The intensity of Priorat

It could be our agast expression at time stood still and how man can hang on in there in the absurd dry heat of Priorat and cultivate for the sake of cultivating or else it’s the result of shifting into reverse gear and spending three slow but concentrated hours in the vineyards and cellar of a small producer to whom 8 centuries of toil translates into what you and I may consider a hell of a lot for a bottle of wine or not.

My summer holiday took me over the mountains through Montsant, probably the largest walled Medieval city in Catalunya. I took a fresh road the T700, towards Priorat by turning right outside the gates of Poblet monestary. From there I made it to the next medieval city, Prades in time for the children’s festa major. A table under the arches in the far corner of the placa, arranged with fruit and vegetables led me to lunch. I tried the sopa de farigola, I wasn’t suffering from a cold but I had to have it for the first time, it was light. I’ll save my compliments for the also out of season but very good pork with Vi Ranci.
Name of restaurant???

I didn’t visit any accommodation in Prades but spotted two places that looked promising, Cal Pons Casa Rural which was full for August and Cal Criapi in C/nou del Pont which is nearing completion and looks the business if well restored rustic lodging is for you.

From Prades you can approach Priorat through Vilanova de Prades to Ulldemolins or aim for Siurana and Cornudella de Montsant. Either way you will have stunning views and masses of nature. I followed the T704. From Siurana you can appreciate the majesty of the Montsant ridge and peer down on the lake of Cornudella which is a welcome sight on a hot day. You can feel heat burning in Penedès, remove any trace of humidity, add 3 degrees and you get kiln hot, that’s Priorat. In Cornudella de Montsant there are kayaks and conoes for hire and it’s a wonderful spot for a picnic and swim. The town of Cornudella is large and and elegant, well worth a stop for coffee or a vermouth with lots of ice. The bar Intim, on the way into town has a nice terrace.

Next sign pointed to La Vilella Alta and signalled the beginning of Priorat proper. I passed the Restaurant Porta del Priorat which stands alone surrounded by nature and Mas Perinet, a new winery that gives you an idea of the unlimited scale of investment that is coming to Priorat. The vineyards are manicured and the winery will be the last word in style. They have yet to present the first bottle. Next town is Porrera which seems to shoo you through. I’m sure if you trouble to explore you will be rewarded with cheerful ancient streets and plaças but most people are probably bent on visiting the next town, Scala Dei which is pure picture postcard, -graceful elm tree lined entrance, neat attractive old houses, palacios and plaças and a ruined Cistercan monestry to explore with the Montsant mountains playing stairways to heaven in the background. There are a number of pleasant restaurants and cellars. Try the bodega of Asuncio Peyra for medieval atmosphere and old world charm.

Gratallops, a harder solid country town. What it lacks in gardens it makes up for in bodegas and you could easily spend a day or two visiting them. Restaurant la Font is very well run and serves a breakfast fit for a giant, It takes about three seconds to feel comfortable, I would happily stay all day if it weren’t for the vinicular attractions that are now coming at you in abundance. As I was walking away I stumbled on the street car museum, A charming laberinth tucked into the basement of an old house. It is one of those little monuments to one mans hobby and imagination. There is no entry fee and little boys and their dads will happily disappear into it and be gobbled up for ages.

I however, was on the trail of Josep Garrian, one of the movers behind the group “Petit cellars del Priorat” These are trying to be heard and tasted above the multinationals and big money that has deecended on the area in the last 10 years and for me they represent real Priorat and the best value in terms of exclusivity and authenticity.
Celler Can Garrian is situated between Gratallops and Molar, in a solid two storey house complete with cool interior patio. The only “interior designer” here arrived about 200 years ago from Cuban. The house dominates the valley where the rivers Montsant and Siurana meet. The silence and view is perfect. Josep and his father farm about 10 hectacres of Garnatxa, Carinena, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from which he produces two wines, Clos Severí, a blend of all of the above varieties with ageing in American and French oak and Mas del Camperol which is made from the oldest vines and aged exclusively in French oak. A visit to the bodega confirms the limited production. In comparison with the kilometers of resting bottles that greet the eye in big cellars, you get the impression you are viewing a private collection of little more than 5,000 bottles.

Restaurant El Cairat, Falset is set off the main Plaça. It’s small and an interior balcony improves capacity and offered a good vantage point to observe diners and their meals. Mid August the clientele leant heavily on visitors with one table of mobile phone savvy local young executives. The “Habas and Jamon” was tasty, light and just right, Cod with burnt garlic accompanied by roasted eggplant and courgette was excellent. Shame there weren’t any open white wines to wash it down, a weak spot in the Priorat repetoir so I just made do with the house red, an attractive earthy red that wasn’t meant to impress but did anyway. Menu of the day including dessert of honey and fresh cheese but not wines and coffee came to 12 euros. Service was easily confused but entertaining in the end.

Cal Mateu casa rural, C/Major 20, La Bisbal de Falset
Falset is the largest town in Priorat and the first you come across as you arrive in Priorat from Tarragona so it’s funny how La Bisbal de Falset can be as far as you can go on the other side of the county. The bishop would spend the night here on his travels north or south and hence the name. The town is well protected, perched on an L shaped projectile of rock with an entirely different view of the back of the Montsant range. Every street in the town is a dead end and Cal Mateu is at the end of one of these. From the entrance it looks like just another lightly restored old stone and beam structure with an attractive wooden sign over the door but enter and light and views pour in from the huge window that extends along one side of the house and looks out west over a never ending landscape of hills, country lanes and mountain ranges. The chances of a hostile force heading this way now is remote but look down and you still may have an attack of vertigo. This is the diningroom, living room and kitchen. There are 6 comfortable bedrooms accommodating up to 15 people. The house is self catering and well equipped but should you want a meal prepared, I can assure you that Carmen her daughters-in-law Montse and Mercé will take as good care of you as they took care of me. Salad, canelones and lamb were followed by some of the tastiest peaches and melon I have ever come across. My glass filled with blood red young Priorat five times before dessert and coffee. They may live on the top of a rock but the people of La Bisbal de Falset have everything they need.
Purchase your wines on the other side of Priorat and drink some here. Besides the endless walks, tracks, climbs and nature there is the civil war cave hospital located nearby. Primary school of town has a total of 22 children who are taught by two teachers one of whom is Mercé. There are two bakeries in town which alternate every week. Carmen’s own large house has a two storey hall with balcony inside the wooden gates. In the rear the stairway leads to the upper floors. The first floor accommodates the grand reception and dining room.

Primitiu del Bellmunt
The vineyards of Primitiu de Bellamunt are looked after by Antonio Rodriguez Martínez and Enologist Josep Valiente. Their approach to wine-making is testimony to hundreds of years of traditional farming and patience. The methods they use to create the wine may be more refined and they are certainly much more aware of the value of their wines in a world awash with plonk squash.
When you are used to seeing the still sturdy 40 years old vines of Penedès being torn up and replanted it comes as a shock to see the lengths that farmers in Priorat go, to keep their 60, 80 and sometimes 100 year old vines going. Actually if you saw the stems of some vines that are so old and petrified they are withered in the middle you wouldn’t expect them to produce anything and you’d be almost right, Some produce barely a third of a kilo. Nevertheless Antonio has no intention of changing the way he manages the vineyards which were first planted after the attack of Phyloxera over100 years ago. There are new vineyards but until these age sufficiently (about 20 years) he sells the grapes to other producers.
The bodega/cellar of Primitiu is a modest garage in the old part of Bellmunt. Sorting, pressing, labarotory and storage of wine in 500, 1000 and 2000 litre tanks occupy the ground floor, an area large enough to park a decent sized car, maybe two at a squeeze. Downstairs, in a smaller room again is where the wine is stored in barrels. All of it destined to one label that is presented as Primitiu del Bellmunt in Europe and Clos Bartolomé in the North America where it is marketed by Weygandt – Metzler of Unionville Pennsylvania