Updated: Dec 9, 2020
I recently took a vacation to Spain. Technically, it was supposed to be a vacation, but with the amount of miles covered, the frequent changing of the hotels, and the amount of wineries visited, it was really more of a wine road show. Exhausting but amazing!
When I talk to the folks I know who enjoy wine, it is common that they may have taken a trip to Italy and stopped in Chianti, or flew to Paris and day-tripped to Champagne. But aside from aficionados I know who have actually made wine their livelihood, I didn’t know one personal acquaintance who had been to any of the major wine regions in Spain. In many cases, it seems that Americans think of Spanish wine as something they “settle for” not something that they actively seek out. This is a shame. While I acknowledge that driving hundreds of miles around Spain to wine taste may not be the most relaxing vacation and is probably not something that most would even consider, a day trip to Priorat from Barcelona is probably the easiest and most rewarding trip you can do if you manage to get to Espana.
Day-Tripping to Priorat
If you’ve been to Spain, chances are that you’ve been to Barcelona. Even if you don’t feel comfortable renting a car, it is pretty easy to do a day trip to Priorat from there. There are plenty of tour guides that will take you out and back, making it a less stressful experience. The drive is about 1.5 hours from the city, and you should be able to squeeze in 3 quality tastings if you time things right.
Priorat is a region that you may not be familiar with, but it’s making the best wines in Spain, in my opinion. It’s one of just two approved DOCa (DOQ) appellations in Spain (along with Rioja) which were established because of the quality of the wines produced there. It’s a mountainous, breathtaking wonderland to grow grapes, although I wouldn’t want to do the harvesting. I actually had to ask on one tour if the harvesters routinely die trying to pick the grapes (supposedly not)! The slopes that the vines are grown on are ridiculously steep. In a lot of cases, a given winery pulls its grapes from blocks that are not contiguous. They grow the grapes wherever there is a hillside that will allow them to. Growing these grapes at elevation helps to preserve acidity and freshness that otherwise may not be present because it tends to get very hot in Priorat.
Typically made from predominantly Garnacha (Grenache) or Carinena (Carignan), these wines are full-bodied, with flavors of black plum, black cherry and cassis, and have the capability to age. Perhaps one of the most frustrating things of tasting here is that you may end up tasting wines that are several years away from being ready to drink. I had a few “tannic monsters” but for the most part, the more esteemed wineries do a better job of holding the wines back a few years so that you get the chance to taste something that is more appealing.
Where to Taste
I was lucky to get recommendations on where to taste from my friend Patty (@winetravel on Instagram), and her recommendations didn’t disappoint. I’d make it a point to visit the following:
Priorat had been a fairly prominent wine region in Spain before phylloxera hit at the end of the 19th century, and it took a return by several Spanish wine pioneers in 1979 to stage a comeback. They bought land in the region and when it came time to finally bottle the wine a decade later, they combined their grapes to make wines which were then bottled under one of five labels. Clos (Mas) Martinet was one of these original five. They only do one tasting per day, so you need to book a couple of months in advance to make sure you get an appointment. The tasting includes a breathtaking trip to their highest vineyards, as well as some samples directly from barrels and even clay pots.
Although we caught Mas Doix in the middle of transferring from its old winery to its new one, the experience was still memorable. The guide is the owner’s daughter, and she’s both knowledgeable and entertaining. You’ll get an opportunity to venture into the hilly vineyards of slate soils and taste some very nice wines. We even had the opportunity to taste a 100% Carinena made from vines that were planted in 1902.
Clos de l’Obac
Another of the “original five” wineries in the area, Clos de l’Obac did not disappoint. The wines are on the high-end of pricing for Priorat, but this is not Napa Valley. The current releases were from 2006-2008, and even with a decade of age on them, they were going for ~80 euros. Aside from their typical dry Grenache-based wines, we tried a full-bodied Grenache Blanc/Macabeo/Xarello and one of the most amazing and unique sweet wines I’ve ever had, the Grenache-based Dolc de l’Obac.