Priorat, it's the Schist!

by Alison Smith

Si ets Priorati, de les pedres treuras
- "If you are from Priorat, you will extract wine from the stones", or so the saying goes.

Handfuls of rocks filled my pockets, shoes and luggage during a brief 3-day visit to Spain's magnificent Priorat a few years ago. Beyond walking the vineyards, I had the special honor of breaking-bread with the pioneering winemakers and vignerons who lived in the tiny villages of Gratallops, Falset, Porrera, and the even smaller hamlet of Scala Dei that surround the region. I can still hear the kids laughing and playing outside in the middle of the village under the stars at night...

To one's eye it's all about the picturesque hillsides, but what is synonymous with Priorat is the mix of stone, taste, slate - the llicorella. "Priorato" wineries are more removed, a bit isolated, in a rugged, steep and mountainous region, due west of Reus and Tarragona, 2 hours plus from Barcelona by car. Much of the D.O. is sustained by the stony terrain, by a basin of Palaeozoic sediments consisting of Carboniferous slate. We in the wine biz often say Priorat - it's the Schist! Incredibly steep and slippery rocky layers have formed over the years where erosion has given rise to a rugged landscape with multitudes of hidden corners and jagged edges. A magical view with each glance of the eye, Priorat will forever be a lovely and memorable wine trip for this gal.

Quick Facts:

  • It is one of only two wine regions in Spain to qualify as DOCa, the highest qualification level for a wine region according to Spanish wine regulations, alongside Rioja DOCa.
  • The traditional grape variety grown in El Priorat is the red Garnacha Tinta (Grenache).
  • Local tradition has it that vines were first planted on its vertiginous, mean, slate and shale slopes by Carthusian monks, who founded the Abbey (Priorat) of Scala Dei in 1194 and gave the region a new name. The monks discovered that the distinctive mica-rich slate and decayed schist soil of the region, known locally as llicorella, enables the vine roots to penetrate deep in order to find water, and they probably relished the peculiar challenge of viticulture on such challenging terrain.
  • After phylloxera hit in 1893, the farmers who stayed turned to almonds, hazelnuts and olives as alternative crops. It wasn't until the 1950s that the replanting of vineyards began.
  • Fast forward to the last decade... Priorat suddenly stepped into the limelight when a group of ambitious winemakers recognised that the region had the potential to make exceptional wines from low yielding, often ancient plots of Grenache and Carignan. They bought land around the village of Gratallops, planted new vines comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah and launched the 'Gratallops project'.
  • Most vineyards are planted between 328 feet (100 meters) and 2,297 feet (700 meters) above sea level.
  • Due to the impossible gradients of the land, donkeys and asses are the farmer's best friend (I was told this while sitting shotgun alongside legendary winemaker Daphne Glorian going backwards up a 1-lane, steep and curvy hill).
  • Currently there are over 600 vine-growers, and over 150 private wineries.

I would love to hear more Priorat stories, facts and maybe some fiction from the Wooters! Enjoy this first Spanish offering on Wine.Woot!

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