The remote, rocky hills of the Priorat wine region are the birthplace of intense, minerally reds that many wine writers and collectors consider to be Spain’s most elite wines. The distinctive slate-and-quartzite soil (locally called llicorella), an abundance of sunshine and an energetic group of young winemakers have earned the region a reputation as one of Spain’s most innovative, while the area’s pristine natural beauty and long history make it a fascinating place to explore.
Mile after mile of hilly terrain, slate soil and leafy green vineyards fill this rural region in southern Catalunya, which is just two hours from cosmopolitan Barcelona yet feels a world away. The relentless relieve of Priorat’s landscape means that vineyards here are planted in steep terraces similar to those found in the Douro valley. The terraces climb the hillsides in neat, curving rows that seem drawn onto the land. On the steepest slopes, they are like enormous staircases, creating a pretty picture but back-breaking work for those who have to pick the grapes by hand; machine harvests are all but impossible here. The land is demanding, but it’s also the ideal place to expose the most interesting characteristics of indigenous grapes like Garnacha, Cariñena as well as international varieties including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Vineyards are planted at altitudes ranging from 100m to 700m above sea level.
Concentrated and full of character
Priorat’s best wines are concentrated and full of character thanks to the very low yields produced by the region’s harsh conditions. Those low yields, in addition to the intense manual labor required to make wines here, mean that Priorat wines are some of the most expensive in Spain. They are also, in the eyes of many, among the best wines produced in the country. Expressive, fresh and less oaky than many traditional Spanish reds, Priorat wines have earned a devoted following in Spain and beyond.
The rich reds made by the likes of Alvaro Palacios (best known as the man behind L’Ermita wine) and Carles Pastrana (the head of the famed Clos de L’Obac winery) have appeared on the international wine radar only in the past decade, but more than marking Priorat’s wine debut, these wines mark its Renaissance. The region has a winemaking history stretching back to the Middle Ages when monks of the La Cartoixa D’Escaladei (the “Staircase to God” Carthusian monastery) began making wine for Mass. This was the first Carthusian order founded in Spain, and Priorat owes its name to the monastery. The leader of the monastery called a prior, ruled over his territory (his priorat) with absolute control. These days the monastery is in ruins, although it is still a favorite destination for visitors to the area. When Phylloxera hit in the 19th century, it destroyed the winemaking industry here, and for the following century, farmers turned their attention to other crops like almonds and olives. Only in the past few decades have vast swaths of land been devoted to vineyards once again.
Falset and beyond
The capital and winemaking epicenter of Priorat is the capital, Falset. A busy town huddled around a pretty square, its best known for the Modernist-style cellar of its cooperative. Scala Dei, the tiny hamlet just beyond the monastery of the same name, is another winemaking center and is home to several good wine shops and to a few cellars. Gratallops is where the fabulous Costers del Siurana winery is located and is a “must do” on your VIP wine tour of Priorat.
But the offers of Priorat’s towns pale in comparison to the region’s more natural charms. This is a wonderful place for nature lovers since centuries of poverty meant that most of the region looks much as it did in the Middle Ages, with unspoiled natural landscapes interrupted by stone farmhouses, small quaint villages, castle complexes like Siurana, and historic churches and chapels.
Priorat cuisine is the ideal accompaniment to the potent wines made here. Robust botifarra sausages, a hearty veal and mushroom dish called fricandó, and roasted vegetables served with the tangy “romesco” sauce are a few favorite dishes. No matter what you eat, it will likely be accompanied by the fragrant arbequina Olive Oil, made from the tiny arbequina olives that grow near the vineyards.