While Priorat’s dizzily high, narrow, hairpin roads are like a rollercoaster themselves, the fun of the fair really starts at the Fira del Vi, says Sue Style
Priorat is such a hot region in today’s wine world that it’s hard to believe the region’s terroir-driven, blockbusting red wines only grabbed the attention of wine lovers as recently as the early 1990s. But while Priorat wines have since hit the headlines, the same can hardly be said of the tourism profile of the comarca or county of Priorat, which slumbers like a sleeping beauty in the rugged hills southwest of Barcelona.
Just recently, a few intrepid wine travellers have started to explore the region. There are two appellations to be discovered – Priorat DOC and the larger Montsant DO (see box, bottom right), which almost entirely surrounds it. Priorat is often described as the jam in Montsant’s encircling doughnut – in fact it’s more like the yolk in a slightly ragged-edged fried egg.
In response to this tentative new wave of wine-led tourism, a band of young Catalan chefs – many of whom have been out earning their spurs at the region’s top tables – are coming home to roost, opening up their own restaurants and serving creative, modern Spanish food. On the accommodation front too, things are on the move. A handful of small, characterful B&Bs have sprung up, many in historic houses that have been restored with Catalan flair and a respect for the fabric of these fine, old buildings.
Priorat and Montsant are exciting not only in a vinous and gastronomic sense, but geologically, scenically and historically too. Hilltop villages alternate with steeply stacked vineyards, terraced olive groves and medieval monasteries. All shelter beneath the majestic, jagged, dramatically stratified Sierra de Montsant, set in its own national park.
In some ways, the region can be quite a challenge for travelling wine lovers. First, there are the roads, most of which were mere donkey tracks 20 years ago. Though freshly asphalted and beautifully maintained, they’re still not for the faint-hearted – the tarmac is new but the topography is unchanged.
A wine-tasting itinerary can lead you a merry dance on sinuous routes that hug the contours, climbing dizzily through terraced vineyards to hilltop villages and plunging once more into the valleys. Blindfold vertigo-afflicted passengers, strap them in the back of the car, pull on driving gloves, engage low gear and venture out with extreme caution. On the way up to the village of Siurana, we passed a car that had misjudged a hairpin bend and impaled itself on the crash barrier, where it teetered precariously like something out of the final scene of The Italian Job.
Then there is the fact that many of Priorat’s wines (especially cult wines like L’Ermita, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, and Clos de l’Obac) are impossible to find, and the top wineries open to visits by professionals only. Montsant’s bodegas are more accessible, though scattered over a wider area, and tastings here too are generally by appointment.
This is where the Fira del Vi, held in the regional capital of Falset, comes into its own. Held annually on the first weekend in May, this sympathetic local wine fair is a showcase for both appellations, gathering under one roof a representative range of Priorat and Montsant growers and providing a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the region’s dense, highly extracted, powerfully aromatic wines – and their makers – without the need to take the wheel at all.
It’s the familiar wine fair formula: there’s an entrance fee (€12 in 2009) which entitles you to a Riedel tasting glass and a book of tasting tickets. Then you cruise around among the stands, which are arranged on the castle ramparts in the open air with wraparound views of distant, shimmering hills and vineyards.
It’s a relaxed, joyous and delightfully Spanish affair, well attended not only by Catalans, many of whom come down from Barcelona for the weekend, but also increasingly by non-locals, mainly French, British and American.
The fair’s appeal cuts across all ages and interests. Mingling in the warm, late spring sunshine you’ll find serious punters swirling, nosing and tasting, engaged in animated conversation with selected producers, as well as young, buggy-pushing parents, glass in hand, enjoying the wine, the company and the afternoon’s paseo.
The Fira is a shop window only: you can’t buy at the fair, only taste. Potential customers are directed either to the winery (some of which offer scheduled visits during the fair), or to one of the wine shops in town.
Apart from the fair itself, there are a number of wine-related fringe events in restaurants, shops and other venues in Falset and in the surrounding villages. These vary from year to year, but past highlights have included the Nit de les Garnatxes, a lively, late-night Garnacha session hosted by the impressive co-operative Celler de Capçanes; tastings of 10 year-old Priorats and Montsants; and the celebrated Tast amb Llops in Gratallops (see box, left).
Back in Falset, if your energy levels, tastebuds and travel plans permit, take a last look in on the fair on Sunday evening. The heat of the day and the clamour of the crowds are dying down, the people of Falset reclaim their Fira, guesses are made as to the likely tally of visitors (increasing year on year), and the stand-holders take time to chat and share last drops of wine before shutting up shop and setting off home, weary but well satisfied with their weekend’s work.
Written by Sue Style