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Priorat – A place of magic and mystique

Songbird in chief Jonny Wren reflects on his recent trip to the Priorat region in Catalunya.

Priorat is about 100 miles west of Barcelona and is surrounded by the Montsant mountain range which creates its own microclimate. There’s very little rainfall which can pose a problem with keeping the vines fresh. The soil here is quite unique and is known locally as llicorella and consists mainly of slate with some schist and granite. This soil is high in mineral and PH which helps give the wines a freshness. The two most important grape varieties for reds are Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariniña and there are a number of vines that are between 50-100 years old. International grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah were planted in the 1990s but these are slowly being grubbed up to make way for the traditional afore mentioned grapes. For whites Garnacha Blanca is king, followed by Macabeo.

Priorat has two histories, the modern one really started in the late 1970s, but the other dates back to the 12th century when Carthusian monks from Provence settled in the area, bringing with them their knowledge of vine growing and winemaking. They chose a beautiful area to build their monastery (named Scala Dei) at the foot of the Montsant mountain range and this remained a working monastery until 1835. The monks taught the locals their farming techniques and the importance of planting vines on the steep slate terraces of the region. The following 150 years saw much turbulence in Catalunya and many vineyards were left to ruin. Most of the grapes that were grown were sold to the local cooperatives to produce simple wine for local consumption.

Priorat’s new history began in 1979 when René Barbier bought his first vineyard in the area. In the 1980s, whilst working for Bodegas Palacios in Rioja, he convinced a young Álvaro Palacios of the amazing terroir and potential of the Priorat region. Others soon came on board to join the adventure resulting in the ‘Gang of Five’, each owning a single vineyard, they were – René Barbier (Clos Magador), Álvaro Palacios (Clos Dofi), Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus), Josep LI Pérez (Clos Martinet) and Carles Pastrana (Clos de l’Obac). They made their first wine in 1989 as a joint venture labelled differently but the same wine) and from then have produced their one distinctive single vineyards and the pinnacle of what modern Priorat is. In the early 1990s Álvaro Palacios purchased the vineyard of L’Ermita and this wine is considered the finest in Priorat, if not the entire country.

One of the things that struck me about this trip was the high quality of the whites I tasted. I have always considered Priorat to be an area for reds but Garnacha Blanca is a variety to watch as it can make some outstanding white wine.

So, here’s a quick rundown of my visit to Priorat and Terra Alta and the trip really got started when we made it to…

La Vinya del Senyor, Barcelona

If you decide to visit Priorat then flying to Barcelona is your best bet as the city is just over one hour’s drive away – and if you’re in Barcelona and you are a lover of wine then a trip to La Vinya del Senyor is an absolute must. It sits in front of Santa María del Mar basilica and this stunning location is matched by the equally stunning wine list. Here you will find not only the finest wines from Catalonia and Spain but a decent chunk from the rest of the world too. The bar is owned by the Ca N’Estruc estate, based in the slopes of the holy mountain of Montserrat in Esparreguera, just half an hour away from Barcelona. Here owner Francisco Marti cultivates 22 hectares planted at 165m on alluvial soil. The plots surround the family farmhouse and winery, and grapes cultivated include Xarel-lo, Moscatell, Garnatxa Blanca, Syrah, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot. I was lucky enough to taste three of the best from Ca N’Estruc at the bar itself and I can tell you one thing – there are a lot worse ways to spend a Saturday night!

Porrera – one of Priorat’s most beautiful villages

One hour acting the tourist in Barcelona on Sunday morning was enough, so me and ‘cameraman’ Jerry began the the short drive towards the Montsant mountains to ensure we made it to our destination of Porrera in time for a leisurely lunch. There are 12 main villages in Priorat that are noted for their wine production and one of the most picturesque is certainly Porrera. Along with its beauty it also seems to be one of the liveliest, however I use the term loosely – lively in Priorat, particularly in March, equates to there being more than five people around at any one time. When we arrived at just after one o’clock, the main square there was around a dozen people basking in the early afternoon sun, enjoying a beer or glass of wine from the excellent Vinum Porrera wine bar (see right).

Porrera is one of the more gastronomic villages of Priorat as it boasts two restaurants (three if you include the locals’ bar Cafè Antic where you can indulge in a game of table football), both of which have an excellent reputation. We decided to lunch at La Cooperativa for the simple reason that it was closed on a Monday so we would try the alternative, Lo Teatret, for dinner the next day. We made the right choice. The pictures of La Cooperativa you find online do not do it justice. What these photos cannot not project are ‘good vibes’ and this place has plenty of those. We were the only table when we arrived but owner Litus has a personality to fill the room as does his excellent musical choices (he spent many years in the music biz). Whistles were wetted with a glass of the delicious Terra de Cuques Garncha Blanca from the legendary Terroir al Limit winery and I felt this huge surge of elation take hold of me – it doesn’t get much better than this. Five minutes later the place was almost full and I indulged in a most memorable lunch.

Àlvaro Palacios winery visit

Monday morning and the, ahem, hard work began as we set off for our midday appointment at the Àlvaro Palacios winery, based just outside the village of Gratallops. The winery is noted not only for their exceptional wines, but also the fact that they don’t do visits, or at least the general public they don’t. So you can imagine how excited and honoured I felt when my request was accepted to visit the winery which produces some of the region’s most prestigious wines. Unfortunately Àlvaro himself wasn’t around to host us himself, however we had the pleasure of the excellent winery manager Saleta to show us around, drive us up to the legendary vineyard of L’Ermita and present a tasting of Àlvaro’s single vineyard wines from barrel. This tasting was an absolute treat and to try all wines from different plots but from the same vintage was an experience I will never forget and unlikely to experience again.

Costers del Priorat winery visit

After a spot of lunch at the rather splendid Atavus winery bar which boasts panoramic views of the hillside vineyards that surround Gratallops, we took the 30 minute drive to visit Costers del Priorat which is a stone’s throw from the village of El Molar that sits on the south west edge of the Priorat region. These short drives are far from a chore as you are greeted by some of the most stunning scenery you could wish to feast your eyes on. Vast hills of granite rock boasting terraces of old bush vines, ancient buildings – some ruined, some possibly still inhabited – built from local stone and will have experienced centuries of change. Add to this the imposing Montsant mountain range in the distance, Priorat paints the most dramatic picture.  The designated driver must take care not to become too captivated by the views as the mountain roads can get quite narrow in some places.

Costers del Priorat is a fairly new winery, starting in 2006. The highlight of the visit here was learning about the production of Ranci, a local dessert wine that is quite dry and not a million miles away from a Palo Cortado sherry. Below is a quick rundown of how it’s produced…

But it didn’t quite go to plan first time round…

You’ll be pleased to hear that the only thing hurt was my pride…

Altavins Winery Visit, Terra Alta

Altavins owner Joan Arrufi ‘straddles the barrels’!

Our flight back to the UK was booked for Tuesday early evening and that gave us time to drive to the Terra Alta region, about 40 miles west of Priorat, to visit the superb Altavins winery, based in the town of Batea.

Great wines are usually made by great people and this is very much the case at Altavins

Altavins Viticultors was established in 2001 by Joan Arrufi Peig with an emphasis on small production, quality wines and organic farming. Joan is a larger than life character and his company is as captivating as his wines. As soon as we arrived we were ushered into a 4 x 4 to visit Joan’s new project, hectares of new vines planted in 2020 plus a ‘Priorat-esque’ south facing terrace that will be planted next year – exciting stuff! Once back at the winery it was time to get down to some serious tasting and Joan mountaineered up various barrels to give us samples of wines still ageing in cask. Unfortunately the clock was ticking and we didn’t have long before we needed to begin our two hour drive back to Barcelona, but we managed to taste a handful of exceptional wines including the superb entry level red Almode Roble Garnacha Peluda, the delicious Illercavonia Garnacha Blanca AND (one of the wines of the entire trip) Vinerel-Les Cariñena, a spellbinding old vine Cariñena, aged for 11 months in cement tanks. What a finale!

 

Yet again Priorat did not fail to captivate me with its striking scenery and delicious wines – not to mention the welcoming locals. It will not be long before I return again, most likely with a group of Songbird customers – so if you think this could be for you then drop me a line on jonny@songbirdwine.co.uk

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