GRATALLOPS, Spain -- At first glance, the Priorat a remote, rocky region with towering cliffs that resemble something out of an old Western may seem an unlikely wine-producing region. But its stunted, century-old vines on steeply terraced slopes produce some of Spains most coveted vino.
They say the more the vines suffer, the better the wines, Andrew Malcolm Wilson, a wine guide, told a group of seven Americans he led on a tour of the area two hours southwest of Barcelona.
The Priorat takes its name from the monastery, or priory, that Carthusian monks established here in the 12th century. It was these monks who introduced winemaking to the region.
Once nearly forgotten, the Priorat has made a comeback as a producer of bold, exciting wines with a high alcohol content. Its one of only two regions in Spain, along with Rioja, that has earned the countrys highest wine classification, DOCa or DOQ, origin of greatest quality.
Its an up-and-coming wine region, but we usually have to turn folks on to it, says Flavio Caldera, a consultant at the Wine Watch. The Fort Lauderdale shop stocks about 20 Priorat labels, including a few bottles of Alvaro Palacios LErmita 2009 that sell for more than $1,000.
Our Priorat section is pretty big because we enjoy these wines, says Caldera. We are big fans.
Priorat production is still relatively small, and wines from this small pocket of Catalonia have a certain cachet because of their scarcity. About 100 regional wineries turn out about 4 million bottles, mostly reds, annually. It takes a lot to squeeze a bottle of wine from vines grown under such stressful conditions, and that pushes up prices.
Priorat wines are served at some of the worlds finest tables although most of them arent in Spain. About 80 percent of production is exported and about half of the exports go to the United States.
Despite the long winemaking tradition of the Priorat, viticulture nearly died out here. The monks of the Scala Dei (Ladder of God) priory tended their vineyards for centuries, but in 1835, their lands were expropriated and distributed to small land holders. In the latter part of the 19th century, the region, like much of Europe, was devastated by phylloxera, an insect that attacks the roots of grape vines. By the 1970s, vineyard acreage had dwindled to less than 1,500 from the 12,000 or so cultivated by the monks.
Viticulture started to make a comeback in the Priorat in the1980s when a group of wine enthusiasts saw the potential in the region, which is also known for its olives, hazelnuts and almonds.
Alberto Pasanau and his family grow grapes at an elevation of more than 2,400 feet in the highest village of the Priorat, La Morera de Montsant. The climate is arid, and the 60- to 70-year-old vines must push through the rocky shale soil searching for every drop of water, with some tap roots extending as far as 75 feet.
Such duress is considered a plus because it yields grapes with concentrated juices and flavor.
The quality would not be the same if we irrigated, says Pasanau, who joined the family business in 2007.
On a patch they call Finca Planeta, the Pasanau family planted the first cabernet sauvignon vines in the region.
The cabernet sauvignon is very good and its been a success, but people are still looking for the traditional the way wine has been produced for centuries, says Pasanau, whose family also grows garnacha (grenache), mazuelo, syrah and merlot grapes.