Priorat: Medieval Monks, Modern Rebirth and Outstanding Wine from Spain

Close-up of vineyard in Priorat, Spain.

Priorat: Medieval Monks, Modern Rebirth and Outstanding Wine from Spain

Today we travel to Spain to the Priorat DOQ. This is a place with an ancient history that has only recently re-emerged as a formidable growing and wine making region.

Catalonia (Catalunya or Cataluña)

Spain-map-Spanish-Provinces
Spain-map-Spanish-Provinces

To begin, let’s get our bearings on the globe.  We are in Spain in the province of Catalonia. This the Northwest corner of Spain and its northern border in the Pyrenees is shared with France.  It’s western border is the Mediterranean Sea and famous city of Barcelona sits within its boundary. 

Catalonia boasts 10 DOs, (Denominaciónes de origen or recognized wine regions) including the over arching Catalunya DO. 

  • Alella DO
  • Conca de Barberà DO
  • Costers del Segre DO
  • Emporadà DO
  • Monsant DO
  • Penendès DO
  • Priorat DOQ
  • Pla de Bages DO
  • Tarragona DO
  • Terra Alta DO

The people of the region speak Catalan, which has different spellings and pronunciations than Spanish. You may see multiple spellings for regions, grapes etc.

Priorat and its history

Serra del Montsant in the Priorat, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.
Serra del Montsant in the Priorat, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.

Priorat sits south east of Barcelona, just 18 miles from the Mediterranean sea.  Located in the mountains, the steep vineyards are protected from the sea air as well as from the winds from the Ebro Valley.

The region’s name comes from the Carthusian Order of monks. They arrived here in the late 12th century and created the Cartoixa d’Escaladei Priory at the foot of the Montsant Mountains.  Of course, they got busy planting grapes.  They tended these vineyards for nearly 700 years.  Then, similar to France, the state took the lands and redistributed them.  Things were looking good for wine here, and then phylloxera hit.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, then Franco came to power. Franco believed wine was only to be used for sacramental purposes, well, and to boost the economy. He was interested only in quantity not quality. At this time, wine in the region all but disappeared.

I will admit, I love to dig deep and I have found some sites with amazing details on the history of this region.  If this has just whet your whistle, scroll to the bottom and check out some of the links.

A new start and some new varieties

In 1979 René Barbier bought a vineyard here. Soon several friends joined him. In the early 1990s René and five friends created five “Clos” in the village of Gratallops in Priorat.  They revived the ancient Carinyena (Carignan) vines and planted some other varieties including Garnatxa (Grenache), Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The skill and knowledge of these winemakers, who saw the potential in this region’s landscape and soils, have turned this into one of Spain’s most exciting areas for wine.  In 2009, Priorat was elevated to a DOQ (DOCa), only the 2nd in Spain.  Much of the unique quality is due to the soil and landscape

Llicorella soils and “costers”

Mountains and vineyards in Priorat, Spain
Mountains and vineyards in Priorat, Spain

The landscape here is unforgiving.  Even the foothills of Montsant are “costers”, meaning “steep slope” in the Catalan language.  Much of the land has to be terraced to be worked. 

Old grenache grapevine  with llicorella soil in Priorat Region, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain
Old grenache grapevine with llicorella soil in Priorat Region, Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.jpg

Also, there is a unique soil here is called llicorella.  This is a decomposed slate, flecked with mica that breaks easily.  Lovely.  Steep slopes with bits of slate that break and slide under your feet.  Sounds like heaven right?  Well…for the grapes, it is.

Climate

The climate here is continental. Summers are long and hot with little rainfall. This is helpful for the late-ripening Carinyena (Carignan), and Garnatxa (Grenache).

Priorat DOQ

The Priorat DOQ takes quality seriously and labeling indicates the level of quality. The new classification system is inspired by the Burgundian model.  Visit the Consell Regulador DOQ Priorat for all the details.

Els noms de la terra (The Names of the Land) Classification system

  • Priorat DOQ = regional wines
  • Vi de Vila = village wine, 90% vines over 10 years old, 60% Carinyena and/or Garnatxa
  • Vi de Paratge = single zone (smaller than a village, larger than a vineyard), 90% vines over 15 years old, produced inside the village,60% Carinyena and/or Garnatxa
  • Vinya Classifacada = single vineyard, 80% vines over 20 years old  (premier cru), 60% Carinyena and/or Garnatxa
  • Gran Vinya Classificada = single vineyard, 80% vines over 35 years old, 90% Carinyena and/or Garnatxa. Vineyards must have been planted before 1945 (grand cru)

The region has over 2,000 hectares of vineyards, 575 winemakers and 109 wineries.

Vines here are low yield, due to the heat, the soils and the age of the vines. This makes for delicious wine.

Escaladei

Within the Priorat region there are 12 villages and the different villages or sub zones, are the Vins de Vila. The different villages fall into 4 different categories as far as flavor.  (Think of this like the distinction between the Beaujolais Cru.)

The 12 villages were established by the monks and the oldest, Escaladei, means “ladder to god” in Latin. The wine we are tasting comes from this village. Wines of this region are noted for structure and finish.

MaingatetothemonasteryofScaladeiinthePrioratregionofCataloniaSpain
Main gate to the monastery of Scaladei in the Priorat region of Catalonia, Spain

Conreria d’Scala Dei

Conreria d’Scala Dei, the winery that this wine comes from, is located near the old priory and it is from there that it takes its name. Winemaker Jordi Vidal founded this winery in 1997 with two friends. He makes wines from several vineyards in the area with vines from 10 to 100 years old. This allows him variety in elevation, location and soil.

Black Slate Escaladei 2017

Steak Romanesco and Black Slate 6875

The Black Slate Escaladei is a blend of Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carinyena. The grapes come from vineyards in the foothills of the Montsant Mountains. There are 3 “Black Slate” Wines made by the winemaker, Jordi Vidal. This is said to be the most elegant of the three. The fruit comes from 40 to 100-year-old vines grown at 500 meters (1640 feet). The soils here are a mix of the llicorella and clay-limestone and the vineyard is certified organic.

From the Producer:

  • Hand-harvested, destemmed, 2-day pre-fermentation maceration, fermented in concrete, 20-day maceration
  • Aged 18 months in French oak foudres (50HL) and 500L French oak demi-muids

Steak and romesco

Steak Romanesco and Black Slate 6880

We had chosen a recipe from Sun Basket for Steaks and romesco with baby broccoli, summer squash and almonds.

The steak was simply pan fried rare. While it rested the baby broccoli cooked in the same pan, soaking up the juices and getting just a little char. Then the summer squash and almonds were added and we scrapped up all the delicious bits on the bottom into the mix.

We served this with some sage gnocchi, and placed the sliced steak on a bed of romesco sauce.

The Pairing

When we chose the dish, I went off looking for pairing and found one inspired by Nikki at Palm & Vine. She says:

“If serving the sauce with grilled steaks, try a full-bodied red like a Priorat. The mineral qualities of a Priorat would help to enhance the nuttiness of the romesco sauce.

Nikki of Palm & Vine http://www.palmandvine.com/romesco-sauce/
Steak Romanesco and Black Slate 6883

The pairing was sublime. The wine had notes of black plum and licorice.  The slight char on the broccoli was lovely with these notes and made the fruit sing.

The Romesco sauce with the priorat was genius (thanks Nikki).  The pepper and spice vibrate with the wine and the umami of the meat resonates with the more savory notes in the wine.

Okay, I’m a bit exhausted, but happily full after this whirlwind trip to Catalonia and Priorat. Tomorrow I’ll check the cellar and plan my next trip.

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Sources and links

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Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.

When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.

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Robin Renken
[email protected]
4 Comments
  • Lynn
    Posted at 12:42h, 08 May Reply

    Enjoyed traveling to Priorat with you Robin, and reviewing the quality system. In fact it took me back to Mark and my trip there in 2009. The hills and vineyards were as you describe. We didn’t know at that time the slate we were looking at was llicorella… I wasn’t quite as geeky then. And now I’m in the mood for romesco ;-D

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 00:00h, 10 May

      Thanks Lynn. I dove into this not realizing how deep in I would get. It’s a fascinating region. When I have a chance I look forward to diving back in and learning about the differences in the different regions. It seems that the region is a bit like Beaujolais with different styles coming from different villages.
      I must have had romesco before, but wow! Michael and I really loved it and now I want to learn to make it from scratch!

  • advinetures
    Posted at 14:33h, 10 May Reply

    Oh Robin, just what we needed as we were supposed to be in Spain next week! We’ve travelled through much of Northern Spain but Priorat was “on the list”. A fantastic look at this historic region and so glad it is starting to get the recognition it deserves. Until we can get there in person, we appreciate you taking us there through this article.

    • Robin Renken
      Posted at 17:02h, 10 May

      Oh Allison, I’m so sad about your trip. It’s such an amazing region, I look forward to getting there myself! I feel like I just touched the surface on this fascinating place and I can’t wait to learn more! The vineyards are pretty beautiful and the history! What a fantastic thing that they have set their standards so high as they re-establish this ancient region.

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