Gratallops - the centre of the wine revival in
Priorat is a predominantly rural, sparsely populated region
situated in the northeast of Spain, 120 kilometres southwest of Barcelona. The
relief is characterised by narrow valleys and steep mountains. Priorat has a
famous winemaking history that began in the 12th century with the Carthusian
monks of Scala Dei. The vineyards are planted on the steep slopes, which rise
from 100-700 metres.
Location map of Priorat
In the 19th century there were about 15,000 hectares under
vine, but by the late 1980s a mere 900 hectares remained, mostly old vineyards
high on the slopes, hard to get to and punishing to work.
Three events led to the decline of Priorat: the 19th-century
sale of Scala Dei’s lands, an outbreak of phylloxera that devastated vineyards
in 1900, and mass tourism that pulled people away from Priorat to the coast in
the 1960s. Twenty years ago, the Priorat region was on the verge of extinction,
with grape prices so low that this was one of Spain's most impoverished
The decline seemed irreversible, and as late as the 1980s, only
one single-lane road connected Priorat's crumbling medieval towns to the rest of
Spain. It took a few visionaries to realise Priorat's potential. Most agree
René Barbier initiated the Priorat revival. Working weekends with four other
producers, he established a co-operative that put its first wine on the market
in 1991. From that first release, American wine critic Robert Parker was a fan,
going so far as to give this first vintage 100 points on his 100-point scale.
The New York Times published an article extolling the virtues of the
Priorat wines and prices soared, with wines commanding more than $300 a bottle.
In barely 15 years, the wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to the most
expensive in Spain. Outside industrial wine investors such as Torres and
Freixenet have begun acquiring land, and the number of producers has risen from
10 in 1989 to about 85 today.
The revival of Priorat has seen vineyard area practically
double since 2000, as have export sales. In 2005, its most recent audited
year, Priorat exported nearly 552,000 litres of wine, a 9 percent increase on
2004. Though the region’s main client is the US, where nearly 200,000 litres
are sold, the largest growth was seen on the UK market, where sales went from
20,000 litres in 2004 to 55,000 in 2005.
Vineyards on the steep mountain slopes
It would be unjust to attribute this revolution to the new
generation growers alone. The Priorat vineyards lie on gradients so steep that
neither tractors nor any other kind of agricultural machine could possibly cope
Vine roots work their way down 10 to 20 metres through the
carboniferous slate subsoil to tap pockets of moisture from infrequent Priorat
rains. Very few grapes are produced and a single vine yields only about a kilo,
a tenth that of the adjacent industrial wine region of Penedès. The
result, however, is wine of the highest quality. The typical local winery is
small and non-industrial. The annual output of some of the smaller wineries is
only five thousand prized bottles. Current trends
appear to favour the small winegrowers and low production, the wines of great
personality fruit of the hillsides and terraces.
Carboniferous slate soil
Tourism associated with Priorat's wine revival has led to the
establishment of high quality restaurants operated by the wineries. This has
helped to create a 'Priorat' quality brand that is now attached to other
products in the region. Tourism, coordinated by the Leader
Community Initiative, now operates as a basic promotional and marketing
tool for other quality food, cultural and agriculture products. These include
small shops specialising in traditional products, living museums converted from
old warehouses and mills, guided tours to the wineries and walks through the
vineyards. Wine and gastronomic tourism have thus
combined to encourage local development and the agricultural recovery of a
region traditionally considered as marginal.
The processes leading to the revival
of the Priorat Region
Priorat is a hotbed of wine innovation, with many variations in
practices such as retention of stems, maceration times and use of new oak
barrels for two years before bottling. But as quickly as Priorat's reputation
was made, it could be lost as some of the new wines fail to live up to the
region's high standards. The quick success of the small wineries lured Spain's
largest wine companies. A building boom in the last five years has nearly
doubled the number of wineries to 85. New Priorat wines, some priced as low as
$11 a bottle, can now be found in wine stores.
To try and ensure that quality is maintained, innovations
continue, and wines stay ahead of the competition, Europe's first Science and
Technology Park specialising in wine research and development is being
constructed in Falset, the heart of the Priorat wine growing area.
Priorat Science Park of Wine
A Science Park of Wine
Technology opened in 2009 in Falset, the heart of the Priorat wine
growing area. It is intended as an international centre of wine research and
development, ensuring the region continues to stay ahead of the wine
competition. It includes a series of pilot plants and facilities to assist new
The Wine Technology Park is one of four new tourism-related
Research and Development institutions in the region.
New Tourism-related Science and
Technology Parks in the Tarragona Region
The US is the largest market for Priorat wines and the current
global financial crisis with its American origins is likely to have a
significant negative impact on the Priorat region.