About an hour southwest of Barcelona is Spain's Priorat wine region. With centuries of history and its proximity to a major city you might expect an experience much like driving to Napa from San Francisco. But upon arriving in Priorat, you'll discover a unique place that history seems to have forgotten. Immediate impressions of the region are reminiscent of southern Utah or the mountainous areas of Arizona. The landscape is dry and rugged with a smattering of arid-climate plant life. Not surprising considering annual rainfall is a mere 16 inches.
Visitors to the region are likely to begin their vist in the town of Falset. There they'll find the newish Priorat visitors center with maps and wines from the region. During my visit, the folks at the visitor center suggested we drive to Gratallops, the next town over. You can see what Gratallops (and many of Priorat's towns) look like in the photo above. Many of the towns are spaced apart by 20 minutes of winding roads and appear as small clusters of old buildings set atop a mountain surrounded by steep terraced vineyards. The towns are so quiet that they almost feel like ghost towns. If it weren't for the 200 residents of Gratallops the buildings may fall into ruins.
The name, "Priorat" comes from the word, "Prior" which refers to the 12th century when the Prior of Scala Dei ruled over the area. During that time in history monks from the Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei introduced the first vines to the area. Priorat went mostly unnoticed for centuries until the 1980's when René Barbier recognized the potential for the region. René and a small group of friends created a new style of wine that has become Priorat's thumbprint over the past 30 years. By 2012, Priorat has gained critical acclaim for small production concentrated wines but the region is still largely unknown as a tourist destination. Visitors are more likely to see a shepherd and a donkey cart on the side of the road than a modern winery or bodega.
Looking at the region on a map Priorat looks like a circle within another circle. The middle circle, called Priorat DOC (Denominacion de Origen) is full of steep hillside vineyards and well drained slate soils. The outer circle, Montsant DO consists of flatter terrain and shallow soils. The distinction between the two DO's is apparent when you taste the wines side by side. For example, a Grenache from the middle circle is likely to be more concentrated because the steep vineyards drain water faster causing roots to dig deeper. A Grenache from the flatter vineyards on the other hand will have more finesse and won't be as "big" because the flat vineyards' vines don't dig as far. Neither style is better than the other, they're just unique which is why each is a DO.
These two designated growing are are not to be confused with Priorat, the overall "umbrella" name of the region.
Priorat's primary grape is Garnacha (Grenache) but other grapes grow in the region such as Cariñena (Carignan) and new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. What makes the red wines of Priorat so desirable is the combination of scarcity and growing conditions. Mother nature blessed this place with shimmering brown and black slate soils that drain well and give the wines a mineral character, great concentration without high levels of alcohol.
I asked wine lovers online what they liked about Priorat wines. Here's some of the replies I got:
"When scarcity meets complexity and they take a ride down flavor intensity lane to perch atop a pile of rocks and shout to the world, 'We may be few but we are strong. Like the Spartans of Spanish wine!'" ~J.C. Milam on Facebook
"Complex, earthy,full flavored yet easy to pair with foods. A true companion, not a wine that demands center stage" ~Dyann Espinosa on Facebook
The Priorat visitors center was still somewhat new, but there seems to be an effort to bring the region up a tourist destination. Proximity to Barcelona is a no-brainer as visitors can get to Priorat in less time than it takes someone to get to Sonoma from San Francisco. Once hotels start to pop up, and a few chefs decide to open up restaurants in the area Priorat may get some legs as a tourist destination.
In the meantime, this quiet little un-wine region will continue to produce exceptional world class wines that are short on supply but long on reward.