Ride the Roller Coaster Vines: Priorat to Montsant


The next time you visit Barcelona, Spain, get yourself into the mountainous vineyard regions of Priorat and Montsant, just a short drive from this beautiful Mediterranean city. “Which region is which?” This may sound crazy but think of the regions as a fried egg! The yolk is Priorat, the surrounding egg white is Montsant. Not very technical I agree; but it is eggfective! 
I say ‘Pri-or-at’ but I was told it’s officially pronounced ‘Pre-or-at’. The region was discovered in the 12th century by Carthusian monks who made a pilgrimage into this steep, rugged terrain where a shepherd told of a ladder that appeared from a pine tree by which angels ascended and descended into heaven. Convinced by the story, the monks built a monastery on the site of the tree to symbolize the stairway to heaven (‘Scala Dei’). I told you it was steep up there! One thing’s for sure, they were very happy with their altar wine! They were obviously happy with their Prior too, for as you’ve guessed, they named the region after him. That’s a Pri-or, not a Pre-or! I rest my case. 
Top of the World: Priorat Vineyards
Once you leave the Mediterranean beaches your ears ‘pop’ as you climb over 300 metres; it’s here that you’ll first spy Priorat’s roller coaster vine terraces and its postage stamp vineyards stuck precariously onto the steep slate (known as ‘llicorella’) slopes. Reaching Priorat’s 700 metre plus vineyards is far more hairy; only four wheel drives can handle the barely stable hair pin bends that take you to the top of the world. Up there, the vines and the pink tinged mountains make it a photographers’ paradise.
Getting technical up amongst the clouds, Priorat’s famous slate soils incorporate thin lenses of sand and clay which provide deep highways for the vine’s roots and welcome moisture in the 35 degree Celsius summer heat. The heady altitudes also provide extreme day-night temperature differences to retain the grapes’ acidity (that’s the stuff that makes your mouth water), so important in balancing Priorat’s dense fruit flavours. 
The main grapes of Priorat are Garnacha (Grenache) and Carignan (known locally as Samso) but in the 1980’s the heavy addition of French oak barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah resulted in big, fruity, in-ya-face, spicy wines that were then the popular ‘international’ face of Priorat. How times have changed, thank goodness. The new generation of winemakers have reinstated Garnacha and Carignan as the stars, ably supported by the French classic varieties in wines that are now taking the world by storm. 
Some winemakers are making 100% Garnacha and 100% Carignan wines but for me, it’s also the blend of these two underrated grapes that takes the spotlight, producing powerful, crisp black fruit wines with fine-grained tannins (that’s the stuff from the skins that dries and puckers your mouth). If you have a spare forty dollars to shell out after your festive activities search out Clos Magador 2011, Porrera 2010 (Vall Llach), Escurcons 2011, Cami Persseroles 2011, Clos Martinet 2011, (Mas Martinet) and Plaer 2012 (Ritme Celler).
White wine, generally from Macabeo and Garnacha Blanc, accounts for less than 5% of Priorat’s production; varieties that are also planted in Montsant. For any anoraks out there, there are also small plantings of Pedro Ximenez, Viognier and Chenin Blanc. 
If Priorat is the king, Montsant is the prince but, that said, following a recent visit I soon learned that this prince is ambitious. Priorat is looking over its shoulder. Originally part of Tarragon, the Denominacio d’Origen Montsant was officially recognised in its own right in 2001 when it boasted just 16 wineries. Now there are 66, producing approximately 94% red and 6% white wine on the limestone-clay, red clay, slate and granitic soils. “Even so, we only produce about 5 million bottles so our production is very small. A single Penedes winery can make all of the Montsant production”, one winemaker told me. 
The Montsant vineyards are situated between 200-700 metres above sea level from the cool mountainous north to the warmer softer mountain ranges of the south, altitudes that ensure that even as the mercury pushes 35 degrees the vines benefit from low summer humidity. 
Garnacha and Carignan are again the major players, both accounting for about a third of plantings. Tempranillo, (known locally as Ull de Llebre) creeps in at 11% with Merlot (9%), Cabernet Sauvignon (7%) and Syrah (8%) having walk-on parts. Montsant’s new generation of winemakers have also taken lessons from the 1980s; prudent French oak ageing now gives pleasing, well tuned toasty overtones to their blackcurrant-damson beauties.  
Like Priorat, Montsant reds carry a trademark purity of fruit matched by refreshing acidity and ripe, balanced tannins. At a recent dinner in London’s St. James’ the Garnacha dominated Dido La Universal Montsant 2011 had tongues wagging and prompted much scribbling as none of the diners had heard of Montsant. The word is spreading.
Other Montsant wines to look out for are Uvila Vinyes d’en Gabriel 2012 (100% Garnacha),  Brao Acustic Celler 2012 (55% Carignan, 45% Garnacha) and Acustic Celler Auditori 2011 (100% Garnacha).
So, the next time you’re on the Costa Brava escape for a couple of days to Priorat and Montsant; the hilltop town of Gratallops and the small cozy Hotel Cal Llop make a good base camp. Sipping the regions’ reds on the terrace with friends overlooking stunning vineyards and majestic mountains is simply perfect and ….. it’s not eggspensive!    
John Downes, one of only 320 Masters of Wine in the world, is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine. www.johndownes.com

Mentioned in this article


  • There is always something new to learn. A very informative piece. I have never heard of these two regions, although I'm familiar with the Garnacha grape. One good reason to plan a trip to Barcelona.

    Feb 06, 2015 at 7:30 PM

  • Snooth User: BarcelonaWineGuide
    Hand of Snooth
    1805008 35

    If you make it this far, you should include a side trip to another small appellation called Conca de Barbera (considered up-and-coming by Spanish wine lovers) only an hour due north of the Priorat. It is interesting for its devotion to an indigenous grape found only here called trepat, which could be considered Spain´s pinot noir; and for being home to a couple of the craziest biodynamic winegrowers this side of the Pyrenees--for a while one of them was one of only two Spanish producers to be found in Noma's wine list (you know, Noma, that small restaurant in Copenhagen).

    Feb 12, 2015 at 4:30 PM

  • I agree with your recommendation, but I also would add the name Terra Alta visit less than an hour from Montsant and Priorat, where the wines are now outperforming
    and great value for money

    Feb 17, 2015 at 12:05 PM

  • Snooth User: ashwin994
    2226294 19

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    Oct 23, 2018 at 4:24 AM

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