I thought my mouth was going to explode.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned by the winemaker that this would happen, but it was still a bit of a shock.
Priorat is a winemaking region in Spain and (along with Rioja) one of the top two in the country. There are only about 100 wine producers in the region, and the vast majority are small operations who are working their family’s legacy. One of them is Marc Ripoll Sans. Marc does everything at the Cellers Ripoll Sans – grower, winemaker, sales and marketing. Like the other Priorat producers, his reds are dominated by Grenache, and he has a delightful white based on a varietal called “Escanya-Vella” with very food-friendly acid balance. Marc says Escanya-Vella in English means “choke the old woman” so I guess I will take his word for it. Marc does initial fermentation in open top oak barrels, and the smell in his winery was wonderful when we visited.
My wife and I drove roughly two hours outside of Barcelona up in the hills to explore Priorat. My initial target was to reach the main village of Falset to acquire a winery map from the tourist information office. But when we got there, the office was closed because of the November 14 national strike. So we pushed on to the little village of Gratallops.
I had wanted to visit Ripoll Sans because I had a very nice bottle of their wine before I came to Spain. It is usually a good idea to make an appointment for a place like this but Marc was very nice to let us drop in on him. I wouldn’t recommend our approach, but it turned out to be an amazing win. Marc is a young dad who inherited the business from his family and might some day hand it on to his two-year-old son.
Armed with advice from Marc, we hiked further into the village of Gratallops and found Celler Cecilio. Unlike Ripoll Sans, the level of English here is pretty much nonexistent. But here we we quite fortunate to run into a couple of authors who are writing the “first eno-tourism book on Priorat.” So we got a terrific taste of their wines as well as some of the other typical drinks of the region, straight out of the barrel. One is called “Rancit”, and it’s essentially a big barrel where new wine is added at the top and the old stuff (which is essentially “rancid”) is pulled from the bottom. This was a nice dry aperitif with a nose of sherry but without the sweetness. Then there was something called “Dulcit” which was the sweeter drink.
Then I had the mouth explosion experience. This was part of the winemaker’s 125 year old, 29% alcohol private stock that we tasted out of the barrel. Flavors of tobacco and espresso dominated, but this was like inhaling a strong cigar while gulping an triple shot of espresso. Explosive is a mild term for it.
There is terrific food in these small villages. We dropped into Restaurante Piro across the street from Celler Cecilio. Although there were several fine items on the menu, we stuck with the “special” which included white beans and spicy chorizo, a lamb shank of incredible tenderness and the “house wine.” The olive oils of Priorat are also not to be missed as well as the wines and fine food.
The other Priorat winemaking center we visited was Escaladei, named after a religious school which is now in ruins. Like Gratallops, Escaladei is a very sleepy village. In fact we were there about the time of siesta, so perhaps everyone really was asleep. For the size of the village, Escaladei is chock-a-block with wineries and fine restaurants.
Connecting these somnambulant towns are peaceful and very curvy roads, weaving between terraced grape vines and olive groves. Even if you don’t drink anything, the peaceful country drive is the perfect tonic from the flash and tension of the big city.
I loved our time there, and couldn’t have hoped for a better day, but Priorat probably deserves more time to soak in the culture and meet the farmers, producers and foodies of the region. Fortunately you will find plenty of little inns in the villages to stay for a while. But don’t expect a lot of fancy commercial operations here. A little pre-planning and some appointments would be best.