We explore the secrets of the Priorat’s wines and why it’s one of the best destinations for a wine tour in Spain.
The Priorat is a wonderful part of Spain to visit in its own right. Its rugged but beautiful countryside has changed little over the years, and its rolling hills interspersed with tiny villages make it one of the most attractive corners of Catalunya. But most visitors to the region come in search of a Priorat wine tour and the promise of discovering some of the very best red wines in Spain.
What makes the Priorat’s wines so special?
Today the Priorat is famous for its wines, but it hasn’t always been that way. Forty years ago, the Priorat’s wines were on the verge of extinction, with grape prices so low that the region had become one of the most impoverished parts of Spain.
The secret behind the excellent wines that the Priorat produces now is essentially down to two things.
The first is something that the region has always had and that is its poor-quality slate soil. Known locally as “licorella”, the Priorat’s soil is so rocky and unforgiving that on higher ground the vines have to send their roots down 10 metres or more just to get enough moisture. Grape yields are small though the wines they produce nowadays are of exceptional quality, with the particular earthy characteristic that makes the Priorat’s wines so sought after.
For centuries though, vines here were cultivated too intensively, and the resulting wines were often so poor that they were only good for being distilled to make liquor. There was famously even a local anisette liqueur inspiringly named El Diablo (The Devil), that boasted it was “made with the worst wines of the Priorat”!
How have the Priorat’s fortunes changed?
The answer to the Priorat’s problems came in the 1980s in the form of a group of a few forward-thinking adventurers who decided to try to get the region back on its feet.
This group, fondly known in Spanish wine circles as the “magnificent five”, were René Barbier, Álvaro Palacios, Josep Lluís Pérez, Daphne Glorian, and Carles Pastrana. Together they set about reinventing the region re-planting new grape varieties and bringing back old ones, and they began transforming the landscape, taking advantage of higher ground that had never previously been cultivated so that today the hills are a sea of vineyards.
Thanks to their labours, wines such as La Ermita, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet, and Clos de l’Obac are now some of the most sought-after the world over.
What to see and do in the Priorat
There’s much more to the Priorat than its wines, and to discover all its secrets and history, we recommend spending at least three days here.
These are just a few ideas to give you a flavour of what to expect on a wine holiday in the Priorat.
The Falset Wine Festival in May
May could be the perfect time to visit the Priorat on a wine tour as you can coincide with the “Fira de Vins” wine festival. Held in Falset, the region’s capital, on the first weekend of that month every year, the Fira de Vins celebrates the wines of both the appellations of DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant.
Around 70,000 wine enthusiasts visit Falset each year for the Fira.
Along with the conferences, talks, and tastings, there are a lot of parallel events to be enjoyed, such as wine-tasting courses and olive oil tastings. A highlight of the weekend is all the local cuisine, some from enjoyably competitive cookery competitions.
The Escaladei monastery
Escaladei was the first Cathusian priory established in Spain in 1194, and the work of the monks, planting new vineyards, is the reason behind the Priorat’s name.
Over time the monastery became very wealthy. The prestige and influence it enjoyed, together with the income obtained from its patrimony, led to a period of expansion and splendour between the 16th and 17th centuries.
But the political uprisings of the early 19th century, due to people becoming fed up with the serfdom they lived under, led to the monastery eventually being abandoned in 1839.
The monks fled, and Escaladei was sacked and looted. However, its former glory can still be appreciated in its ruins and its beautiful location makes it a must-see when you are in the area.
Tarragona’s Wine Cathedrals
Wine cathedral is the reverential term given to a group of art nouveau or modernist-style wine cellars built for wine cooperatives by some of Antoni Gaudi’s contemporaries in the province of Tarragona in the early 19th century.
These attractive brickwork buildings stand out for their high ceilings and vast interiors supported by the parabolic arches typically so popular with the movement. The wine cathedrals were commissioned as producers joined forces to begin their recovery from the devastating phylloxera plague that struck Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century.
The Priorat is home to two wine cellars, Cooperativa Falset-Marçà and the Cooperatiu of Cornudella de Montsant, both built between 1919 and 1922 by local architect Cesar Martinell, who was a disciple of Antoni Gaudi.
Both buildings are well worth visiting and are incredibly atmospheric, but Martinells most impressive wine cathedral is Pinell de Brai in the neighbouring Terra Alta region. An impressive masterpiece of brick, stone, and ceramic tiles, Pinell de Brai is a short drive from the Priorat and is included on our tour of the wine cathedrals of Tarragona.
Siurana easily ranks as one of the most beautiful villages in Catalonia. Perched high on a sheer rocky outcrop of the Montsant mountain range, it offers unbeatable views of the whole Priorat region, Montsant, and the Suirana reservoir below it.
Almost unchanged since medieval times, Siurana was the last Muslim enclave to fall in Catalonia during the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors. Legend has it that the Moorish Princess Abdelazia, daughter of the Valí de Siurana, rode her horse off the cliff when the Christian troops arrived, preferred to jump into the abyss rather than fall into enemy hands.
The horse, seeing the looming canyon, tried to stop and, according to the legend, just below the precipice, you can still see the imprint of the animal’s hoof where it tried to stop.
One of Siurana’s main attractions is the beautiful church of Santa Maria, built by the Christians when they arrived in 1153, which is one of the finest Romanesque buildings in the area.
The village is an excellent stop on any Priorat wine tour.
If you would like to explore the Priorat for yourself, just get in touch and we’ll tell you all about our wine tours in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. We also offer a day wine and cava tour to the Penedes from Barcelona.