The Priorat is one of the hidden gems of the Spanish wine world and luckily it is much easier to visit now that the access roads have improved and only takes an hour and a half to reach from Barcelona.
Why go there? Well the terrain is mountainous, the climate very dry and extreme and the roads narrow and winding but despite all of this the drama of the steep slopes planted with almond trees or vines, villages built on rocky outcrops and above all some spectacular wines are what should bring you here.
This is where the traditional varieties of garnacha (white and red) and cariñena are blended with newer arrivals cabernet, syrah and merlot to make some of the most powerful yet complex wines which reflect the wild herbs and red fruit aromas which send wine lovers all over the world into ecstasy.
It is fair to say that these wines have a bigger following outside of Spain due to what is referred to locally as "Riojitis" but cost has also been a factor since many of these wines have been overpriced. Reality seems to have set in and there are plenty of very interesting offerings in the 10-25? range as the number of Bodegas (wineries) has exploded from a dozen to nearly a hundred in only ten years.
A day trip visiting two contrasting bodegas with a full lunch in between is a great way to discover this wild area and I know you will fall in love with it just like me!
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As part of the wine festival there are also olive oil tastings and cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend. This one was held in the main square of Falset and everyone had the same accessories of either a butane camping gas stove or a small charcoal grill on which to prepare their dishes.
All the important ingredients of the area were being shown off in spectacular and imaginative style from wild herbs, pine nuts and almonds, olives and olive oil, wine, vinegar to season wild boar, hare, rabbit and some juicy pork products.
What cannot be passed on through the pictures is the amazing smells and of course the taste, next year you will have to come to sample for yourselves!
Industrial history has always interested me and when it is concentrated in a remote and wild area as is the Priorato region, tucked behind mountains and until recently cut off from the outside world by a good access road, the story is worth telling for all communities dependent on one major industry for employment and wealth creation.
The Romans discovered galena (the ore which produces lead and sometimes silver) several thousand years ago and also the method of extracting and melting the ore to produce tubes, gutters and roofing. This only became an industry in the 1870′s when various lead mines started to be commercially exploited around the Priorato area.
Until the end of WWII everything went well, the small farming villages expanded and sucked in labour from all over, fluctuating with the international price of lead. The major decline came when plastic was increasingly used as a substitute to make all the tubes and pipes in both housing and industry.
From then on it was just a question of time before the mines shut down, especially once all the easily available ore was extracted. At the Eugenia mine in Bellmunt they went down to a depth of 630metres (over 2,000 feet) and took a century before abandoning the business.
In the last 20 years a new industry has grown up in these barren hills, planting grapes for wine. As mentioned previously the number of wineries (bodegas) increased from roughly a dozen to over eighty in this time and once again encouraged the younger generations to stay or even to return from Barcelona, Reus and the Costa Daurada to find work.
Because of the extreme climatic and favorable geologic conditions (brown slate) the vines here produce very small quantities but the quality is very high and as such this area has very quickly become a byword for big, powerful but complex red wines sought after all over the world.
After all booms we are currently undergoing a bust which will reduce the number of bodegas and hopefully keep the survivors on the path of quality and elegance at affordable prices. We are only part way through this economic cycle, but it is fascinating to stand on the ruins of an old lead mine and see across the valley whole mountains planted with young vines.
For the first weekend in may Falset becomes the wine capital of Catalonia when it celebrated their 14th wine fair. Priorato and Montasant are the remote and arid areas which became one of the poorest parts of Spain after the lead mining industry closed down in the 1970's and agriculture was always marginal at best.
Until a few brave and visionary souls decided to recover the old vines and plant new ones in the 1980's and 90's there was very little reason to come here other than for the mountain scenery and general tranquility of the villages.
Now it is recognised as producing some of the most exciting wines in Spain, with prices, in some cases, to match. Like most luxury goods, the last ten years has seen some real booms and these fashionable wines were leading the pack. Now comes the reality that from a dozen wineries to 82 registered with the regulatory body there is bound to be a pretty brutal shakeout process.
None of this seemed to worry the crowds who poured into this sleepy farming town for the festival to try the wonderful olive oils, varied local foods and of course the wines.The weather was truly summery and added to the festive spirit. Salud as they say here!