What you didn't know about the Priorat Wine Region in Catalonia, Spain

March 28, 2016

Harvest in Priorat vineyards, Catalonia, Spain

If you’re a wine lover, then you’ve no doubt heard about the lovely wine region of Priorat, home of critically acclaimed red wines, thanks to reviews by the New York Times, Robert Parker, Decanter, Tim Atkin and others experienced in wine. But what you may not have known, due to the labeling of the particular Priorat wine you’re enjoying, is that not only are Priorat wines a product of Spain, but Priorat is part of the province of Catalunya.

Priorat became a wine region after the Moors were vanquished south across the Ebre river, and the Carolingian monarchs turned to the order of Carthusian monks to set up a monastery in the region in 1194 to spread the gospel of Christianity to counter Islam. The monks settled on a place right below the Monsant mountains, and named the monastery Scala Dei, after a shepherd shared a story of seeing a ladder to God close to what is now the monastery grounds.

 

 

The monks introduced grapes and wine to the region, teaching the locals their practices, creating a thriving industry for 700 years, which at its peak had close to 5000 hectares planted in what is now the DOQ Priorat appellation. This wine production revolved around 9 villages in the area; Bellmunt del Priorat, Escaladei, Gratallops, El Lloar, La Morera de Montsant, Poboleda, Porrera, Torroja del Priorat, La Vilella Alta, La Vilella Baixa. Wine traveled far and wide, going north to France, and to Tortosa for export, while much was consumed in the region itself.

Yet, like all other wine growing regions of Europe, phyloxera struck in the late 1800s, after it had devastated the French wine industry. This left Priorat crippled, and most of the residents moved on from the area to find their fortune elsewhere. However a few remained, including the four families who purchased the Scala Dei Monastery from the government after it had been appropriated from the church in 1835. Vineyards were rare as only a handful were in operation post-phyloxera, along with a few village winemaking cooperatives, until 1954, when things began to change.

It was at this time when Priorat became a Spanish appellation, and the proliferation of bulk winemaking began in earnest, and many vineyards were replanted. But the Priorat was a shadow of its former self, with only 600 hectares planted, and the first official bottled wine under the Priorat appellation didn’t happen until 1974 at Cellers Scala Dei.

This changed with the arrival of Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier in the 1970s. After they recognized the potential of the area, they began winemaking activities in the late 80s, spawning the Priorat revolution of the 1990s. Today, there are now 105 active wineries under the top mark of winemaking quality in Spain, the “DOQ” designation.

So what makes Priorat so special? It’s not an easy place to make wine due to dramatic slopes (or “costers” in Catalan) and its distinctive “llicorella” soil, which is comprised of reddish/black slate near the top level and solid-ish slate underneath. The distinctive features of the soil are its relatively easy breakability, allowing vines to develop deep root systems as they break through the llicorella (sometimes up to 20 metres in older vines), and its ability to simultaneous reflect and absorb heat.

 

A photo posted by @catalunyawine on

 

With the newest “revolution” in winemaking, many of the local producers have returned to the Grenache and Carignan grapes traditional grown in the region since 1194, and moving away from many of the imported varietals which had been used in decades past to attract foreign buyers, like consumers in France. Most of the harvesting is done by hand, and the yields are much lower per vine in comparison to other Catalan regions, and worldwide regions, leading to powerful and concentrated red wines. In fact, many wineries like Scala Dei, Clos Mogador, Clos I Terrasses, Vall Llach, and Marco Abella have received international critical acclaim for the wines they produce. Daphne Glorian of Clos i Terrasses holds the distinction of receiving the first “perfect score” in Catalunya from Robert Parker for her Clos Erasmus varietal.

But what about visiting Priorat? If you’re expecting to find a Hilton Hotel next to the vineyards, it isn’t happening. Inside the DOQ Priorat area, you’ll only find B&B set ups with 2-8 rooms, and a scant few hotels which have 10 rooms. In fact, the appellation has applied for Unesco World Heritage status, in order to preserve the region from future unsustainable development.

You can stay in Falset if the “rustic” experience isn’t your cup of tea. As the central city and capital of the region, it has the majority of typical services you might be accustomed. It’s only 10 minutes from several of the villages on the southern part of DOQ Priorat, and features several larger locally-owned hotels and several smaller boutique hotels, like Hotel-Hostal Sport. You can also stay in Reus (30 minutes from Priorat) for a cosmopolitan hotel experience, but my recommendation is to get out of your comfort zone, and enjoy a full Priorat experience. Stay in the region!

The good news is there’s several top restaurants in Gratallops, Porrera, Bellmunt, and Escaladei, making up for whatever “accomodational” shortcomings that may exist. Many of the wineries also feature dining, including my personal favourite, Clos Figueras, and Buil & Gine. As far as visits go, almost all of the wineries require booking in advance, except for Scala Dei, and several do not accept visitors at all. It is always best to check with the winery website to make contact. As an alternative, you can book with a tour guide, and in fact, you can visit Catalunya Wine to book a day-long tour with one of our preferred tour guides. If you’re looking for tips, check out my recommendations here.

Lastly, taking wine home from your Priorat experience is easy, as Lazenne has made it possible for you to do so! If you don’t want to bring your own Lazenne luggage with you, Cellers Scala Dei and Hotel-Hostal Sport does carry Lazenne inventory to make your trip just a little bit easier.

Tim moved to the Barcelona region four years ago after traveling the world for 15 years, working in marketing and public relations. He founded catalunyawine.com in 2014 to promote the wine region of Catalonia to the English speaking public. Now he travels to the vineyards of the region interviewing winemakers and exploring the history of the wine region. 

You can follow the journey on Twitter and Instagram @catalunyawine and also on the website.

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