Priorat is one of those buzzwords, the use of which certifies you as an authentic, card-carrying wine geek. Works for us.


Finding obscure wine regions with enormous potential is a thrill, first of all for the area's winemakers, and later for the connoisseur. Several of these hitherto unknown regions have emerged from the shadows in the past few years. The Maremma, on the coast of Tuscany, is one example. Another is the Margaret River in far-flung Western Australia.

Then there's Spain's Priorat. Mentioning Pétrus in conversation might turn heads, but mentioning Priorat makes people listen. "Ten years ago these guys couldn't give their wine away," says one local observer. Today they can't make enough.

With the jagged outline of Catalonia's symbolic Montserrat, the "serrated mountain," visible in the distance, Priorat is one of the world's most ruggedly beautiful wine regions. Its steep hillsides are dotted with Carthusian monasteries, including the priory that gives the region its name. The old vines are gnarled and twisted by decades of heat and drought.

The native Garnacha (Grenache) grape responds beautifully to the tough, dry conditions, making deep, inky wines with intense juiciness. It was almost inevitable that Priorat should come to prominence eventually: The assertive style of these wines appeals to palates accustomed to powerhouses from California and Australia. These three bottles are on Priorat's cutting edge.

MORLANDA 1998 CRIANÇA ($46)
When the giant Catalan sparkling wine house Freixenet started taking note of the buzz about Spanish still wines a few years ago, it was a bit hesitant to get on the bandwagon. After all, Freixenet's reputation was built on cava (the Spanish answer to champagne) and the brand is a fixture in the world marketplace. The company's elaborate holiday-season television commercials, featuring the Freixenet Bubble Girls, are a national event in Spain.

But, eventually, the temptation not to bubble became too great. The Ferrer family, which is still very much a hands-on owner, decided to take a plunge, announcing Freixenet's new portfolio of still-wine brands, called the Heredad Collection. It includes wineries in Ribera del Duero, Penedés, Rías Baixas, and, of course, Priorat.

At present, Morlanda is made from Grenache, Cariñena, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1998 is deep and luscious, with rich berry, plum, sweet oak ... and no bubbles.