with a first course of a pureed corn and tomato soup spiced with pimenton, followed by a main course of pork tenderloin medallions in a light cream and pomegrantate sauce with a side of yellow cauliflower with mint.
Portal del Priorat “Gotes del Priorat” 2012
Deep crimson/purple color. Penetrating nose of blackberry, plum, strawberry preserves, brown spices, old leather, purple flowers, licorice, pine tar and burnt sandalwood. The palate is big, and highly structured with elegantly rustic, stubbly tannins and zippy acidity that frames muscular, robust flavors of black currant, blueberry, cranberry, juniper, cracked black pepper and dried Mediterranean herbs. Powerful, earthy austere finish.