Legend has it that in 12th-century Priorat, in the region of Tarragona in southern Catalonia, there was a shepherd who dreamt every night of a ladder leaning against a pine tree. The ladder ascended from the valley all the way to heaven and angels climbed up and down, tending to their heavenly and earthly duties. Some Cistercian monks, upon hearing this story, took the vision as a divine message to build the monastery Scala Dei (“Ladder of God”) in that very spot. Those clever monks, noting the angels’ comings and goings, decided to become their wine suppliers and began cultivating grapes and making wine there.
Catalonia has the greatest number of protected wine appellations, called denominaciones de origen (D.O.), in Spain. These 11 regions – not to be confused with the politically defined regions of the country – each have their own regulations designating grape varieties, soil types, weather conditions and production methods, and the four most significant among them, in terms of quantity, are Penedès, Costers del Segre, Priorat and Montsant. Although Catalonia is renowned for its cavas and white wines, some of Spain’s best reds are made here as well. All Catalan D.O.s produce good reds, but the most compelling and critically acclaimed wines come from Priorat, which is further distinguished by a Qualifed D.O., or D.O.Q., and its younger brother, Montsant.
Encircled by the Serra de Montsant mountains, Priorat has sunny Mediterranean weather, with hot, dry summers and steep hillsides covered in poor volcanic soil composed mostly of slate. (Generally in winemaking, the more your grapevines have to work to get water and nutrients from the ground, the better the wine is likely to be.) Priorat’s winemaking tradition is steeped in history. Stands of centuries-old vines yield a small quantity of excellent wine with a great deal of power and concentration. Some locals believe that the Romans constructed the oldest stone terraces on the craggy hillsides 2,000 years ago. But the old vines and terraces are just a part of the greater viticulture in the region that flourished until the 19th century, when phylloxera, an aphid that destroyed much of Europe’s wine production, and political crisis interrupted production.
In the 1980s, a group of passionate winemakers led by René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios began the difficult task of cultivating the old grenache and carignan vines, as well as introducing such international varieties as cabernet sauvignon and syrah. These producers became known for making intense, structured, big-bodied wines that are also remarkably fresh, elegant and somehow both jammy and mineral in flavor. Two of the best known wineries of the region are Clos Erasmus and Palacios’s L’Ermita.
The wines of Montsant come from vineyards adjacent to Priorat, and while the grape varieties and terroir are similar, Montsant is known more for its new vines, new concepts, younger winemakers and high quality at lower prices (Priorat produces some of Spain’s more expensive wines). As for the wines themselves, Montsants, with their more integrated tannins, are largely less structured and more rounded and delicate than Priorats.
For a taste of Montsant or Priorat – not to mention the rest of Catalonia and beyond – we recommend two shops, both under the umbrella of Vila Viniteca, a major wholesaler and distributor based in Barcelona. The company began in 1932 as a small colmado tucked away on a narrow pedestrian-only street in Born. Quim Vila is the second-generation owner of the company, which is run by his children, and his and Vila Viniteca’s rise has paralleled that of Spanish wines and winemaking over the last 30 years. Vila is now one of Catalonia’s most respected wine connoisseurs and educators and has penned a weekly column on wine for El Periódico de Catalunya for 13 years. He remains the driving force behind the company, and the shop has become a kind of landmark for oenophiles.
Today, Vila Viniteca offers hundreds of wines, most of them Spanish, as well as a full complement of gourmet food in front to pair with them. With so much to choose from, we prefer to follow the guidance of the knowledgeable staff. As an introduction to Priorat, they suggested three Álvaro Palacios bottles: the young, fresh and fruity Camins del Priorat, the classic Les Terrasses – Priorat in its purest form – and the new-style Finca Dofí, blended with merlot. Among the Montsants, they recommended Sara Pérez’s fantastic Venus La Universal wines, as well as those of the well-regarded winery Portal del Montsant.
Vila is also the owner of La Vinya del Senyor (“The Lord’s Vineyard”), a charming little wine bar opposite the church of Santa María del Mar, just a stone’s throw from the wine shop. It’s the perfect spot to share a bottle from the lengthy and impressive list or to sample by the glass from the selection of Spanish and international wines alongside a few choice bites. On a recent visit, the young and lively Comunica Samsó from Montsant played up a sweet, smoke-tinged dish of peppers and eggplants en escalivada (the Catalan verb escalivar means to cook in hot ashes, and vegetables for this dish are usually grilled or roasted). The intense Priorat Les Cousins La Sagesse, made from carignan and grenache and aged 16 months in oak, was strong, structured and direct, boldly underlining the earthy flavors of cannelloni stuffed with chicken, pork and mushrooms. Palacios’s elegant and enveloping Les Terraces subtly amplified the funk and complexity of secallona, a Catalan dry-cured sausage, but we would be happy to drink it all on its own.
With such wide-ranging selections, La Vinya del Senyor and Vila Viniteca reward repeat visits and exploration. And one of these days, we swear we’re going to see angels with bottles under their wings running towards the church!