The Spanish wine regions of Priorat and Montsant are two well-hidden diamonds in the rough located only an hour and a half south of Barcelona and east of Tarragona, Catalunya’s southern-most province, nestled at the base of the Montsant mountain range, after which the D.O. Montsant is named. The name “Priorat” is derived from the first Carthusian monastery founded on the Iberian Peninsula, located in the town of Scala Dei (or “Stairway to God” in Catalan), right in the heart of modern-day Priorat. This monastery, which still bears its original name of “La Cartoxia,” had a leader known as a “prior” who ruled over his territory (called his “priorato”) with absolute control. Although “La Cartoxia” was the center of wealth and power in this region for hundreds of years, it was also the object of severe jealousy by many of the local townspeople and in the mid 1800’s the resident monks were forced to abandon the monastery. Due to the extreme looting that took place upon the monk’s departure, all that currently stands as proof of this era is the original entryway of the monastery.
It is generally accepted that the history of winemaking within Priorat and Montsant consists of three “etapas,” or stages of evolution. To fully understand the first stage, we must think back to pre-post Roman times, when the area was scarce of water but abundant with wine production. The vast quantity of wine produced during this era is evidenced by the numerous “murros,” or ancient rock-lined terraces, which still cover the hillsides of this area for as far as the eye can see. During this era, because water was scarce and wine was plentiful, the latter substituted the former not only as the normal accompaniment to a meal, but also as the common beverage to satisfy thirst. Indeed, wine was served with breakfast, on bread with sugar for children and produced in vast quantities in almost every cellar throughout the region.
A few hundred years after the Roman reign in Spain, the Muslims took over and the regular vast consumption of wine declined rapidly. The local market for wine decreased accordingly and people who resided within what is now known as Priorat/Montsant were forced to turn to other agricultural crops to makes ends meet, where almonds, olives and hazelnuts replaced the vines on all but a few murros throughout the region. In 1153 the Muslim reign ended in Spain with one of their last stands in the north of the country occurring in town of Siurana. Siurana, which is located within the D.O. Montsant, is located on the highest and end-most point of the Montsant mountain range. It is here where the Queen of the Moors is rumored to have thrown herself to her death, ending the Moorish rule in the north of Spain.
In 1163 “La Cartoixa” was founded in the town of Scala Dei, spearheading a period of great prosperity throughout the region. During this second stage of wine production within Priorat/Montsant so much wine was produced that by the middle of the 14th century, more wine was exported than was consumed locally. Vine crops remained almost a monoculture and prosperity continued to fill the region until the introduction of phylloxera in 1879. With the invasion and spread of phylloxera the economic stability of the region wavered, then crashed, and there was nothing short of a mass exodus as the once prosperous culture, based solely on viticulture, had now come to an end. To show how dramatic this change really was: In 1887 the population of the “comarca” Priorat was listed as 27,958 inhabitants and the area was considered to be the 14th most populated region in all of Catalunya. Regular censuses have since been taken every 10 years or so and the highest population the region has since reached was 10,432 inhabitants in 1981.
Following the introduction of phylloxera the region remained quiet for several years then slowly but surely the people who stayed behind in their beloved Priorat replanted their land with vines and other agricultural products. “Granel,” or jug wine, was once again made in every cellar and every basement, and soon neighbors of the region began to trade their jugs and blend different varietals together. With time, these primitive wine making practices produced wines with such notoriety that in 1954 the comarca Priorat was labeled as an official “Denominación de Origen”(see definition below).
In 1974 the first winery to bottle wine in the D.O.Q. Priorat was opened in Scala Dei and the days when highly “oxidized and alcoholic wines were the rule,” soon came to an end. At the turning point year of 1974, our third stage in the evolution of wine production in Priorat/Montsant, the FAO published an extensive report that detailed the viticultural and potential economic attributes of the area. It was concluded that the area assembled all the conditions to produce one of the best wines in the world and people took notice. Based on this report, a group of young wine enthusiasts from outside the area set their eyes on this land and by “recalling authentic cooperativist attitudes inherited from the sixties, sharing ambitions and equipment, (they) decided to elaborate new and vigorous wines from both local and foreign grape varieties” (Dawes, G. The Wine News, 02/05). These young grape growers most notably were: Alvaro Palacios, Rene Barbier (of Clos Mogador), Josep Lluís Perez (of Mas Martinet) and Carles Pastrana (of Costers del Siurana/Clos de L’Obac) and Daphne Glorian (of Clos Erasmus).
With these five distinctive and quite powerful personalities forging the way, Priorat wines began to take on their own unique character and with the addition of a few French varietals blended in with the indigenous Cariñena and Garnacha; Priorat wines quickly increased in popularity and notoriety.
Prepared by Nicole Andrus of NISO WINE TOURS