Priorat: Wine Travel

 
 

If you are looking for an off the beaten path experience, Priorat is the wine region for you. Surrounded by the imposing rock walls of the Montsant Mountains the area seems so isolated although only a couple hours drive from Barcelona.

From a wine region perspective, it is one that you should see to appreciate fully. I believe on a difficulty scale for farming and harvesting; this region tops the charts. A rugged beauty exists that carries through to the wines and the overall experience. It is definitely a destination that needs time for exploration, and if you want an active, physically rewarding holiday, you can find that here too.

You can reach the region by train from Barcelona or Valencia. However, this is a wine destination where you'll need a car to reach the wineries. There are a limited but growing number of lodging options although mid-week dining choices can be a challenge. This is not a visitor-centric region like Napa, but it’s also what makes it so alluring. Mid-week you can traverse the twisting roads between towns and never see another car for miles. Appointments at wineries are a must as cellars are very small, family-run affairs and the person giving the tour may just be the owner or the winemaker. If you'd like a local guide, please contact me for a recommendation.

This is a small wine appellation, with only 4,200 acres of vines and fewer than 75 wineries. Rioja, the only other DOCa in Spain, is over 150,000 acres to provide a comparison. This area has only ten small villages with Falset being the capital and the largest (population 2500). We chose Gratallops for our home base for its central location to many of the wineries. The towns of Porrera and Poboleda in the north valley should not be missed to get a good understanding of the diversity in the region.

The winery visits themselves are a unique experience, and you need to allow two to three hours for each stop. You will most likely start by jumping in a vehicle (VW bus, truck, ATV) to explore the vineyards. Expect to hike, so you can truly appreciate the terroir, but be significantly rewarded by the fantastic views of the valleys. Of course, you will also be rewarded with a tasting of the full spectrum of wines these small wineries produce.

The history behind the region starts in the 12th century when the Carthusian Monks found their way here. Priorat means land of the prior and the monks sought out the area for its remoteness. The monks brought their knowledge of winemaking, and by the 1800s all of the lands were covered in vines (estimated around 42,000 acres). Two things occurred to change the history of this place forever. First, the monks became too powerful, and the Spanish government took back the properties from the church but in doing so many of vineyards were destroyed. Shortly following the destruction, the phylloxera virus hit the area and what vineyards remained were devastated. Everything was abandoned, and when some people did return in the early 1900s, the grapes that were replanted were sold or made in bulk for village consumption.

A slice of this history can be found with a visit to Cellar Scala Dei, which holds the moniker of being the first bottled wine in Priorat, it is located in the village where the monks initially settled. The Cartoixa d’Scala Dei Monastery, which literally translates to the stairway to god, is a truly majestic setting surrounded by the Montsant Mountains. You can explore what remains of the monastery and stop in the village bakery that uses tools and techniques handed down thru the centuries.

Today only 15% of the area has been re-planted, and many of the old terraces can still be seen in the landscape. Due to the abandonment of the land, ownership of some of the properties is hard to track down so you will not find many contiguous vineyards covering an entire area. The terrain is comprised of steep hillsides dotted with oak, olive and almond trees, and small vineyard plots.

When learning about modern-day Priorat, you will hear of the "original five." These are a group of people who came together in the seventies in a cooperative style to bring the region back to life; René Barbier, Carles Pastrana, Álvaro Palacios, José Luis Pérez and Daphne Glorian. They released their first vintage together in 1989. After much success they divided up the vineyards and are now comprised of the following wineries; Clos Mogador, Finca Dofí, Clos de L’Obac, Clos Martinet, Clos Erasmus. These original wineries are mostly in the south valley near the town of Gratallops.

To work up a sweat before your winery visits you can traverse the mule paths through the vineyards. If you’re looking for amazing views, head to the town of Siurana and hike along the mountain ridge. You will understand why this was a stronghold, one of the last settlements of the Arabs, in Catalunya. Today some of the best rock climbing can be found on these cliffs.

To discover more about Priorat, check out these posts:

Wineries to Visit: My top choices

Wine Region Overview: Learn about the grapes, vineyards and terroir