Gratallops – The Heart of the Priorat Wine Region

The Village of Gratallops
The Village of Gratallops - the heart of the Priorato

I highly recommend that any serious wine lover visit Priorat –  the wine region just 100 miles outside Barcelona.

Not only is Barcelona one of Europe’s great cities (Super-Wife says it’s her favorite, while Cole and I say Paris wins by a nose), but you hop in a car at the Barcelona airport and you’re in the wine country within a couple of pleasant hours.  Actually, that’s not saying much – you can be in “wine country” within a couple hours of anywhere in Spain – the country has 67 “DO’s”, or “regional designations” granted for the consistent quality of their wine.

Narrow streets of Gratallops in Spain's Priorat wine region
Rear-view mirrors cleared by just inches!

But just a few hours outside Barcelona one can find three of Spain’s notable wine regions – Priorat, Montsant (which forms a near-perfect donut around Priorat) or Penedés (where most of Spain’s best sparkling wine is produced).  But of these, Priorat is the most notable, one of but three wine regions earning Spain’s top-tier designation of “DOC” (Denominación de Origen Calificada, along with Rioja and (just recently) Ribera del Duero – see sample, here).  This top-tier classification is also known as “DOQ” in Catalan, which is still common in this Northeastern part of Spain.

But the wine pilgrim must be warned in advance – while some of Priorat’s wines justify their worldly reputation, many more are the result of carpet baggers seeking the advantage of Priorat’s reputation with wines that are less interesting but no less expensive.  To help avoid the clinkers, the wise traveler will form a bond of trust with a local, and ask for opinions.  Such time-saving advice will usually be offered within the first shared drink – not only a wise investment of your time and money, but also the chance to make a great and interesting connection – two good reasons for overcoming the initial hesitation for the mono-lingual traveler.

Though the wines of Montsant may be lesser known, they are highly affordable and the best far exceed the worst of Proirat.  Plus, wine fans will enjoy the agricultural paradise of Montsant.  This region is known for its olives, almonds, and honey in addition to its wine, grown in the local soil known as Licorella – just as rocky as the Schist found in Priorat’s vineyards.  And here’s an extra plus for Montsant – we found far fewer tourists in the towns of Montsant than in those of Priorat, though we suspect the next Peter Mayle is already hard at work on the book that will soon bring this region to the world’s attention, resulting in an influx of ex-pat settlers.

The agricole cooperative in Siruana, Spain
Different types of sherry at the Agricole cooperative

But until then, it is quiet and idyllic, an area with sufficient visual rewards to justify throwing away New World notions such as maps and schedules in favor of simply following your whim and a few roadsigns.  On these scenic agricultural backroads, you might drive for an hour before encountering another car. Visit old towns where shops still shut down during lunch hours, and where the store at the agricultural co-op sells a wide variety of local products, from wine to honey to almonds to olive oil.  Be sure to bring some empty bottles to be filled with the co-op’s community wines (photo, right) – usually very affordable and surprisingly good.

But this posting will run for pages if I don’t limit its scope to the picturesque town of Gratallops, in the very heart of the Priorat.  This town of just 250 permanent residents plays host to a large number of wine writers, tourists, and merchants over the course of an average year.

Schist - what passes for "soil" in Priorat - lends a distinctive minerality to area wines.

As with many agricultural areas, the Priorat (or Priorato, as it was known in the pre-revolutionary days) was an area in decline for  most of the 1900’s.  Then in the 1980’s the Pastrana family, who had been poking around the area for more than a decade, resurrected some old Garnacha, Cariñena   and Tempranillo vines on their property, re-introducing these premium grape varietals along with a modern, trellised vineyard and contemporary winegrowing techniques.  As owner Carles Pastrana tells it “We brought a focus on quality to the region and thought we were building a legacy for our grandchildren, or if things went really well, for our children.”

But things happened much faster than that. In 1989 their very first wine was released to rave reviews and huge scores from one rather influential wine writer named Robert Parker Jr.

Suddenly the family winery – Clos de l’Obac (photo, left) rocketed the Priorat region to the forefront of the wine world.  Other producers followed suit, and today the region is home to a handful of wealthy producers, living and working in towns very much like Gratallops, each connected to each other by miles of roadways so narrow you’ll be glad you didn’t opt for the upgrade at the rental car agency.  Caution – never be in a hurry here, as it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself chugging along behind some slow-moving piece of farm equipment.  Remember, Priorat’s roads of today were their mule trails of yesteryear.

Hotel Cal Llops in Gratallops - priorat wine country
Hotel Cal Llops - Click for web page

For such a small town, Gratallops is home to several great restaurants, even though schedules are somewhat vexing.  Spain is a wonderful country for foodies, and this region is no exception.  Clos de l’Obac has their own restaurant in town, and the chef at the village’s main hotel – Cal Llop (or Wolf’s Den – photo at right) – is quite accomplished in his own right.  We highly recommend the hotel both for its food and the charm and hospitality of its staff (hotel@cal-llop.com).

Gratallops art in town square - priorat wine country
Artist's rendition of the "scratching wolves" of Gratallops

Though the town of Gratallops (Grah ta yoops) was saved from ruin by the wine industry and its related tourism, its documented history goes back thousands of years.  In fact, its name is first found in a document dated 1258, though the town existed under a different name during the Moorish occupation of the region.

Gratallops translates, roughly, as “where the wolves (llops) come to scratch.  Apparently, this hilltop town was a popular claw-sharpening destination prior to being over-run with Homo sapiens.  Take 30 minutes to walk all the streets in this hilltop town and you’ll see multiple artistic references to said wolves in various scratching positions, including the one shown in our photo at left.

On a final note, it must be said that most of the wonderful wines you’ll discover here are unavailable in the U.S., such as those from Freddy Torres, a garagiste producer right in the heart of Gratallops.  And those that ARE found here are inevitably red, and invariably pricey.

So it was with great surprise and pleasure that one of my favorite distributors recently introduced me to the white wine from Igneus, a producer just up the road from Gratallops.  Their 2009 Barranc Dels Closos ($26) is a captivating blend of Macabao (Mack-ah Bay-oh – a white varietal rarely found outside Spain), Garnatxa Blanca (aka Grenache Blanc, or white Grenache), Pedro Ximinez and a trace of Muscat. It is both aromatically rich and yet medium-bodied and refreshing.  It may just be impossible to find a more perfect wine for the regional specialty of Barcelona – paella – though I’d thoroughly enjoy the challenge!

The History of Spanish Tapas

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A Tapas Bar on Barcelona's La Rambla. Typical in every way, except it's empty!

We recently returned from Spain, where I fell in love with Tapas – bite-sized items often sold “by the stick” (as shown on the counter in the photo, above).  When it comes time to pay the piper (or the Flamenco Guitarist as the case may be) your empty skewers are tallied up and your bill calculated.  Very low-tech and very effective.

Tapas offer a perfect solution to what to serve when your friends stop by your place for a glass of wine before heading out to an evening event.  Serving one or several of these small plate items will make you a most appreciated host(ess).  This is sort of the idea behind Spanish Tapas as well, except most urban dwellings are too small to have people over – so the pre-event socializing occurs in the many Tapas bars.

The Spanish verb Tapeo can be defined as “the act of wandering from bar to bar, arm-in-arm with a friendly group that expands and contracts as the social event unfolds” – that’s the definition I liked best, so I’m stickin’ with it.  In each Tapas bar (Taberna), a parade of platters invites passers-by to stop in and linger a while.

The origin of Tapas is rather unclear, but food historians tend to credit the Spanish King Alfonso X, who decreed that all tabernas must serve a bit of food (tapa) with each glass of wine.  The word comes from the verb tapar, which means “to cover”.  This seeming non-sequitur suddenly makes sense once you learn that a small plate – the perfect size for a bite-sized, savory treat – was specified as the cover of choice for a wine glass, thus protecting it and its valuable contents from flies, dust or sneaky neighbors.

Several of the following recipes were inspired by our favorite Tapas items from our recent trip.  They’re surprisingly easy to prepare and delicious with your wine, so I hope you’ll try them, and enjoy them as much as we did!  And an added benefit to this way of eating?  It compliments a wide variety of wines!  In fact, the dishes are so small, varied and numerous, that I saw individuals pair them with everything from sparkling wines to whites to rose to robust reds from Priorat or Rioja.  Fun and conviviality are the only guidelines here!

Happy MerchantCheers,
Dave the Wine Merchant

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