Say the word Priorat these days, and the first image that comes to mind is an intense, pricey red wine. The D.O. (denominación de origen) Priorat has earned a reputation in the past 10 years for producing vibrant, high-quality wines and is gaining fame in Spain and internationally. I decided to make the two-hour drive down from Barcelona to see the source of all the fuss.
Heading towards Tarragona on the A-7, the landscape becomes hillier and drier, preparing travelers for the rocky, mountainous terrain of Priorat. Leaving behind city views, green vines take over. Vineyards are planted in neat, curving rows, climbing hillsides and descending into valleys. On the steep slopes, they’re planted in terraces that look like enormous staircases.
The comarca Priorat is divided into two denominación de orígenes: Priorat, which is a small knot in the center of the region, and the brand-new Montsant, created less than a year ago, which forms a ring around its more-famous neighbor. Some of the area’s most exciting places to visit are found outside the D.O. Priorat.
My first stop was Falset, the capital of Priorat and home to the Bodega Cooperativa de Falset, a modernist building built in 1919 by César Martinell, one of Gaudí’s students. The bodega, which offers visits for those who call ahead, is typically Priorat in the sense that it’s a mix of the new and the traditional. Stainless steel tanks are lined up beside two ancient oak barrels (still used to make the bodega’s trademark vermouth) and sit under the wood ceiling put up when the building was first constructed.
Falset’s wines are marketed under the D.O. Montsant and are made primarily with the Catalan grape varieties Garnacha, Tempranillo, and Cariñena, although newcomers Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are popular too. Nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in the region is Tinto, but, according to the winery’s director Roberto Ubeyga, the beauty of Montsant is the variety of slate-filled and sandy soils and, thus the variety of grapes that can be grown here.
“The most important thing is that the wines we make with these grapes be quality wines. We have a small production. If we make cheap wines, we’ll never be competitive,” he said. “Our wines have color, structure, and good levels of acidity and alcohol grades. We can make wines that age well, and now we’re concentrating on introducing them to new markets.”
This theory imitates that of the D.O. Priorat: work with small harvests of intensely-flavourful grapes, mix the old Catalan varieties with smoother international ones, and focus on quality, not quantity. Wineries like Miró and Yzaguirre have had good results so far, and other D.O. Montsant winemakers are confident that their turn at fame is just around the corner.
Next, I headed to Capçanes, another small Montsant cooperative whose claim to fame is making kosher wine. Francesc Perelló, the winery’s enologist, explained that while the wine comes out tasting like any good Montsant/Priorat wine should (notes of wild berries, secondary woody notes, rich red color) the elaboration is much more complicated.
Women are not allowed to touch the grapes, so men must all harvest them. Then, they must be fermented in stainless steel tanks, never concrete vats, which are more common but harder to keep clean. Anything plastic that comes into contact with the grapes or the wine must be for the use of kosher wine only, and if that piece of plastic happens to be transparent, it must be covered with something opaque (like duct tape) so that no non-Jewish eyes see it. Throughout the process, a rabbi ensures that all protocol is followed and that nothing unclean comes into contact with the wine.
The 16,000 bottles of kosher wine produced yearly represent only about five percent of Capçanes’ production but attract most of the attention around here. The wine is mostly exported to the United States and Israel, but it also finds its way to small Jewish communities in Europe and Mexico. Just five days after it was bottled, we tasted the 2000 Flor de Primavera, a wine that in 1998 was judged the second-best kosher wine in the world. Blood red, slightly mineral-tasting, and with dominant fruity notes, the wine could compete with other quality reds even on a non-kosher scale.
The Bodega Cooperativo sells local olives, olive oil, wine vinegar, honey, nuts, and of course, wine. Sold in jugs at just over €1 a liter, it’s definitely a bargain.
After so much wine talk and wine exploring, I was hungry and ready to sit down with a glass of my own. La Cassola in the D.O. Priorat town Gratallops was just the restaurant; simple with homestyle fare served in huge portions, and just €11 for a complete menu (appetizer, bread, first and second plates, dessert, coffee, wine, and water). After lunch and a short siesta, I set off again, this time to explore the heart of D.O. Priorat.
The geographical differences between the center of Priorat and the surrounding Montsant ring are apparent. While sandy soils and reddish clay were abundant in D.O. Montsant, in D.O. Priorat, a dark grey slate makes up the mountains and the cliffs and lies under the vineyards, forcing the plants’ roots to dig deep for nourishment. Translated to wines, Montsant’s tend to be fruitier, while Priorat’s have a slightly mineral taste and are sharper.
To understand more about the wines made here in D.O. Priorat, I visited Lluís Porqueres, owner of the wine store La Vinateria del Boli in the northern town Scala-Dei. Lluís estimates that he has 90 percent of the wines produced in the region in his shop, and anything he doesn’t already know about their make-up, the wineries that make them or their histories he looks up for you in one of his many books about wine.
Among the bottles of Las Terrassas, Masia Barril and a €200 bottle of Álvaro Palacios’ L’Ermita, are wines for every taste and price range. Lluís also sells wines by the glass, including the vino rancio his family has made for generations using grapes left on the vines to shrivel. These grapes have highly concentrated sugars, and their wine smells like port but is harsher in the mouth.
Scala Dei is a rather sleepy town focused on the production and sale of wines made from the vineyards that threaten to take over the town from all sides. But just a kilometer away is the twelfth-century La Cartoixa D’Escaladei, the first Carthusian monastery founded on the Iberian peninsula.
Priorat owes its name to the monastery, or rather to the monastery’s leader, the prior. The prior ruled over his territory (his priorato) with absolute control, and the monastery was the centre of wealth and power for hundreds of years. It was also the object of resentment and jealousy. When skirmishes in the area forced the monks to abandon the monastery in the mid 1800s, townspeople ransacked it, taking all they could and leaving the enormous, ornate monastery in ruins in a matter of months.
Now regular guided visits to these ruins reveal another piece of Priorat’s history. Though modern techniques now characterise the wine and agriculture industries here, Priorat is as dependent as ever on the land itself. My visit in 2002 didn’t differ all that much from a what a visit a hundred years ago would have been like; a look at vineyards stretched along hillsides, tasting wines drawn from wooden barrels, a pilgrimage to a monastery along the way.
The naturally slow process of making wine surely has something to do with Priorat’s slow process of change; until someone invents a grape that grows overnight, a visit in a hundred more years probably won’t be very different.