Fellow Travellers

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Priorat – Cataluña Spain March 31 to April 2 2010

This is a long overdue post but in all good conscience I must share our tour of Priorat with you before I move on to our more recent journeys.  Forgive me?

I had spent a great deal of time trying to find information on the internet regarding the wine region of Priorat.  I suspect the trouble lay in the fact that I don’t speak Cataluñ or Spanish which made it was tough sleuthing.  This wine region south of Barcelona sits in the shadow of the well known region of Pendes where the majority of Spain’s Cava sparkling wine is produced.  The region was brought back to life in the 1980’s by five young Spaniards who believed the terrior could produce wines to rival the great Rioja and Ribera del Duero reds. 

As the area with its Llicorella soil suitable for growing Carinena grapes is quite small the wines of Priorat command relatively high prices.  It is  a classic supply and demand story (a most obvious insight from my first year economics – who said I didn’t pay attention in class?).  Much of the grapes are still farmed by local people on rocky hilly terrain and sold the vintners who have come to Priorat to chase the dream of producing a unique and high quality wine. 

We learned that the region is not set up for wine tourism as yet but many are hopeful their wines will draw people to the region.   For instance, the owners of Vall Lach are there for two reasons, firstly to make great wine and secondly, but of no less importance to them, to build up the local economy.  One of the owners Enrie Costa Pages, originally from the region, and the other a famous Catalonian folk singer, Lluis Lach , are creating jobs and infusing a sense of pride through their presence.

The day of our arrival we proceeded to Vall Lach  in the town of Porrera in hopes of obtaining a tour.  This is not Napa baby and however we were received very kindly and offered an appointment for the following day at 11 am the following day when the wine maker was available to show us the operation.  We happily accepted and returned the next morning to meet with him.  It turns out the junior wine maker was the son of Enrie and had recently returned from two apprenticeships in the US and Australia.  

We were graciously toured through the blending and bottling facilities in a building a block away from the offices, then returned to complete the tour in the building of the offices where the wines were stored in regular oak barrels in the 3 upper floors of the office building.  Did you note the blending and bottling facility was a block away?  How do they move the wine to the barrels and into storage you ask?  Why via a truck and then they pump the wines through an open window into the barrels!  Wow – what a lot of work – no wonder the prices are high!

It also seems strange that all the wineries in the majority of the world are cellaring their product underground whereas this winery was using the upper floors of a building in a country where the temperature can soar to 40 degrees C in the summer.  They say have perfected the cooling of the building, we were told, so the wines do not suffer.  There wines are quite nice though so I suppose they must know what they are doing.   We sampled a powerful white wine directly from the barrel and rather than tasting the reds the gracious young wine maker sent us off with a ½ bottle of their red to try.  Nice!

We took the road north to Gratallops to our lunch appointment the Cellers de Gratallops owned by Clos L’Obac .  A quick tour of the town unveiled a few artisan shops selling honey, unique Spanish foods and pottery then we headed for lunch where a most pleasant surprise awaited us.  We were the first patrons in the restaurant that afternoon which features a set lunch daily (no dinner).  Being the astute observers of all things wine we noted 5 carafes of decanted wine next to one of the set tables.   Before we had confirmed our meal with our British waiter who was having a hard time speaking English (been in Spain too long was his explanation), the owner of Clos L’Obac arrived with 3 business associates. 

Carles Pastrana was entertaining the wine distributors over lunch where they would enjoy a blind vertical tasting of 5 years of his famous wines.   They would compare the years and each would try to determine which year was which.   Hearing that we were off to tour the winery after our meal, Carles came to greet us and insisted that we also enjoy the tasting with our meal!  What generosity! 

We were thrilled of course and took the opportunity to make some notes on the differences between the years.  This gave us an appreciation for the special role mother nature plays each year with the harvest and grape quality.  The vintners table was boisterous and jovial as Carles and the distributors began sharing their guesses on the vintages.  No perfect score for anyone, including the owner of the winery!  Our meal was wonderful, our best in Priorat, and we were sorry to hear they were not open for dinner. 

We walked over to the winery after our lunch which is less than a kilometre from the town.  There we took a private tour with one of the wine makers, the brother in law of the Carles Pastana.  He showed us all of the facilities, the crushing area, the vat and blending, the barrel storage and the bottling.  We then went to the tasting room to enjoy the breadth of their offerings.  After an afternoon such as this we could not help but purchase some wine and an amazing briefcase like carry case for transporting 5 bottles that can be checked as luggage!  I suspect our new case will definitely be used on a few trips in the near future.

The draw of wine tasting aside, Priorat is stunningly beautiful and worthy of a visit in it’s own right.  The Montsant Mountain range is spectacular and I often found myself mesmerized by the vistas as we drove between the small mountain towns.  Those who enjoy hiking could easily combine a 3 to 4 day trip to the region to enjoy both nature and the fruits of the region (in liquid form of course!).  Many of the towns are built exclusively from stone with excessively steep roads perched high on top of the hill and mountain tops.  It makes for very stressful driving as all of these towns were built before cars appeared in the world! 

On our way north we detoured to visit the town of Siruana which is on a very high peak near in the Montsant Natural park.  Given my fear of heights I thought they should really surround it with a fence to prevent people from falling off, but it seems few shared my concerns as they stood on the edge of the cliffs looking 100’s of meters down to the valley below.  The town was small and all the houses, churches (2 or 3), hotels and roads were built entirely of stone.  It was very charming and was definitely known to Spanish tourists who were there in hordes that Good Friday.  

Although Priorat was a vexing area to find information on, what a fabulous and delicious experience - I am so happy we went.

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