El Priorato
by Sarah Andrews

Say the word "Priorat" these days, and the first image that comes to mind is a strong, 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 I had to make the two-hour drive down from Barcelona to see the source of all the fuss.

Heading toward Tarragona on the A-7, the landscape becomes hillier and drier, preparing travellers 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. As some of the area’s most interesting places to visit are found outside the D.O. Priorat, I counted the entire comarca as my stomping ground.

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 released 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 wine produced in the region is tinto, but the winery’s director Roberto Ubeyga assured me that 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-flavorful 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. The idea of a Jewish wine in Catholic-run Spain intrigued me, so I arranged a visit to learn a little about the process.

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 that means they must all be harvested by men. Then, they must be fermented in stainless steel tanks, never concrete vats, which are common but harder to keep clean. Anything plastic that comes in 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 assures that all protocol is being followed and that nothing unclean comes in contact with the wine.

The 16,000 bottles of kosher wine produced each year represent only about 5 percent of Capçanes’ production but attract most of the attention around here. The wine is exported to the United States and Israel, mostly, 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 winery 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 I needed—simple with homestyle fare served up in huge portions. I felt almost mean for paying just 11€ for a complete menu (appetizer, bread, first and second plates, dessert, coffee, wine and water). After stuffing myself and taking a short siesta in the car, I set off again, this time to explore the heart of D.O. Priorat.

The difference between the center of Priorat and the Montsant ring that surrounds is obvious in the geographical differences between them. While sandy soils and reddish clay were abundant in D.O. Montsant, in D.O. Priorat, dark gray 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, this means that 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 produce 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. He also sells wines by the glass, including the vino rancio his family has made for generations using grapes that have been left on the vines to shrivel. These grapes have highly-concentrated sugars, and the wine made with them smells like port but is harsher in the mouth.

Scala Dei is a rather sleepy town focused on the production and sale of the wines made from the vineyards that threaten to take over the pueblo 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 (called his "priorato") with absolute control, and the monastery was the center of wealth and power for hundreds of years. It was also the object of resentment, jealousy and even hate. When area skirmishes 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 to travelers like me.

I reflected on the changes the region has gone through as I sleepily drove back to Barcelona late in the evening. Though modern techniques now characterize 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.

For more information: Contact the Consell Comarcal del Priorat (tel. 977 830 119 or 977 831 015) or Turisme Comarcal (tel. 977 831 023)

Published by the Barcelona Metropolitan, Aug. 2002
Text Sarah Andrews

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