The wines of Spain’s remote, rugged Priorat are winning fans around the world

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 Spain’s 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. It’s one of only two regions in Spain, along with Rioja, that has earned the country’s highest wine classification, DOCa or DOQ, “origin of greatest quality.”

“It’s 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 L’Ermita 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 world’s finest tables — although most of them aren’t 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 it’s 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.

Later, as he poured Finca La Planeta 2007, he explained how the wine is fermented in oak barrels to give it “a final touch of velvet.’’

The 1997 Finca La Planeta 2007, a cab-garnacha blend, was named one of the world’s 100 best wines by Wine Spectator magazine, and other accolades have followed. Now, Clos Pasanau produces about 50,000 bottles annually, about half of which are exported.

The Priorat’s leading producers also include British-born Christopher Cannan and his wife, Charlotte, who discovered the area in the 1980s and began exporting from the Celler Scala Dei. In 1997, they purchased Clos Figueres, just north of the village of Gratallops (Scratching Wolves in Catalan), on the advice of Réné Barbier, who is considered a founder of the 1980s “new wave movement’’ — making wine from old vines with modern techniques.

Clos Figueres turns out four blends — the reds Clos Figueres, Font de la Figuera and Serras del Priorat Negre and a Font de la Figuera white — aging them in barrels in a large underground stone cistern that used to hold the village’s water supply. Production is limited to about 25,000 bottles a year.

Outside the nearby village of Porrera, Paco Castillo climbed the steep slope of his vineyard to show off some of his oldest vines. Even though he’s used to it, his feet slipped on the shale soil of the hill that’s shaped like a clamshell and was the inspiration for his label’s shell logo.

During the intense heat of summer, he and his daughter Ingrid work the vineyard from 6 a.m. to noon; during the harvest in late September and October, other family members pitch in.

Castillo takes great pride in the 13,000 to 15,000 bottles of Clos Dominic wines he produces annually from this 17-acre parcel.

They are served, he says, at Girona’s three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca, which topped Restaurant magazine’s list of the world’s best restaurants. Later, pouring a bottle of Vinyes Baixes 2008, he notes, “This one is in the best restaurant in China. Don’t ask me the name. I can’t say it.”

His best wine, he says, is the Clos Dominic Vinyes Altes 2008, a blend of 70 percent cariñena and 30 percent garnacha grapes that spends two years in French oak barrels.

Perhaps because of cultural and ancestral ties to Spain, Priorats tend to be more available in South Florida than in some other parts of the United States. Miami and Fort Lauderdale Total Wine & More stores, for example, stock several varieties priced from $19.99 to more than $100.

Each summer, Fort Lauderdale’s Wine Watch holds a series of tastings that owner Andrew Lampasone calls a “crash course on the Priorat.’’

“You can find a good Priorat for $25 to $30,” says Wine Watch consultant Caldera, “and at that price you will find something that will really surprise you.’’

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