AOQ Priorat and AO Montsant

Priorat, through a glass lightly rose

Priorat, through a glass lightly

written by Michael Oudyn

My friend Ricard Domingo and I are on our way to Falset.  About a two-hour drive south of Barcelona this town of 5000 inhabitants is this week´s center of the Spanish wine world.  We will be spending three days tasting, talking about wines, and whatever else might pop up at the Mostra de Vi, a wine fair for D.O. Montsant and D.O.Q. Priorat.

We are reminiscing about wines in the good old days and how far Priorat has come.  In the 1950s Ricard worked in his father´s bar in Barcelona and some of their best wines came from the comarca (county) of Priorat.  They were not the D.O.Q. Priorat wines of today; they didn´t even have labels.  Horse carts delivered the wine in 60-liter bullskins or 120-liter wooden barrels.  No preservatives were used, so as the wine level went down and air got in, you made a little sulphur cloth, opened the barrels, and burned the sulphur. If the wine had already gone bad it was into the vinegar jar with it.  This barrel wines were big, good, red, and packed a major alcoholic punch and this is what mattered in the Spain of that time.

In 1971, when I first came to Barcelona, there was still no DOQ Priorat.  We used to go to a corner bodega with a transparent-plastic one-litre Coca-Cola bottle and fill it with wine from a barrel.  If you chose well you got good wine at a cheaper price than water.  If you didn´t the wine was almost undrinkable, although my Spanish friends didn´t seem to notice.  Sometimes the good stuff was from the Priorat, I am told now.  But at the time I´d never even heard of the place.

How things have changed. Now some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Priorat and it is one of the two areas which are officially sanctified as D.O.C.´s rather than D.O.´s, the other being Rioja.

The Spanish wine scene has changed dramatically in the last 35 years, but nowhere as dramatically as in the Priorat.   We in the United States think of our wine industry as new, but in a way the modern wine industry here is younger.

The Tarragona wines from around Falset got rave reviews from no less than Pliny the Elder in Roman times and were made by the Greeks even before then.  Then came the Dark Ages. Then modern phase which started when the monks at the Scala Dei (Ladder of God) monastery started making wines.  Priorat is Catalan for Priory, thus the name.  Cellers de Scala Dei was founded in 1973 and still makes modest, quaffable wines in the ruins of the magnificent old monastery.

The true mind-boggling success story started in 1989 with the arrival of five pioneers to the Priorat.  They were young, audacious, and talented, with experience from all over the world. They knew the wine was good and they saw the potential for greatness.  When Parker gave Alvaros Palacio a 96 for his l´Ermita the rest was history.

Montsant is even newer. Like a doughnut encompassing Priorat with a bite taken out of it on the east end it was awarded its D.O. in 2001.  They hit the ground running.

I had my first Montsant (a Laurona) in 2006 and it was a revelation; it was perfectly balanced and delicious.  I ran out and bought five more bottles of it.  It was about $15.  But the prices are going up now.  There is a difference of opinion as to whether Monsant can ever approach the sublime quality, and astronomical prices, of Priorat; some, usually the Montsant makers, say why not; others, usually the Priorat makers say no way.  Priorat has a near monopoly on llicorella, the slate soil and that´s what makes Priorat different. In any case seek out some Montsant now before the prices get any higher.

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