I was sitting in a bar with an internationally renowned ceramicist sipping on a most divine glass of wine when in walked …..
two Amazonian, rippled German rock climbers. As they were selecting their seating in the Slate Wine Bar my friend exclaimed and pointed out that the cloistered nun was making a rare appearance in the church square.
No… this is not a joke although it is a bit of a surreal tale! Where am I? I am seated at the Slate Wine Bar in the main square of the town of Gratallops in Priorat, Spain.
I was waiting for my transfer back to Barcelona airport after attending Espai Priorat, a 3 day event that showcases Priorat’s finest wines for wine professionals from around the world. Priorat is the only other region in Spain, besides Rioja, with the superior DOCa appellation. Priorat wines are powerful, artisanal and come at a premium. Due to the lower volumes and higher average price they are not as easily accessed as those of Rioja. Priorat is working to change that.
Lluís Riera Figuerloa , the ceramicist, was the guide for my group of 6 travelling with us, keeping us on track, sharing his immense knowledge of the area and solving whatever issues presented themselves. Today my concern was about dragging my spinner luggage down the steep, cobblestoned street where my transfer would collect me. So after kindly assisting me with my rolling (ahem…grossly over-sized) luggage Lluís and I were enjoying a most divine (no pun intended) glass of white wine (White Grenache) from La Conreria d’Scala Dei.
To put the rest in context, Priorat is a region steeped in history and religious mysticism.
Carthusian monks built a monastery (La Cartoixa) in 1194 on a site where local residents said they routinely saw a ladder coming down from heaven that the angels used to go back and forth from Heaven – hence The Monastery of Saint Mary of Scala Dei.
Although there is evidence of winemaking in the area going back to Roman times, the Carthusian monks brought vines and equipment and documented winemaking best practices that laid the groundwork for today exceptional viticulture.
Scala Dei was a working monastery until 1835 when the Spanish government confiscated lands from religious orders. The people of the 12 villages, that had served as labour for the monastery for centuries, looted the monastery and incorporated the stones, bricks and anything of value in their own villages and buildings.
References to the religious beginnings and history abound throughout the region with the most direct being the name Priorat, which refers to the lands of the priory, that were historically under the jurisdiction of the monastery.
Let’s get to why you will want to have Priorat on your radar as a wine choice or a travel destination.
- Priorat is famous for its steep topography, with many hectares of vines going up to 700 or more meters. Machination is impossible on the steep terraces so a large percentage of wine is the result of manual planting, maintenance and hand harvesting. Some slopes are so steep that workers wear safety ropes around their waists in case a misstep should send them tumbling off the incline.
- Priorat has a variety of soils but it is famous for its crumbling slate hills where the soil, or ‘licorella’ as it is known, is so devoid of organic matter the grapes amass a very high mineral concentration that is the hallmark of a Priorat wine.
- Carignan and Grenache are the signature red grapes of Priorat while other red grapes are permitted Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the most common ‘other grapes’.
- White Grenache is the most common white varietal. Production of white wine has historically been low, around 5%-7% of total wine production but that percentage is creeping up in no small part due to the enthusiasm and expertise of Jordi Vidal of La Conreria d’Scala Dei
- Priorat introduced an ambitious quality designation system (The Names of the Land) similar to Burgundy where the assignation is attached to the plot of land rather than to a producer or Chateau. There is particular weight given to the age of the vines with many parcels having vines well over 70 years old.
Rock Stars of Priorat Wine
- Salus Àlvarez, President of the DOCa was at the helm when ‘The Names of the Land’ was launched in 2018. His Alvarez Duran Cellar produces absolutely haunting wines with incredible concentration and finesse. What sets his wine apart is the fact that the wildflowers that flourish amidst his old vines impart a distinctive, savoury, floral component to the wines unlike any other I tasted.
- Álvaro Palacios was one of early visionaries, in the late 1980s, in the movement René Barbier Ferrer started to revitalize the vines of Priorat that had fallen into ruin after the phylloxera outbreak and a Civil War. Today Álvaro Palacios has a state of the art winery in Gratallops and a cult-like following. He has the distinction of being the producer of the most expensive wine from the region – L’Ermita which is 100% sourced from his Ermita vineyard , a small 1.4 hectare plot planted with 84 to 104 year-old vines from 350-430 meters and named for the ‘ermita’ (cloister) at the top of it. L’Ermita was the first wine to qualify as gran vinya classificada (the equivalent of a grand cru) in the 2017 vintage. Palacios’ attention to detail and dedication to quality make any of his many branded Spanish wines (in all price ranges) a reliable choice.
- Olivia Bayés and David Marco of MarcoAbella left lucrative careers in Barcelona to revive an ancestral vineyard that had fallen into disuse. Olivia led a wine tasting in the vineyard where her enthusiasm for the land, the vines and the wines was inspiring. MarcoAbella brings a modern touch to their fresh, elegant wines and are also consciously trying to produce wines in an approachable price range. Watch for Clos Abella or Roca Grisa.
- Miguel Torres, CEO of the Familia Torres wine dynasty, oversees all their extensive holdings but has used the profits from their large-production brands to systematically concentrate on the company’s top wines and properties. That strategy has led to a modern, state of the art, ecologically friendly winery in El Lloar, Priorat. Torres wines from Priorat are more accessible in Canada than many. Look for the luscious Salmos red blend, which is periodically available through the LCBO Vintages in the $40 range, or Perpetual.
- Merche Dalmau took over as President and General Manager of Clos Galena winery in an instant when her husband died unexpectedly. A personable, confident woman, she has stewarded the winery to many massive wins including having her red wine, FORMIGA DE VELLUT, served at the 2017 Nobel Prize Award Banquet. Clos Galena Winery was a winner of the III Awards of the Tarragona Gastronomy Academy in 2016. You too can join Swedish Royalty in enjoying Formiga de Vellut as it is often available in Quebec’s SAQ.
Tourism in Priorat
After winemaking, tourism is the next largest industry in Priorat. Despite its ruggedness and remoteness it offers up an outstanding range of guest services from the old world charm of Hotel Cal Llop to the modern zen of Terra Dominicata. Falset is the capital of Priorat and offers more commercial amenities. There are many Michelin recommended restaurants in Priorat. If you want to be in the heart of the winemaking then consider one of the following. Clos Figueras and Buil et Giné both offer accommodation, amazing restaurants and wine experiences. There are many more but these 3 I have personally experienced and do not hesitate to recommend. Just click on the names to get their websites.
Oh…and the rock climbers?
Priorat is dominated on the North East by Montsant, a towering limestone range that is now part of the protected area of Serra de Montsant Natural Park. The picturesque village of Siurana is perched atop the ledge of the mountain. The Park offers camping, hiking, biking opportunities but most of all – rock climbing. Siurana is now considered to be one of the premier climbing destinations in the world.
And the final piece of the puzzle…… I regret I cannot share any pictorial evidence of the cloistered nun by way of respecting her privacy and the whole ‘cloistered’ thing.
You will have to take my word for it or visit yourself. A world of exceptional wine, gastronomy, hospitality and adventure is waiting for you just one hour west of Barcelona in Priorat.