Priorat can be proud as the only wine region in Spain, other than Rioja, to have its own DOCa (Spanish abbreviation for qualified appellation of origin and highest qualification level). Priorat obtained this qualification in 2000 after meeting numerous strict requirements.
Priorat is a small region in south Catalonia in the Tarragona province. It is mountainous and isolated, containing small villages scattered across the area. Not too long ago, this was the only region in Catalonia without traffic lights! It’s rich in history, tradition and terroir and that’s what favoured this wine region to be recognised with the DOCa qualification.
The name Priorat translates to Priory and gives us a clue into the origin of the land. Carthusian monks from Provence in France moved into the region in the 12th Century and settled in the monastery of Escaladei at the foot of the Montsant mountain range. These monks found peace and isolation, perfect for their spiritual retreat but also for the cultivation of grapevines.
Legend has it King Alfons I of Aragon was in charge of building a monastery for the monks and sent two of his knights to find the perfect location for it. These knights travelled across the kingdom and finally stumbled across the region of Priorat. When nearing the l’Oliver valley they spotted a shepherd with his flock of sheep and questioned him about the characteristics of the land. The Shepherd told the knights about the great qualities the land had to offer including a very particular pine tree. He went on to explain that everytime he had a nap under that tree he dreamt of angels walking up a stairway to heaven. The knights interpreted this as a heavenly sign and thought it the perfect location for the monastery and the name it should bear: Scala Dei, meaning staircase of God. Seven villages developed around the monastery, ruled by the then prior. This fact gave the area its current name: Priorat or Priory in English.
Similar to many other excellent wine regions in Europe, Priorat is all about terroir. The appellation finds itself surrounded by the Montsant appellation and is made up of only 11 small villages, all of them set apart by winding roads that run through its mountains and valleys. The most prominent type of soil is made of black slate or llicorella in Catalan. The region is very proud of the soil which gives its wines the minerality that makes them special, however, these soils are poor in nutrients and quite acidic.
Moreover the Mediterranean climate of the region plays another important factor in production. Vines face hot summers, scarce rainfall and cold winters which in turn produce grapes that are concentrated and complex in flavours. Due to the rugged character of the terrain, parcels are small and most of them planted on terraces on the slopes of the mountains, with some close to a 95% gradient. The average yield is about 2,000 kg per hectare, far below the amount of other well known wine regions.
All of this makes Priorat wines expensive and sought after, although it hasn’t always been this way. For a very long time Priorat suffered from a declining population and only saw a renaissance around the 1980s when a handful of wine pioneers arrived here from outside the region’s boundaries and realised the potential of its soils and climate. René Barbier and Álavaro Palacios were two of these men, now famous for making the most renowned Priorat wines.
The appellation produces white, rosé, red and sweet wines but also the lesser known, rancid wine. Red wine is overwhelmingly the most common produced in Priorat. The approved red grape varieties are Garnatxa Negra (Grenache), Garnatxa Peluda, Samsó (Carignan), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Picapoll negre (Picpoul Noir). Most Priorat wines are blends of these grape varieties although some monovarietals also exist, especially those of Carignan and Grenache, both native to the land and climate.
Generally speaking, wines from Priorat are medium to full bodied with a minimum alcohol content of 12.5%, though the greater majority exceed this mark by far. They are powerful and robust but show complexity with ripe fruitiness and some minerality too. Most producers opt for ageing their wines in French oak barrels, even monovarietals of Grenache, which add spicy notes and finesse. Most wines have great potential for ageability.
When it comes to food pairing think of rich foods where the main players are red meats, especially wild game such as duck, venison, and rabbit. Dishes with peppery flavours will match the spiciness of the wine, and those containing some sweetness will counteract the high alcohol content, a good example being sticky barbecued ribs.