Have you explored the Spanish wine region of Priorat? C’mon, join me for a gander.
The summer of 2013 Il Marito and I did our first European road trip together visiting some French and Spanish wine regions. I was particularly fascinated with the region of Priorat because it’s something of an anomaly. You see, vineyards have existed there for at least 2000 years, but fine wine production only took off in the late 1980s.
We recently opened our prized bottle from that trip, a 1974 Scala Dei – said to be the first bottled Priorat wine in its modern form.
Prep for that wine experience had me revisiting my notes and pictures from the trip.
Read about the wine and food pairing we did with this wine. A Priorat Wine Masterpiece: 1974 Scala Dei & Duck with Toasted Hazelnut and Garlic Sauce.
I decided it was a perfect time to share some of the things I’d learned about this Spanish wine region. I enlisted the help of Rachel Ritchie, a Priorat wine educator and tour guide that we met there. If you are headed there for adventures of any kind, definitely get in touch with her (a link to her website is below).
1. Vineyards have existed in the region of Priorat for more than 2000 years
The region is known for its steep and dramatic terracing; it is believed that the surviving ancient terraces were built by the Romans.
Priorat soil is a free-draining and nutrient-poor soil made of partially-decomposed slate and quartz.
In the middle ages the Carthusian monks dominated the region from the Scala Dei monastery, controlling the economy and all its cultivations, from vineyards to olive trees to almonds and hazelnuts. This was the first Carthusian monastery on the Iberian Peninsula.
“The name ‘Priorat’ comes from the prior of Scala Dei. PRIOR-AT means the land belonging to the Prior.” Rachel Ritchie, Priorat Wine Educator and Guide
Rachel with winemaker Ester Nin and vineyard manager Carles Ortiz.
2. The region was once considered ‘bought wine country’
‘Bought wine country’ means that the grapes were harvested and the wine sold to other places. At one time the biggest buyer was Bordeaux. Priorat supplied France with much needed wine in the mid-19th century after phylloxera hit. Once Bordeaux’s vineyards were replanted there was virtually no demand for the wines, and then Priorat itself was hit with phylloxera in the 1890s.
Today Priorat is one of only two DOQ Qualified wine regions in Spain (Rioja is the other). According to Rachel this means that all the wine production in the area must be bottled to be labeled Priorat, so there is no more bulk wine from the area.
3. Priorat started producing wine for the masses in the 1980s
Despite the region’s ancient vineyards it wasn’t until the 1980s that Priorat became a force on the international wine scene. A group of enthusiasts led by René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios, both from notable winemaking families in Spain, pooled their resources and purchased a small plot of land in 1979. In 1989 they produced their first wine in an abandoned chicken farm outside the village of Gratallops.
Many reports suggest there were five in this rag tag group of winemakers, but Rachel said there were actually 1o. Today five are still going strong:
- Clos Dofi, now Finca Dofi
- Clos Mogador
- Clos Setien
- Clos Martinet
- Clos Ballesteros-Jove
- Clos Garsed
- Clos Basté-Krug
- Clos Erasmus
- Clos dels Llops
- Clos de l’Obac
4. Priorat wine is some of the most expensive
Priorat wine is known for its harsh, difficult terrain. The steep terraced vineyards vary in altitude from 100 to 750 meters so manual harvest is the only option. On the terracing Rachel said, “The local wine board is trying to conserve and revive the steep sloping traditional vineyards called ‘costers’. They were either not terraced or were terraced with dry stone walls known as ‘marges’. Modern terracing with bulldozers was introduced in 80s.”
Steep traditional vineyard terracing in Priorat, called ‘costers’.
Another aspect of the cost factor is the use of newer French oak barriques by Priorat producers. Though Rachel told us that producers are moving away from excessive amounts of new oak.
5. It’s always sunny in Priorat
Priorat gets up to 18 hours of sunshine a day. It’s a Mediterranean climate with some continental influence. The sea breeze cools the vineyards during the hot summer, helping the water stress. In terms of temperatures, there is a difference of about 15C / 59F from daytime to night. The winters are cold and there is even some snow.
Plenty of sun means good ripening, but the sea breezes and the altitude in particular mean that these are some of Spain’s strongest wines (minimum alcohol is 13.5% for the reds, the highest minimum in Europe), though they often maintain a freshness and balance on the palate. Old vines and very poor soils support this.
Priorat Wine Region: The Quick Facts
- Vineyards: 1900 – only about 12% of the total area is planted with vines.
- Wine professionals: Approximately 600
- Wineries: 102
- Yearly Production 2014 In 2014 approximately 5,900,000 kgs
- Number of Bottles: In 2013 approximately 4,200,000 bottles
Priorat red wines are full-bodied made primarily of old vine Garnacha and Carinena. Producers are also using international varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. On the nose are aromas of licorice, tar, and brandied cherries. Give the wines a try and let us know what you think!
If you have the opportunity to visit the region of Priorat don’t forget to look up Rachel!
Read more on Priorat Wine and Travel:
- Explore Priorat Wine Country with Rachel Ritchie
- 5 Tips for Awesome Wine and Tapas in Priorat