In search of: Fine wine in Spain - Europe - Travel - The Independent

In search of: Fine wine in Spain

South of Barcelona there's a grape-growing region to rival Burgundy, says Rohan Daft. Just don't tell everyone, OK?

The UK is more familiar with Rioja, Ribera del Duero and sparkling Cava, but the buzz word in Spanish wine at present is very much Priorat.

The UK is more familiar with Rioja, Ribera del Duero and sparkling Cava, but the buzz word in Spanish wine at present is very much Priorat.

Where is Priorat and what's the big deal about the wine?

Priorat is a small region of southern Catalonia, just inland from the Roman city of Tarragona and about an hour's drive from Barcelona. It has a long history of wine production but, until recently, no great reputation for wine of the fine variety. Ten years ago it was the most depressed area of Catalonia but now it is thriving and becoming known as "the Burgundy of Spain".

Why the 'Burgundy of Spain'?

Small vineyards, small winemakers making small amounts of very good (and occasionally very pricey) wine, and the incorporation of the word clos into a number of brand names ... And then there's the marketing: Priorat wine is being pitched upmarket; Catalans have a reputation for being canny in business.

How did all of this come about?

In 1989 René Barbier, an established winemaker in other parts of Catalonia, got together with four friends, including Alvaro Palacios, a successful producer from Rioja, and started the new wave of Priorat wine. His family had acquired smallholdings in Priorat when they moved to Catalonia from France in 1870, and he simply began to put the land to use.

Where's my first point of call?

Head first to Falset (pop 2,500), the capital of Priorat. Here you will find the excellent Aguilo Vinateria at C/Miquel Barcelo 11, (00 34 977 830 776; www.aguilo-prioratwines.com) Priorat has two Denominacion de Origens – 100 types of Priorat and 80 of Montsant – and this place has most of them.

And how much am I going to pay for a bottle of Priorat wine?

At Aguilo Vinateria, anything from €6 (£4) for a bottle of agreeable Onix 2000, to €270 (£180) for a bottle of the very agreeable 1999 L'Ermita. But you can pick up a bottle of good house wine for a couple of euros or less at the village co-operatives.

Two hundred and seventy euros a bottle? How come?

Only 6,000 bottles of L'Ermita are produced a year, from two hectares of vines, and it is very, very good. The wine was first produced in 1993 and is made from 80 per cent Grenache, 16 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 per cent Carinena. Japan and the US buy 65 per cent of it.

What about buying straight from the producers?

The tourism office in Falset C/Sant Marcel 2 (00 34 977 831 023; www.oitpriorat@altanet.org) has a list of all the Priorat and Montsant winemakers.

Do you recommend a visit to any producer in particular?

Yes. Give Joan Sangenis a call. He runs Celler Joan Sangenis in the very pretty village of Porrera at C/Prat de la Riba 1, (00 34 977 828 125; email: joan.sangenis@terra.es). At 28 he is probably the youngest winemaker in the region. He offers tours of his operation for around €6 (£4), explaining the process as he goes. And you get to taste his five wines, priced from €6 to €50 (£4 to £33).

What about the food?

Tuesday is Priorat market day in the Place de la Quatera, Faslet. Priorat also produces olive oil, almonds and hazelnuts. One very local speciality are the Castellets de Falset: hard, turret-shaped, almond biscuits. And there are the sausages ... Catalunya is famous for its butifarra, and Priorat produces a particularly good butifarra negra – a large, haggis-like black pudding. The thin, dried, salami-like fuet takes its name from the whip it resembles. Llorens xarcuteria and carnisseria at C/de Baix 18 (00 34 977 830 235) can also to satisfy your sausage needs. Here the speciality is a dried sausage called "Del Teu Noi" ("from your son" in Catalan), so named because the shop is run by mother and son, Esteve and Jose, she behind the counter and he producing the goods.

And if I want to dine out?

The very best is El Cainat in Falset at C/Nou 3 (00 34 977 830 481) where the Menu Digestacio at €18 (£12) includes a glass of very good wine and coffee. Expect the likes of Moscatell jelly with smoked herring, a carpaccio of veal with cep oil, and a biscuit ice-cream with figs in armagnac. For something more simple, try La Piscina at Av Generalitat (00 34 977 831 041), also in Falset. Here you will find a very typical Catalan menu: bacalla, local lamb chops, and the omnipresent crema Catalana, which resembles a crème brûlée. The set lunch costs €12 (£8) for four courses and includes a bottle of local wine and coffee. Out of Falset, the Hostal-Restaurant La Font in Gratallops at C/Consolacio 2 (00 34 977 839279) is particularly good for a local lunch.

Where can I walk it off?

There are well marked walks all over Priorat. The countryside is spectacular and many of the villages are of Arab origin. Don't miss tiny Siurana and its Arab castle ruins. Pick up a copy of the tourist map from the tourist office in Falset.

I'm feeling sleepy now

La Font is a good place to stay at around €40 (£27) per night, including a very good breakfast and more wine. The best place, however, is the Mas Ardevol just outside Porrera (00 34 977 828 021; www.terra.es/personal2/ruraltur/). This is a wonderful old country house, with double rooms from €79 (£53) per night including breakfast. A very good dinner with produce from the garden costs €22 (£15). For a panoramic view try Hostal Balco del Priorat in the village of Las Morera de Montsant at C/Bonrepos 17B (00 34 977 827 088). A double room with dinner for two and breakfast costs €59 (£39).

I'm on my way...

In March, flights to Barcelona cost from £50 with Easyjet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com), from £70 with Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk), and from £78 with British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com). One week's car hire costs from £97 with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010, www.holidayautos.co.uk). For more information about Priorat contact the Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.es).

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