Understanding Priorat and Tasting Scala Dei


Founded as a monastery by Carthusians from Provence at the turn of the 13th century, Scala Dei is one of the oldest wine producers in Western Europe. It’s located in Priorat DOQ, home to dense and powerful red blends. Owned by Codorniu Raventos since 2000 and employing modern techniques, Scala Dei now produces wines that are rich but demonstrate nuance and finesse.

The wines of Scala Dei are dominated by Grenache, the vineyards divided into micro-plots for an optimal harvest. The fruit, all of which is hand-picked and hand-sorted, is fermented with native yeasts in open-top stainless or concrete fermentation tanks.

This is the last of three articles this week about the wines of Codorniu Raventos. The others were Remarkable Codorniu Raventos Cava and Tasting Four Viña Pomal Rioja.

About the Priorat DOQ

The rugged, often steeply sloping, Priorat DOQ is wholly encircled by the Monsant DO, in Catalunya, Spain. Its primary wines of Priorat are blends of Garnacha and Cariñena, often with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other reds. There are just under 5,000 acres of vines—about the same as Napa Valley’s Oakville AVA—and a good portion of them are 80+ years old.

Priorat has an unusual and extreme climate. It is close to the Mediterranean and features the sunny days you would expect. But it’s also isolated from the sea by mountains which limit the water’s moderating effect but bring cold winds. And, at night, frigid air slides down from the high elevations. (Some of the vineyards themselves are at high altitude, with the DOQ rising up to 2,300 feet.) This translates to a dramatic diurnal shift—morning lows down to 53 and afternoon highs of 103. The growing season is generally quite dry and most of the rain comes in two, single month drenchings each year, one in March, April or May and the other in September or October.

Priorat is famous for its llicorella soils. The name essentially translates to slate and many vineyards are covered with a jumble of thick, black or orange-brown stone shingles. Llicorella is easily broken, well-draining and poor in nutrients. Vine roots meander deeply for moisture through the shards and sheets of rock. The llicorella, which both limits water availability and reflects the days’ heat onto the vines during the day, promotes concentration, ripeness and strong tannins.

Despite the notoriety of llicorella, there are other soils in Priorat, including limestone-chalk and red clay. These are much cooler with better water retention. Using grapes from the various soils together in a single blend can lead to a complex, yet easier drinking, wine.

In 2000, driven by international acclaim for its impressive red wines, Priorat became just the second DOCa in Spain, the first being Rioja. DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) is the highest quality designation for wine regions in Spain. When referring to Priorat however, the acronym DOQ is typically used. DOCa and DOQ are the same classification, but the latter reflects Priorat’s local tongue, Catalan.

Tasting Scala Dei

2014 Scala Dei Prior 91+ 15.0% 750ml $30

Scala Dei Prior is a blend of 60% Garnacha , 15% Cariñena, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Syrah taken from multiple estate vineyards. The vine age ranges from 15 to 25 years. The fruit was fully destemmed, fermented with native yeast. It aged one year in barrel, 80% French and 20% American.

The wine was tight on the nose when I tasted it, providing a sense of restrained power along with aromas of jammy black and purple fruit, spice, dark mineral and weathered wood. The palate was more intense with attractively bright black fruit, dark mineral and a nibble of chocolate. Medium-plus body with noteworthy acidity. Decant and drink now through 2023.

2013 Scala Dei Cartoixa 93 15.0% 750ml $50

Scala Dei Cartoixa is another multi-vineyard blend. However, this one is a selection from the best blocks and includes only Garnacha and Cariñena. The vines are roughly 60-years old and reside on steep slopes between 1,600 and 2,700 feet elevation. Each small batch of fruit was fermented in small, open top concrete or stainless tanks. The Garnacha tends to be destemmed, the Cariñena whole cluster. The wine aged in French oak barrels—an assortment of new, second-use and third-use—for 18 months.

Dark ruby-purple in the glass and restrained on the nose. The palate, however, is powerful and juicy with lots of structure and very long with dark fruit, spice and earth. The tannins are softish, fine-grained and chalky. Decant and drink with braised meat, now through 2025.

2012 Scala Dei Masdeu 94 15.0% 750ml $95

An all Garnacha wine, the grapes come solely from high-altitude terraces with soils of red clay and limesone-chalk. The native yeast fermentation was entirely whole-cluster and in open top, cement tanks. Aging was 16 months in large format oak.

This deep ruby wine is bright and spicy on the nose with moist tobacco and dark jammy fruit. There’s medium-plus body on the warming palate with gentle juiciness and a generous portion of fine-grained and chalky texture. Those tannins will soften over the next two or three years. Flavors include earthy spice, dark fruit and smoky mineral. Decant and drink from 2020 through 2030.

1975 Scala Dei Cartoixa 92+ 750ml

Though winemaking goes back about 1,000 years in Priorat, Scala Dei was the first to bottle there and this 1975 was just the second wine ever bottled there. It has held up well and shows amazing concentration for its age.

The wine is dark garnet in color with liberal aromas of baked and raisined fruit, spice, tobacco and celery seed. The palate is very long and juicy with medium-plus body and intense flavors that match the nose. The wine is at peak now, but should hold for another three-to-five years.

Copyright Fred Swan 2017. Photo courtesy of Codorniu Raventos All rights reserved.

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