Nov 08, 2020 The Priorat wine region is located in the Catalonia region of Spain, just inland from the Mediterranean port city of Tarragona and about a two-hour drive southwest of Barcelona.
I hate being told about “hidden gems” that I “have to try”. It’s click-bait, and the gems usually ain’t that hidden.
- Map of Spain wine regions: Explore La Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero and more With over one million acres of the country covered in vineyards, Spain devotes more of its land area to wine making than any place in the world.
- The Priorat wine region is located in the Catalonia region of Spain, just inland from the Mediterranean port city of Tarragona and about a two-hour drive southwest of Barcelona.
- This wine map of Priorat & Montsant has been designed by Quentin Sadler and Wine Scholar Guild to illustrate the Spanish Wine Scholar ™ study & certification program. This map is made available for individuals to use for their own learning and edification.
- Jun 23, 2018 There, we could learn about the process of production of wine, the history of the winery and the qualified designation of origin for wine coming from the Priorat region. According to the Spanish wine regulations, Priorat holds the highest qualification level for a wine region together with La Rioja, located in the north of the Iberian Peninsula.
You’re going to have to believe me when I say that I want to tell you about a hidden gem you have to try! The gem in question? The wines of Priorat.
If you’re a fan of big bold red wines that put meat in your bones, this is the Spanish wine to know. But it’s a strangely unknown region. Especially considering it’s one of only two top-quality wine designations in Spain.
Maybe it’s something to do with its small production size. Or maybe its recent history (Priorat was rescued from the brink of extinction in 1989).
But whatever the region, Priorat flies under the radar for a lot of wine lovers. Don’t let that hold you back though, because these wines are some of the best value bottles in Spain. It’s not for nothing that Priorat is known as the Spanish Châteauneuf-du-Pape!
So let’s dive into what makes this wine, and this region, so darn special!
The Quick Sip on Priorat Wine
Guide To Priorat: Learn About The Spanish Priorat Wine Region ..
Priorat is one of only two Spanish wine regions known as a denominación de origen calificada (DOCa). The other is Rioja, the well-known symbol of premium Spanish wine.
Since Priorat is in Catalonia, here it’s called a denominació d’origen qualificada (DOQ), though it means the same thing. The prestigious title is only awarded to regions with a history of quality and innovation in wine.
The region itself is a tiny area just a bit south of the city of Tarragona. It’s marked by fierce rocky mountains and wooded valleys full of picturesque towns and churches! The slopes themselves aren’t really suitable for anything except grapes (and maybe olives), and are famous because of their unique slate soils; Llicorella.
While white and rosdado wine does get made here, Priorat is most famous for reds. Big, bold, and velvety reds at that! The leading grapes are grenache and carignan, with growing amounts of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot added to blends.
The wines were once heavily oaked, but modern vintages tend to prefer fresher styles. Regardless, expect wines that are bursting with black plum and cherry flavours, alongside liquorice and a dark stony minerality to boot.
But now you’ve got the basics, what else should you know about Priorat wine?
The History of DOQ Priorat
Priorat is a bit of an oddball.
Unlike most Spanish wine, it wasn’t kickstarted by the Romans. Even weirder, it almost died out completely! Luckily, just 30 years ago, Priorat was rescued from extinction by a handful of pioneering winemakers who wanted to put the region back on the map.
Through their hard work, Priorat was made the second DOCa in Spain in 2006. Nowadays, Spanish wine connoisseurs seek out these wines, known for their bargain prices and incredible quality.
So how did that all happen?
Monks Love Wine
Most famous Spanish wine regions have roots in Roman times. While grapes predate the time of Roman Spain, they were really the ones to turn production up to 11!
But not Priorat. Here, we have the always-wine-loving monks to thank for our delicious (almost god-given) wine.
According to legend, King Alfons el Cast of Aragon sent two of his knights to scout the lands of Priorat in the year 1194. They were looking for land suitable to build a monastery for an order of Carthusian monks.
Upon arriving in Priorat, they were stunned by its natural beauty and majestic cliffs. They asked a local shepherd for information on the area, and learned that it had once been the site of a miracle. Locals told of an angel who once ascended a stairway to heaven (cue the Led Zeppelin soundtrack) from the tallest pine in the valley.
Pretty good sight for a monastery, if you ask me.
The King agreed, and the monks built their home, calling it “Scala Dei”; God’s staircase. And the thing you need to know about monks? They love wine. Everywhere they go, vineyards follow.
These monks were the first to plant vines in Priorat, and their legacy continues in the work of the region’s oldest winery; none other than Cellers Scala Dei. Even the grapes they planted, local grenache, stuck around as the favourite Priorat variety!
Death and Resurrection
We’re keeping the biblical theme going here.
The monks continued to work the land for more than 600 years. In fact, the prior was also the feudal lord of the region, leading to the name Priorat!
But locals got tired of the church’s rule and taxes, and the lands were possessed by the government in 1835. The villagers were finally able to work the land as they wanted.
However, no good deed goes unpunished! Just a few decades later, the phylloxera blight devastated the region. Only 600 acres were left where there had once been 5,000.
And that might have been it for Priorat.
The region kept declining, and although it was made an official winemaking region (D.O.) in 1954, it was mainly churning out bulk, bad wine.
Enter René Barbier.
It’s not often that you can point to the one person responsible for revolutionising a region, but then again not everywhere has a René. This visionary winemaker is a Tarragona native, and earnt his stripes making wine in Alsace, Burgundy, and Bordeaux before returning to Spain.
In Spain, he first worked for the famous Riojan winery Bodegas Palacios. But in 1979, he was the first of a group of young guns to buy land and plant vines in Priorat. A lover of terroir, he knew that that Priorat had the potential for producing wines with finesse and flavour.
Other winemakers followed him, and together they produced a wine called Clos Mogador. The 1989 vintage of this wine was so good that locals say it single-handedly put Priorat back on the map!
The Land of Priorat
The county of Priorat lies just south of Barcelona, in southwest Catalonia. 4,700 acres of vineyards (1,900 hectares) go up and down the imposing mountains of Montsant in the valleys of the rivers Siurana and Montsant.
These are old, volcanic ranges not suited to any crop apart from grapes. The vines grow between 100 and 750 metres above sea level, depending on the area. Even at lower altitudes, the slopes can be steep! Gradients start at 15% and go up to a knee-breaking 60%.
As one of Spain’s smallest wine regions, Priorat is almost completely surrounded by another appellation. (D.O. Montsant; good, but not as good as Priorat.)
You’ll see 12 municipalities (like villages) divided up in Priorat. Wines made exclusively within one village can carry its name on the bottle. We call these wines vins de vila. Look out for them if you want to really taste the differences in local terroir.
Given how close it is to the coast, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Priorat had a Mediterranean climate. It doesn’t.
In fact, this is one of Spain’s most extreme continental climes. Summers are long and hot, reaching 35°C (95°F), and have virtually no rainfall. Winters often see the vines coated completely in snow! Temperatures can drop as low as -4°C (25°F). On average, the region gets 400–600mm of rain every year, in spring and autumn.
If you go to Priorat the first thing you’ll notice is the wind. Two major winds are present; a cold, dry winter wind coming down from the north, and the warm, humid Mistral from the east.
Priorat is famous because of Llicorella. Without this mythical soil, the vines wouldn’t survive and the wine wouldn’t taste as dark and sexy.
It’s a unique soil of ancient black and reddish slate with chunks of crystal-like mica. It drains really well. Almost too well. To reach water, the vines have to dig down deep through the cracks in the slate. It’s lucky that they do: without that anchor point, the strong Mistral winds would blow them away!
The stony ground helps to conserve the sun’s warmth and reflect its light back up to the vines to keep them ripe. But the acidity in the soil also means that yields stay low and the grapes stay concentrated. While the maximum yield permitted is 6,000 kilograms per hectare, averages sit closer to 3,000–4,000.
Lovers of the Priorat terroir will also tell you that Llicorella gives the wines here a unique flavour. They’ll taste darker, with a stony minerality uncommon in red wines.
The Grapes of Priorat
As of 2018, Priorat is almost entirely a red wine kinda place. White grapes are only 7% of plantings! Most of the vines get planted in bushes (en vaso), but some of the newer vineyards use a trellis.
While a handful of red grapes make up most of the plantings, there are 18 grapes permitted in Priorat. Let’s go through them one colour at a time!
Red Grapes of Priorat
The Carthusian monks who planted the first grenache vines would be happy to know that it’s still the dominant grape in town. Garnatxa, as it’s known in Catalan, is 41% of all the plantings in Priorat!
Of the more than 4,700 acres of vineyards in Priorat, almost two-thirds is taken up by two traditional grapes. Grenache and carignan dominate plantings, and you’ll find them bottled solo or in blends together with other grapes.
There are 10 red grapes grown in Priorat. They are:
- Grenache (41% of all plantings)
- Carignan (a.k.a. “Samsó”, 23%)
- Syrah (10%)
- Cabernet Sauvignon (10%)
- Merlot (6.5%)
- Hairy Grenache (a.k.a. “Garnatxa Peluda”)
- Cabernet Franc
- Pinot Noir
Together, they represent 93% of planted vines in Priorat.
White Grapes of Priorat
While white grapes are the minority here, these are still wines worth knowing. Either solo or in field blends, these are wines with complex minerality you should check out (if you can find them!). Vscode cmake.
There are eight white grapes grown in Priorat.
- Grenache Blanc (a.k.a. “Garnatxa blanca”, 5% of all plantings)
- Macabeo (1%)
- Pedro Ximenez (0.5%)
- Viognier (0.5%)
- Chenin Blanc (< 0.5%)
- Muscat of Alexandria (< 0.5%)
- Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (< 0.5%)
- Xarel-lo (< 0.5%)
- Piquepoul Blanc (< 0.5%)
All up, these grapes are only 7% of all plantings in Priorat.
The Wines of Priorat
And now for the tasty stuff!
There are almost 100 wineries in Priorat, with close to 600 growers. Curiously, while the region has its own winemaking rules like any other D.O. in Spain, locals don’t take them so seriously.
Even more interesting is the practice of putting the grape percentages on the bottle. (See that, Rioja? Why can’t you be more like Priorat?).
Like most Spanish wines, Priorat reds go through long periods of oak ageing. However, it tends to be a bit less time than the other traditional regions of Spain.
Ageing Requirements in Priorat
Just like wines from Rioja, bottles of Priorat are labelled according to their age. Wines with stickers saying criança, reserva, and gran reserva all indicate a wine that has spent significant time in oak.
- Criança: 6 months in oak barrels and 18 months in bottle before release
- Reserva: 12 months in oak and 24 months in bottle
- Gran Reserva: 24 months in oak and 36 months in bottle
A lot of wineries don’t care. (How Spanish of them!).
Instead, they traditionally release their wines as vinos de guarda. These wines spend 18 months in oak barrels and just a quick 6 month stint in bottle. The quick turnaround on the wines means they are best consumed at least two years later.
The Flavours of Priorat Wine
Buy Priorat wine whenever you can. The small production sizes mean that winemakers value quality over quantity, so bad bottles are rare to say the least.
They’re also not quite as in-demand as Rioja, so prices can be much fairer.
In general, expect these red wines to have robust fruit aromas of black plums and cherries with a hint of cassis. At their best, they should also have that wonderful streak of petrichor minerality.
If you love big red wines with tannin, this is for you. Tannin and alcohol levels are both higher than the typical Spanish red, with fairly gentle acidity.
Read More and References
And that’s the lot!
If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. If you liked my beginner’s guide to Priorat wine, check out my guides to Sherry wines and the wine of Rioja.
You can see all of my guides to Spanish wine, right here.
Priorat Wine Map
Want to keep learning about Priorat? Here are some places to go:
Brochure with general tourist information of the area (2007 edition)
Map of the region with information on the points of interest and a guide to tourist services: accomodation, restaurants, farm stores, sport and leisure companies (September 2019 edition)
Map with information about winery tours and wine shops, opening times, fees.. (March 2019 edition)
Guide with information about the olive oil mills of the Priorat Olive Oil Trail with opening hours, oils for tasting.. (October 2017 edition)
Map and guide to discover the Serra de Montsant Natural Park, with information on hiking routes, places of interest, proposals and good practice tips (December 2017 edition)
Serra de Llaberia Protected Natural Interest Area Hiking Map
Map to discover the Serra de Llaberia with information on eight hiking routes
Hiking Trail — The Bishop’s Store of Wine and Olive Oil
Hiking Trail — Memories of Princesses and Warriors
Hiking Trail — The Cliffs which block the Mestral
Guide with information about winery tours in DO Montsant wineries (2008 edition)
Guide with information about winery tours in DOQ Priorat wineries
Route through the village of Porrera to discover 13 sundials of great beauty and diverse illustrations.
Guide To Priorat: Learn About The Spanish Priorat Wine ..
A walking route around the town of Falset and surrounding area following the top attractions.