A guided tour of Catalonia’s spectacular Montsant and Priorat wine regions.
IMPORTANT EDIT: Rachel Richie, the guide I describe meeting in this post, later became a personal friend. I enjoyed many conversations and lunches with her and, like everyone who knew her, always admired her erudition and generous spirit. She died in December 2016. RIP, Rachel.
I sometimes work with Jane Gregg, whose company Epicurean Ways organizes bespoke trips in Spain and Portugal based around food and/or wine; or art, culture and architecture. She picks my brains to ensure that her clients enjoy a gastronomical experience that’s tailored to their tastes while they’re in Barcelona.
Many of those lucky travellers are then sent south from here to visit the region’s most famous wine region Priorat, plus its neighbour Montsant, in the company of local expert Rachel Ritchie. I’d known of Rachel for years but I’d never met her, so when Jane offered me the chance of a whistle-stop tour of the area in Rachel’s company I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.
The train ride from Barcelona to Reus is an easy an hour and a half with lots of sea views and a flashing glimpse of Roman Tarragona. I was met at the station by Rachel, and we jumped in her car and headed for Siurana. Rachel reeled off information about everything in sight: she’s impressively well-informed. Like me, she’s from northern England and, like me, she married a Catalan and has been here for many years. Unlike me, she moved out of Barcelona to the countryside and I soon started to see why. It’s beautiful, with views that literally make you gasp. Montsant lies, as Rachel puts it, like the white of a fried egg around the yolk of Priorat. In both regions, the exposed steep slopes display distinct bands of limestone, sandstone and – especially in Priorat – slate. It’s a hard landscape that’s perfect for making wine.
Siurana is a fairy-tale town on a hilltop, with legends of leaping queens and long histories of conquests.
Once almost abandoned, it now features pretty churches, panoramic views and a couple of cracking restaurants, one of which we visited for a quick coffee. Pau Escriu serves up some great food at La Siuranella if his snacks are anything to judge by.
Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule … which we promptly abandoned. Pau said that he could get us into the wine co-operative of Cornudella, based in a modernista building we’d passed earlier. A quick phone call and a short drive later and we were being shown around the gorgeous early-20th-Century building, where old photographs show how much – and how little –has changed over the years. The glass jars on the roof, by the way, are full of vi rancí being made. ‘Rancid wine’ sounds awful but is actually a sherry-like delight that’s little-known outside Catalonia.
We picked up a few bottles of rosado and vermut to take home and went for lunch. The sleepy village of Poboleda is not the kind of place you’d expect to find creative, modern cuina d’autor by a chef who has worked for years in multi-Michelin-starred restaurants. And yet, here we were in Els Brots.
Belgian Pieter Truyts settled in the region with his Catalan partner, the winemaker Silvia Puig (whose very good En Númerosos Vermells 2013 Carinyena we drank with the meal) and decided to push ahead with his personal vision rather than conform to tradition. He makes everything himself, often using home-grown produce and smoking his own fish, and the result is a smart and surprising output of undeniable quality at a very reasonable price.
Truyts takes his creative impulses in two directions in the ‘roots’ and ‘shoots’ set menus (€29 and €27 respectively) but you can swap dishes between them should you wish. The food’s great and the restaurant is fun. But the serving dish made from a cast of the chef’s hand? Err… I prefer plates. But if you want an idea to freak out the kids at your next Halloween party, try this:
Back in the car again, we headed past vineyard after vineyard, Rachel explaining to me the different styles and techniques used depending on the lay of the land and the history of the winemakers.
We arrived at El Moli d’Oli in Scala Dei’s Plaça Priorat, where tracks in the floor still show where mules once trod to turned the stones, although the olive oil sold here is now made in a more hygenic fashion. Here, as everywhere we went, Rachel was greeted as an old friend. There’s something life-affirming about being on a tour where your guide is so deeply embedded in the community. The old oil mill also sells glasswork made by Rachel herself. She studied and worked as an artist with stained glass before becoming a full-time wine pro and still keeps it up as a sideline. Neus, in the shop, is a firecracker of exuberance and warmth and guided me through a slurpy, delicious tasting of her various oils. I highly recommend the Cavaloca blend.
And then the winery. Cellers de Scala Dei is one of the Priorat’s best-known winemakers, located near an old monastery. Modern technology meets ancient tradition here. It was late September, and the garnatxa grapes were being harvested as we were shown around, bringing the old buildings alive with the hum of activity. I won’t write too much here, just take a look at the photos:
The was time only for a quick drive-by look at the Scala Dei monastery instelf (‘the ladder of God’ and you can see why…) itself before dashing to the Marçà Falset station to catch the train home.
There’s a very good reason why Jane at Epicurean Ways recommends that her customers spend at least two days in Priorat with Rachel. Even at a breakneck pace, we couldn’t fit a fraction of what we wanted to see (and taste…) into a day trip. You could spend hours just gazing at the scenery. Rachel runs a lot of tours for food and wine industry professionsals as well as enthusiastic amateurs. Her tours aren’t scripted run-throughs of rehearsed material with a boozy tasting tagged on; her knowledge runs deep, and she can answer any question you’ll throw at her. A tour of the Priorat with her would be a highlight of any trip to Spain and Catalonia if you are interested in the region’s, wine, culture or cuisine.