Getting up close and personal with Priorat

By Sue Style

Beady-eyed wine travellers can hardly have missed the meteoric rise of Priorat’s blockbusting, terroir-driven red wines, characterised by their intensity, complexity, longevity and eye-watering prices. But how many of you have travelled in the comarca or county of Priorat, about an hour southwest of Barcelona? It’s a stunning area, well worth a detour – well, make that a special trip.

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierre de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Hilltop villages alternate with steeply stacked vineyards, terraced olive groves and medieval monasteries. All shelter beneath the majestic, jagged, dramatically stratified Sierra de Montsant, set in its own National Park. The terrain is fiercely challenging and dauntingly steep, vines grow in the distinctive, brownish-black llicorella shale that glints and shimmers in the merciless summer sun.

There are two appellations here, DOC Priorat and the larger DO Montsant, which almost entirely surrounds it. The Priorat appellation was created in 1954, but vines have grown here since the 12th century when Carthusian monks established their monastery Scala Dei – God’s staircase – at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant. In 2000 the region was promoted to DOC, one of only two DOCs in Spain (the other is Rioja), with around 1700 hectares of vineyards planted predominantly with old Garnacha and Cariñena (a.k.a. Grenache and Carignan) vines, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

The Montsant appellation emerged from under the umbrella of DO Tarragona to establish itself in its own right only in 2001, with around 2000 hectares of vines. Garnacha and Cariñena predominate, with a little Tempranillo (known here as Ull de Llebre, ‘eye of the hare’); Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are also approved.

In response to all the excitement on the wine front, a new wave of wine-led tourism has spawned some great little country restaurants and rural B&Bs, many of them in historic houses which have been restored with Catalan flair and a nice respect for the fabric of these fine old buildings.

Perversely, Priorat (and to a lesser extent Montsant) can be a bit frustrating for the wine traveller. Many of Priorat’s wines (especially cult wines like L’Ermita, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos de l’Obac) are impossible to find, and the top wineries are open to visits by professionals only.

This is where the Fira del Vi, held in the regional capital of Falset, comes into its own. Held every year over the first weekend in May, it’s a showcase for both appellations, gathering under one roof a representative range of Priorat and Montsant growers and providing a unique opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with both the wines and their makers.

The Fira is a shop window only: you can’t buy here, only taste. Potential customers are directed either to the winery (some of which offer scheduled visits during the fair), or to one of the wine shops in town (try Vinateria Aguiló).

Apart from the fair itself, there are all kinds of wine-related fringe events in restaurants, shops and other venues in town and in the surrounding villages. Make a note in your diary for next year and build the fair into a week’s exploration of this superb, ruggedly beautiful area.

Siruanella Hotel and Restaurant © Sue Style

La Siuranella Hotel © Sue Style

PLACES TO STAY

  • Mas Figueres, Carretera T-300, Km. 2, Marçà
    Tel: +34 977 178 011
  • Cal Porrera, Escoles 4, Porrera
    Tel: +34 977 82 83 10
  • Cal Llop, De Dalt 21, Gratallops
    Tel: +34 977 83 95 02
  • La Siuranella, Rentadors, Siurana
    Tel: +34 977 82 11 44

PLACES TO EAT

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