The Stunning, Rugged Landscape of Priorat and its Wines

Guest Post from Millesima
This is a guest post from my friends at Millesima. Back in 2017, I won one of the spots in Millesima’s wine blog contest which led to a sponsored trip to En Primeur in Bordeaux. I was so impressed with the people involved, I’m happy to host this guest post on Food Wine Click!

The Stunning, Rugged Landscape of Priorat and its Wines
Home to a stunning and rugged landscape of steeply terraced hillsides, where gnarled bush vines can be found rooted in ancient schist soils, Priorat is a region that calls out to the adventurous wine lover. Priorat is one of only two appellations in Spain to achieve the prestigious DOCa/DOQ status, the other being Rioja. Nevertheless, this gorgeous terroir and its iconic red wines remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, especially when compared to its Castilian compatriot. Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic gem of a Spanish wine region, its fascinating history and its one-of-a-kind fine wines.

The Iconic Terroir of the Priorat Wine Region
The Priorat appellation is situated in the region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. As the local language spoken here is Catalan, many of the terms associated with the region and its wines appear in both Catalan and Castilian Spanish. For example, the appellation level of Priorat is DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) in Spanish but Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Catalan. More specifically, Priorat is located in the province of Tarragona in the southwestern corner of Catalonia, around 150 km south of Barcelona.
Despite its proximity to the Mediterranean coast, Priorat is remarkably continental in climate with long, hot and very dry summers and cold winters. With an annual rainfall of just 400-600mm, this is a very dry region, whose vegetation is of hearty stock. The few species of flora that survive here include olive trees, almond trees, wild mountain herbs and grape vines. Priorat’s vines are bush vines with short trunks and naturally low yields of less than 5 hL/ha (compared to 40 hL/ha in Burgundy, for example). Local winemakers say that it takes all of the grapes from an entire vine to produce just 1 glass of Priorat wine. This rareness contributes to the high price of wines from this appellation.

Salmos Vineyard (copyright: Familia Torres)

The vineyards of Priorat are planted on undulating terraced hillsides which reach altitudes between 100m and 700m above sea level. The steep slopes of these vineyards make mechanical soil work and harvest impossible, further contributing to the elevated price of Priorat wines. Meanwhile, the hilly landscape creates a colorful patchwork of micro-terroirs, with a wide range of soil types, aspects and slopes. The flagship soil of Priorat is llicorella, a partially decomposed slate with bits of mica quartz, which reflect the rays of the sun and contribute to the even ripening of the grapes. These soils are free-draining and completely devoid of organic matter or nutrients, forcing the roots to dig very deep, resulting in remarkable concentration of flavors in the fruit.
To the north of the region, the Serra de Montsant Natural Park is visible, its rocky walls creating a stunning natural backdrop to the region. This mountain range protects the vineyards from cold northerly winds, while the warm Mistral wind blows in from the east and keep the vines clean of disease. The dry, windy conditions of Priorat make this region a prime candidate for biodynamic winemaking, which has been widely adopted, even if certification is still rare.
The Grape Varieties of Priorat
The classic red wine from Priorat is produced from a blend of Garnacha (or Grenache, or Garnatxa negre in Catalan) and Cariñena (or Carignan, or Samso in Catalan). Garnacha, representing around 41% of the region’s production, adds density and body to the blend, while Cariñena (at 23% of production) gives the wines a certain intensity, depth and delicious red fruit flavors. Although young Carignan elsewhere in the world is very vigorous and not particularly known for producing quality fruit, many of the Cariñena vines in Priorat are over 90 years old and produce remarkably concentrated fruit.
Garnacha and Cariñena are also blended with French varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon (roughly 10% of production), Syrah (another 10%) and Merlot (7%). Cabernet can bring additional structure and black fruit flavors to the blend, while Syrah contributes a spicy and earthy touch. Merlot can lend these wines a certain roundness.

Mas la Rosa, Caringan vineyard, Porrera, Priorat, Catalonia, Spain (copyright: Sara Matthews Photography)

Only around 7% of Priorat’s production is dedicated to white wine, with 4 white grape varieties authorized by the appellation. These are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximenez an Chenin Blanc. Garnacha Blanca accounts for roughly 50% of all white grapes grown and produces full-bodied and age-worthy white wines.
Twelve Villages Carves into a Rugged Landscape
The Priorat region is home to 12 picturesque villages, each one with its own unique personality. These villages are Poboleda, Porrera, Gratallops, Bellmunt del Priorat, el Lloar, Scala Dei, la Morera de Montsant, Masos de Falset, la Vilella Alta, la Vilella Baixa, Solanes del Molar and Torroja del Priorat.
Carved into the rocky and rugged landscape of Priorat and surrounded by vineyards in every direction, these villages offer the perfect points of departure from which to discover the region. Many of them also host a dynamic calendar of cultural events throughout the year, including religious processions, wine tastings, harvest festivals, communal lunches and musical performances.
The Cartoixa d’Escaladei: A Vestige of Priorat’s History
No trip to the Priorat region is complete without a visit to the ruins of the Cartoixa d’Escaladei (a.k.a. the Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei. Situated on the foothills of the Montsant mountains, over its namesake village of Scala Dei, this monastery was built by the Carthusian monks, who arrived in Priorat from Provence in the 12th century. After the Romans, it was the Carthusian monastic order that was first responsible for planting vineyards in Priorat.

Cartoixa d’Escaladei (copyright: Adobe Stock)

The prior of the monastery, after whom the region was named, ruled over the region as a feudal lord until 1835, in which year the Spanish monasteries were expropriated by the state and redistributed to private smallholders. As the monks fled the complex, the peasants of the region – tired of paying the heavy taxes levied by the monks – flooded in an destroyed the buildings. Nevertheless, the ruins of the Cartoixa, a true vestige of Priorat’s winemaking history, can still be visited today.
The Wines of Priorat and How Best to Enjoy Them
The iconic red wines of Priorat are sought-after by connoisseurs around the world for their powerful and intense style. These wines express a dazzling bouquet of red and black fruit aromas (black plums, black cherries and redcurrants), along with an earthy garrigue touch reminiscent of the dry Mediterranean herbs that can be found all over this region. The llicorella soils are said to impart a characteristic minerality to these wines, through aromas of wet pavement.
Generally speaking, Garnacha and Cariñena produce wines with more red fruit aromas, while the international varieties add more black fruit aromas. Cabernet Sauvignon can also contribute notes of cocoa to the blend, while Syrah adds its iconic black pepper touches. On the palate, classic Priorat wines offer big, bold tannins, which soften significantly over time spent aging in the bottle. The flavors on the palate are consistent with the nose, though the palate also reveals a signature salinity, as well as some menthol notes.

Clos Mogador (copyright: Millesima)

The red wines of Priorat should be served at around 14°-17°C (57°-63°F) in a Bordeaux glass or similar. A tall glass will allow the bouquet to reveal itself fully, while a slim bowl will send the wine directly to the back of the mouth for an optimal tasting experience. These are bold and rustic wines that will go beautifully with equally bold and rustic food pairings, such as grilled sausages, grilled lamb shanks or a lentil stew with smoked pork. They will also go nicely with a wide range of tapas, especially croquetas de jamón.
Meanwhile, the rare white wines of Priorat present a saline, earthy and mineral style to complement aromas of yellow fruit. Their bouquet also reveals dried herbs and nutty touches. On the palate, they offer high alcohol, but with plenty of acidity to back it up. Pair these wines with a boldly flavored fish or seafood dish, like a seafood paella flavored with saffron.
And there you have it: Priorat and its wines. Next time you find yourself at the Spanish aisle of your wine shop or browsing through Spanish wines online, take a break from Rioja and Ribera del Duero and give these iconic Catalan gems a try!

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