The Black slate soils, rolling hills and dotted vines of Vall Llach.

Wine is rarely made in ugly places; a happy accident thanks to the prevalence of soils deemed too poor for traditional agriculture, a preference for steep slopes to capture the suns rays and the general masochistic nature of the world’s great winemakers. As a result, every wine region has a certain charm, though very few move you in the way that Priorat does. Despite being only a 90-minute car ride from Barcelona, it’s a whole other world away. This rugged Catalan region is home to some of Spain’s most sought-after wines, the sort of wines that create wide-eyed expressions in international tastings, with their dark, rocky intensity and sheer force of personality. Terroir may be a French expression, but in Priorat it finds itself very much at home.

Old, gnarled vines dot the steep hillsides, often sat atop terraces, carved into the slopes to make the human endeavour of trying to eke out a living here more manageable. Ancient olive groves sit in grooves in the mountains, seemingly sliced out of the rock by a giant hand in some forgotten time. At times, the intensity of the sunshine can be brutal, alleviated by welcome breezes carrying the scents of wild herbs such as thyme, lavender and rosemary.

The raw energy of Priorat is undeniable and was realised as far back as Roman times, with scattered ruins painting the picture of a remote life in the mountains. The region started to define itself in the 12th century with the arrival of the Carthusian monks and the creation of Scala Dei priory. Where monks go, wine inevitably follows and it wasn’t long before this remote outpost of Christianity was heavily involved in wine production, and continued to be so, until overplaying their hand as landlords led to revolt and ruin in the 19th century.

Harvest at Clos Mogador.
Harvest at Clos Mogador.

The true potential of Priorat didn’t start to reveal itself until almost 150 years later, when René Barbier started planting international varieties on the sun-scorched terraces in the late 1970s, managing to convince a handful of like-minded vignerons to join him in his quest; a far cry from his safer business interests in neighbouring Tarragona. The nature of the land and the work involved proved too much for most of those who arrived but Barbier and four others continued to toil and map the land, eventually being rewarded for their success and hailed as The Big Five. These five producers are now considered benchmarks of the region and often command prices to match.

Priorat hit its stride, and in the 1990s became the darling of oenophiles around the world. Needless to say, it has changed along the way, growing from only eight wineries in 1989 to 106 today. Yet, operations stay necessarily small – a result of the parcellated nature of the land and the reluctance of growers to sell their treasured plots, passed down through families.

While the pioneers of Priorat planted international varieties in the 1980s, it’s now widely accepted that the region’s true value can be found in indigenous varieties and, particularly, old vines of garnacha and carignan. Priorat’s vines search as far as 20 metres deep into the slate soils, known locally as llicorella, in search of an often elusive water supply. When they find it they hoard the water for the hot summer months, concentrating the flavours in the grape and stamping their smoky, intense signature on the resulting wines.

The outlook in Priorat.
The outlook in Priorat.

Marked as Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ), Priorat shares the highest honours of the Spanish wine industry with only one other region – Rioja. Vastly different from one another in almost every conceivable manner, Priorat is proving to be the more dynamic of the two.

In 2009 the regulatory body for Priorat DOQ launched the Vi de Vila concept to help create a broad framework for the differences in style across the 12 main winemaking villages of the region. It’s the only region in Europe to have created a carefully considered, regulated system for what ‘old vines’ actually means; as of 2021, only vines that are 75 years or older will be able to be designated as Velles Vinyes. Four hundred and fifty-nine individual plots of land, or paratges, have been identified and mapped in painstaking detail by the regulatory body, keen to understand the differences across the sun-scorched land.

An initiative is in place to round off this Burgundy-inspired system, complete with the equivalent of premier and grand cru vineyards, or Vinya Classificada and Gran Vinya Classificada respectively, as they will be known. To say that Priorat isn’t resting on its already considerable laurels would be something of an understatement.

Though the future looks promising for Priorat, it is also full of potential pitfalls and difficulties. Classifying the land to such an extent will inevitably lead to dissent and disagreement; no one likes to admit that their neighbour’s land is of a higher quality level than their own, least of all neighbours in a region that boasts less than 10,000 total inhabitants. A region already known for its hot, dry summers and powerful, alcoholic wines, the recent increases in temperature have done Priorat no favours, with many vines struggling to balance themselves against an ever-hostile climate.

In July 2019 the most important winemaking village in Priorat, Gratallops, ran out of water. Completely. Caught between the unpredictability of nature and the fickleness that goes with human organisation, Priorat looks to be in for quite the ride over the coming years. If past performance and a track record of success against adversity is any guide, Priorat will likely still be on top once the dust settles.

Scala Dei.
Scala Dei.

Wineries to Visit

To visit Priorat and not experience Clos Mogador (closmogador.com) would be nothing short of a shame. Led by pivotal Priorat figure René Barbier, the remarkable family behind Clos Mogador are the single most important reason for the success of the region. To taste the wines here is to taste the results of a 40-year-old dream.

Yet, for all that, there’s no false modesty nor bravado, just a family committed to producing excellent wine, year after year. Their esteemed vineyards surround the famous village of Gratallops, and are split into Mogador, Manyetes and Nelin, each corresponding to a wine made from these vines.

Clos Mogador is the flagship wine of the estate, the first ever classified Vi de Vila wine in Priorat, and despite subtle changes each vintage, it remains a garnacha-dominant blend with carignan, syrah and cabernet sauvignon helping to tame the spicy, dark flavours and robust tannins; a wine that shows its best at 5-10 years old.

Manyetes is a different beast altogether and is arguably one of the regions’ best varietal carignan wines, packed with ripe strawberry, slate, clove and balsamic flavours, with remarkably ripe, soft tannins.

Nelin rounds out the range and, despite being a garnacha blanca-dominant wine, boasts another five to six varieties, depending on the vintage, resulting in a waxy, full-bodied style of white wine, reminiscent of top-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A three-hour trip around Clos Mogador’s vineyards on a weathered four-wheel drive awaits, complete with a tasting of all the estate wines, home-baked bread and of course, some particularly good extra virgin olive oil.

Close to Clos Mogador lies the diminutive cellar of Ripoll Sans (+34 687 638 951). Quietly celebrated and adored by every Catalan wine journalist, the wines made by Marc Ripoll remain largely unknown to the wider world. It’s one of the true gems of the region; the sort of wines that create a following at first taste.

Like many in the region, Ripoll’s grandfather used to sell grapes to the local co-operative and continues to do so, yet the best grapes now go into 20,000 bottles of Ripoll’s own wines. Standing in his cellar and tasting his wines is an intimate experience that’s not easily forgotten.

On the one hand, Ripoll is a traditionalist, extolling the virtues of indigenous grape varieties and producing entirely organic wine. On the other hand, all of his wines are recognised as Vi de Vila and few winemakers are more passionate about the need to better understand the region and reflect the intricacies of the land than him; a very forward-thinking position.

Ripoll is the only producer to make a wine from escanyavella, an almost extinct white grape variety, and a little piece of individuality in the region, full of tart lemon, white peach and crushed white flowers.

Albert Costa from Vall Llach in the Mas de la Rosa vineyard.
Albert Costa from Vall Llach in the Mas de la Rosa vineyard.

D’Iatra, made from garnacha, carignan, cabernet sauvignon and syrah and named after Ripoll’s son, is remarkable value for the region. It’s full of the bite and verve of more expensive wines but for a fraction of the price.

The flagship of the estate, and one of the most distinctive wines in Priorat is 5 Partides, a 100% carignan wine produced from five different plots, all from vines over 100 years old. Think about that for a moment; the youngest vines producing wine for this bottle were planted at the end of World War I. The depth and power of this wine is extraordinary, but unlike many in the region, it’s never overdone and retains freshness.

While the cellar can be tricky to find at first, once you do you have the chance to be rewarded with a rare insight into the region and the opportunity to taste through a range that you will be unlikely to find outside of Catalonia (for now).

Grapes at Scala Dei.
Grapes at Scala Dei.

On the outskirts of the town of La Vilella Alta, north of Gratallops, you’ll find a rather distinctive winery by the name of Bodegas Mas Alta (bodegasmasalta.com). If you’ve planned your trip properly, you’ll have an appointment to visit this special, collaborative effort, with the mountains looming over your shoulder, blocking the harsh sun.

Belgian owned, Bodegas Mas Alta has quickly created a reputation for itself since its first vintage in 2004, and no expense is spared in the creation of these charismatic wines. Thirty-five hectares are spread across 40 different plots, many of which are still farmed and ploughed by mules, resulting in a broad range of wines from the aromatic, oaky and hugely personable La Solana Alta to the highly sought-after complex La Creu Alta.

If I could only drink a single wine from the estate, though, it would be their excellent Cirerets; exotically perfumed, herbal and earthy with a full body and no lack of energy or drive. Call ahead and book a private visit to the estate; the contrast between their gravity-centric winery and the old, traditional terraces and vineyard practices is worth the trip alone, and to taste across the range of wines here is a real treat.

The winery at  Vall Llach.
The winery at Vall Llach.

The Big Five may have created the hype and excitement around Priorat in the 1980s, but they were originally drawn to an existing idea. That idea was Celler Scala Dei (cellersdescaladei.com), the historic heartbeat of the region and a top producer in its own right. The ruins here speak of a time of uncertainty and anger, when peasants revolted against their overbearing landlords, a revolt causing scars that can still be seen in the remnants of the ancient monastery today.

Cartoixa was the first iconic wine of Priorat, predating its modern success back in 1974; a few bottles still remain in circulation to this day. With the talented Ricard Rofes at the helm, Scala Dei is now exploring the terroir of Priorat in its own way, producing single vineyard expressions of garnacha from various plots within its impressive range of vineyards, some as small as 0.2 hectares in size.

A visit here is well worth the trip, if only for the incredible views, yet it’d be a shame not to indulge in some wine. Massipa is one of Priorat’s eternally underrated white wines, an interesting blend of garnacha blanca and chenin blanc – slightly wild and spicy.

The apogee of the range lies with Masdeu and Sant Antoni, Scala Dei’s two most highly regarded single-vineyard wines. Masdeu is black-fruited, rich and smoky, whereas Sant Antoni is all about elegance, red fruit and a subtle mineral streak that ties it together. My suggestion? Try both and if you don’t mind the premium, bring a bottle or two back with you; they’re increasingly hard to find!

Scala Dei’s  tasting room.
Scala Dei’s tasting room.

Down a windy mountain path, lower into the heart of Priorat, lies the small but busy village of Porrera – a little over 400 people, nearly 20 wineries and a quaint wine shop. As you enter the village and see the picturesque bridge spanning the small river, you’ll notice the real reason to come here lies on the other side in Vall Llach (vallllach.com).

Albert Costa is the driving force here, transforming Vall Llach from another Porrera winery into one of the most renowned producers in Priorat through a process of strict selection, a move towards old-vine carignan and a focus on the vineyards first and foremost. If you don’t believe that ‘wine is made in the vineyards’, I urge you to visit the Mas de la Rosa vineyard and put your doubts to the test.

Vall Llach’s Vi de Vila is one of the very best in the region, combining intense dark fruits with mountain herbs, orange peel and the same rocky, dark minerality that brings a smile to every blind-taster’s face as they realise that this wine can only come from one place.

The gentle white wine Aigua de Llum whispers rather than roars, but the persistence of stone fruits, honey and white flowers is not to be underestimated and it is widely regarded as one of the best in the region.

The real diamond here, though, is undoubtedly the flagship Mas de la Rosa, a varietal carignan from a steep, unforgiving single vineyard that would make most harvesters fake an illness on the day of picking. Deep, dark and endless in length, this is the sort of wine that moves you, and if you haven’t tried varietal carignan before, this will be quite the baptism of fire.

The village of  Siurana.
The village of Siurana.

Places to Stay, Eat & Drink

Priorat is a collection of small villages dotted around the rolling mountains and hills of the region, some nestled in valleys and others climbing the peaks. While you can find accommodation in most of them, a few outperform in terms of restaurants, bars and shops, not to mention the ease of visiting wineries. Bear in mind that getting around this remote region is not easy and public transport simply doesn’t cut it for more than a single day, so be sure to hire a car at some point, even if you’re arriving by train.

Falset is the largest town in the region with a population of 3,000 people and, as a result, it’s hard to visit Priorat without at least passing through. It also happens to make a wonderful base for a trip, with Hostal Sport (hotelpriorat-hostalsport.com) being the resting spot of choice (rooms start from around €80 a night).

Spacious and quiet, Hostal Sport also has something of a hidden gem on its wine list – a vast selection of older vintages dating back as far as 20 years with no real difference in price. While you can eat in the hotel, the best restaurant in town is definitely El Celler de l’Aspic (cellerdelaspic.com), with its carefully produced tasting menus and extensive wine list, including some French classics at roughly retail price. Vinateria Aguilo (aguilovinateria.com) is also the best and largest wine shop in the region, offering wines from practically every single producer in Priorat; the next best thing to buying directly at the cellar itself.

 the team at Clos Mogador
The team at Clos Mogador.

If Falset is Priorat’s largest town, then Gratallops is its most important, from a winemaking point of view. It’s settled high on a hill overlooking much of the lower land and is home to The Big Five and many other wineries.

Accommodation is plentiful here, with Clos Figueras (closfigueras.info) offering rooms within its winery, though in town the gorgeous boutique hotel at Cal Llop (cal-llop.com) would be my first choice. The food at Cal Llop is also very good, though if you’re looking for a special meal, Buil and Gine (builgine.com) may be the best – it’s certainly the most creative restaurant in the entire region and well worth booking a table at.

The precarious vineyards at Scala Dei.
The precarious vineyards at Scala Dei.

Porrera is a much quieter place to stay but one of the most authentic, with Cal Porrera (calporrera.com) offering affordable lodging for the inevitable wine lovers passing through, in the form of a particularly gorgeous rural house. While the town is on the smaller side, it’s also home to one of the region’s best restaurants, La Cooperativa (restaurantlacooperativa.com) – the most sophisticated choice in town and also home to a particularly good local wine list.

On the corner of the square in Porrera is a rather special little shop in Vinum (vinumpriorat.com), which has many lesser-known wines from the region and a lovely little bar towards the rear. Make sure to poke around the corners here as there are a few older wines to be found for those willing to spend an extra 10 minutes examining the bottles.