On a Hilltop in Priorat (#WorldWineTravel)

A car pulls up next to ours and the woman driving moves her hand in circles, giving us the universal symbol to roll down our window.

“Eres Nicole?”

This question would not normally surprise me – that is my name after all – but at that particular moment, Greg and I were in the remote hilltop town of Gratallops in the Priorat region of Catalunya, Spain. I was fairly shocked to have anyone looking for me. I was also incredibly relieved because we were completely lost.

It was Thanksgiving Day 2013, and we’d left Barcelona that morning with plenty of time to reach our destination in Priorat, which was supposed to be about a two-hour drive away. While Priorat is not far from Barcelona as the crow flies, it’s a mountainous region and the narrow winding roads take a while to navigate. All the same, we’d made good time for most of the drive and I called our first winery appointment at Costers del Siurana when our TomTom said we were 30 minutes away to say we’d be there on time. I spoke too soon. An hour and a half later we were still circling trying to figure out how to get to our destination.

We’d been given map coordinates to plug into the TomTom and knew we were in the right general area. We kept driving around and around the particular mountaintop in question, but for the life of us, we could not find the road to get to the winery. We could even see our destination sitting on top of the hill, both beckoning and taunting us. We’d driven down vineyard roads around the hilltop and all around Gratallops, where the winery is located, but the turn towards the winery remained hidden. I considered just abandoning the car and walking up the hill to reach the winery, but those hills are steep and very rocky – not to mention that we would’ve probably looked crazy. To top things off,  we could not get a signal on our cellphones to call the winery and hadn’t seen many people we could ask for directions, so we were just stuck and feeling pretty desperate when that car pulled up.

We circled round and round the town of Gratallops.

Our savior was Mariona Jarque, one of the owners of Costers del Siurana, and she’d come out as a search party of one to retrieve us. A neighbor had seen a strange car driving all around (that’s how small the town is – everyone knows everyone’s car), figured it was a visitor to the winery, and called them to say that their guests were probably lost. It turns out that a construction truck had been blocking the small road we’d been looking for, so we just kept driving right by it.

All's well that ends well, and now that we’d been rescued we were on our way to a very good day of tasting. This particular hilltop is home to two of the region’s benchmark wineries – Costers del Siurana, which makes Clos de l’Obac, and Clos Mogador.  


Priorat's story has to be one of the best comeback tales in the world of wine. Winemaking history here dates back to the 12th century when the Carthusian Monks established the Monastery of Scala Dei, from which the region gets its name (priory = priorat in Catalan, priorato in Spanish). The monks brought from Provence techniques for winemaking and established viticulture in the area and they prospered for several centuries.

Sadly, the 1800s brought one blow after another to winemaking in the region. People in the region grew tired of paying taxes to the monastic order and unrest began to rise. The monastery was eventually stripped of its lands, and the people took their aggression out on the monastery buildings.

Some winemaking continued on a smaller scale for the next few decades, but then phylloxera hit the region in 1893 and it completely decimated the region. Priorat’s environment with its rocky terrain and intense continental climate is pretty harsh with long, hot, dry summers and cold winters. It’s tough terrain to work, mechanization is nearly impossible as the vineyards are planted on steep terraces, and the conditions altogether are rough on the vines leading to extremely low yields. Many people opted to leave for opportunities in cities like Barcelona and Tarragona, rather than replant. By the mid-twentieth century, quality winemaking was pretty much gone from the area, leaving only cooperatives that were pretty much just making mass-production wine.

Olive trees (I think) by Clos Mogador in Priorat with terraced vineyards in the background. You cane see the super poor, rocky soils of the region.

Just at this moment when it seemed Priorat would slip forever into obscurity, a group of "hippies, dreamers, and academics" entered the scene to rescue the historic region. This small band of visionary winemakers saw potential in the many small vineyards, many of which now had old vines, that lay abandoned. Those unique, rocky soils are based on llicorella, which is a type of slate mixed with quartz. It’s porous and doesn’t retain water well, so vines have to grow deep roots to tap into water. It creates a special terroir signature in the wines. As well, while the conditions here lead to low-yielding vines, it also means that the grapes that do grow produce intensely flavored juice.

Here you can better see the super steep terraced vineyards of the region in the background.

René Barbier, who came from a winemaking family, was the first of this group of winemakers to arrive in Priorat and see the possibilities. He started out making wine for himself from purchased grapes and then planted a small vineyard of his own in 1978. He also began to incorporate French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Barbier was a winemaker for Alvaro Palacios (also from a famous winemaking family, but struck out on his own) and he convinced Palacios and several other winemakers to join him. The group began buying up vineyards together and initially shared equipment and facilities in Gratallops, making wine bottled under five different labels, until they were each able to establish themselves. The effort became known as the Gratallops Project. The group adopted the use of “clos” the French word for a walled vineyard, and the original “Big Five” were René Barbier’s Clos Mogador, Costers del Siurana’s Clos de l’Obac, Álvaro Palacios’ Clos Dofi (now Finca Dofí, and he also makes L’Ermita, one of Spain’s most famous wines), Clos Martinet from Mas Martinet , and Clos Erasmus from Clos & Terrasses.  They produced carefully made wines featuring complex blends aged in French oak barrels. (Note: Others were involved in the early stages of the project, and Clos de l'Obac's website lays things out a bit differently, but these are the wineries that are typically listed as the initial Big Five.)

The group’s efforts paid off and quickly. The group produced its first bottlings in 1989 and by the late 90s, they’d begun to win worldwide acclaim. Other small estates began to pop up and join in the efforts and Priorat gained stardom as a quality wine region, so much so that it was eventually elevated to DOCa (DOQ in Catalan) – it’s the only region besides Rioja to achieve Spain’s top classification tier.

A classic Priorat red wine is made from old-vine Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (aka Carignan/ Mazuelo/Samsó), often blended with small amounts of French varieties. It’s one of the few famous wine regions to base its wines on Grenache, the Southern Rhône being the other most notable example. Thanks to those gnarly old vines with their low yields, the wines tend to be bold and powerful, deep, dark, and structured, with notes of ripe to sun-dried red and black fruits, licorice, tar, and intense minerality. Sadly, since the growing conditions are so tricky, the wines also tend to be a bit on the pricier side, but not necessarily exorbitant. It’s hard to find many quality examples under $20, but you can start to find good versions in the $20-$30 range and they climb on up from there.

A small amount of white wine is made in the region as well, but we’ll look at that more closely in my next post. 

Note: Tastings at these wineries may have been comped as a member of the wine industry.

Costers del Siurana and Clos de l’Obac

Once Mariona Jarque rescued us from perpetually circling Gratallops, we made our way to Costers del Siurana where we had the chance to meet and taste with her husband Carles Pastrana. Mariona is an enologist and Carles is a former journalist turned winemaker. They moved to Priorat in 1979 and joined René Barbier, who’d been a childhood friend of Carles', to begin establishing their wine project.

They began replanting vines along the banks of the river Siurana. Costers means “slopes”, giving the names to the winery. Despite the fact that Costers del Siurana is the official name, they are best known and often referred to as Clos de l’Obac, the name of their flagship wine. However, they make several others: Dolç de l’Obac, Miserere, and Kyrie.

Carles Pastrana and me outside Costers del Siurana.

As I mentioned, we visited and tasted with Carles, who was quite affable with a big personality and strong opinions. It was clear that he likes to work in a meticulous manner. Just the day before, we’d visited Rioja where we’d seen the cobwebby wine crypts covered in molds that were prized as integral to the winery ecosystem. Without naming names, Carles made it clear that he was having none of that. He wanted a pristine operation, and so it was. 

Inside the squeeky clean winery at Costers del Siurana. In the background you can also see artwork on the walls – the winery tires to support artists.

Following suit, the wines are precisely made. Each of the wines is made by blending the same varieties in the same percentages each year. The goal is to showcase the characteristics of the specific vintage, rather than the differences that might show up by blending. (Surplus wines are used to make a second line  called Usatges.)

The wines also go through a very particular aging process. Once the winemaking process has been completed, depending on the temperatures outside, the wines are allowed to rest for three or four months in their fermentation and storage vats in contact with the intense winter weather. This allows for a natural stabilization process to occur without the use of refrigeration. After this period, the wines are transferred via gravity flow to French oak casks in their aging room, where they’re allowed to age for 10-15 months, and are occasionally wracked manually by candlelight. During this period, the casks again are exposed to winter temperatures for additional, natural stabilization. Wines are clarified with egg whites.  

Lab inside Costers del Siurana.

Carles shared several thoughts on what makes a truly great wine. Of course, longevity was a factor, and great wines should definitely be able to age quite a while. Moreover, Costers del Siurana regularly holds their wines back quite a few years before releasing them – the current vintages listed on their website for their reds are 2005 and 2006. In addition, he felt that a truly great wine should be able to remain relatively stable once opened for several days. To illustrate these points, he shared various back vintages, and also poured us a taste from a bottle that had been opened for a week as well. To his credit, the wine still tasted quite good and only slightly oxidized despite the fact that the bottle was less than half full. In general, the wines showed elegance and structure to match the care with which they were made.

I mentioned in my recent Rioja post, that my tasting notes from this trip have disappeared, so I'm not sure which specific vintages we had, but here are the basics on their four wines, based on their website.

Clos d l’Obac

Blend: 35% Grenache, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 10% Cariñena.
The fruit is sourced from seven vineyards (out of a total of eight estate vineyards) of varying altitudes and orientations, all located around the town of Gratallops. The Grenache and Cariñena vines are over 50 years old.


Blend: 27% Grenache, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Tempranillo, 10% Merlot, 10% Cariñena.
Vines for this wine are more than 40 years old, planted in some of the finest slate soils in Priorat, giving the wine excellent structure and ageability.


Blend: 35% Grenache Blanc, 30% Macabeu, 30% Xarel•lo, 5% Muscat of Alexandria
These four classic white grapes of Catalunya used in this wine come from the small Kyrie vineyard, which has southern exposure. The optimum ripening of the four varieties, together with a slight maceration of the grape skins, gives Kyrie an exceptional structure and complexity as well as an exquisite finesse. Aged in new casks of French oak, it offers excellent expectations of long life and good development in the bottle over a period of many years.

Dolç de l’Obac
Blend: 80% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah
The grapes for this dessert bottling come from the eighth of the estate’s vineyards, called Camp dels Espills. The grapes in this small property are left to over-ripen on their vines each year. Afterward, when their fermentation comes to a natural halt, a residual natural sugar is preserved that makes Dolç de l’Obac a very suitable wine for aging in the bottle which is unique worldwide and which forms an especially appropriate accompaniment for blue cheeses, foie-gras and bitter chocolate, among other delicacies.

In the US, the wines are basically only to be found by contacting their importer: info@obacimports.com.  

Clos Mogador

After our tasting at Costers del Siurana, we strolled next door to tour and taste at Clos Mogador. We’ve already covered a lot of the winery’s history in the course of this post, as founder René Barbier is central to the Priorat story as a whole. To be specific, this is René Barbier III we've been talking about, who is now retired, and his son René Barbier IV, who had been working alongside his dad since 1992, has now taken over.

René Barbier IV has made a few changes of his own, and the wines are now made via native yeast fermentations, are using fewer barrels, and decreasing the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the wines. They’ve also been certified organic since 2012, and have been incorporating biodiverse and biodynamic farming methods. All vineyards are hand-harvested.

I think this was probably the first time I saw a concrete egg fermentation vessel.

The winery currently makes four wines, although one, COM TU,  was added to the lineup after our visit, so we’ll focus on the others here.

Clos Mogador

Blend: Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (percentages might vary from vintage to vintage)
Clos Mogador is a vast amphitheater vineyard made of crumbling slate soils. The vines are surrounded by mountains and the lower parts of the vineyards run along the banks of the Siurana River.


Blend: 90% Carignan, 10% Grenache
Manyetes is an old-vine Carignan vineyard with the extremely poor soil of the region, intense sunlight, and bleak exposure. The Carignan vines struggle to survive in the parched earth but then produce excellent wines. The splash of Grenache is added to bring a touch of femininity.


This is the winery’s white wine based ion Grenache Blanc, but we’ll be taking a closer look at this wine in my next post.


Explore other posts related to our Iberian Road Trip:



The rest of the World Wine Travel blogging group will be exploring wines from Catalunya, hosted by Susannah of Avvinare. If you see this post early enough, feel free to join us February 27, 2021 at  8:00 am PT /11:00am ET under the #WorldWineTravel hashtag on Twitter. Be sure to check out the rest of the group's posts:



  1. What an amazing trip that must have been! Thank you for sharing your stories and helping us get to know some of the personalities behind this region!

  2. Oh! This makes me miss traveling SO much. Thanks for sharing your travels...and these wines.

  3. What a magical trip. Thank you for telling this as a story of your day. It pulled me in and made the descriptions so much more vivid.
    The fact that René Barbier IV has made changes, moving with innovation, seems so right for this region that embraces both old and new.

    1. I absolutely agree, given how innovative Rene III has been, it seems completely right that Rene IV should keep pushing things forward. Thanks!

  4. Thank god for the hippies, dreamers and academics! Spain is our favourite country to travel to and we're dying to get to that area...you've inspired us to put it to the top of our list!

  5. what a great story -- and well told! I felt myself right there-- and I want to visit too!

  6. Ha! What a great story. We had the same experience except we were returning a rental car on a Sunday (big mistake!) We drove in circles for so long we missed our train and ended up bussing to our next destination! Thanks for the introduction to these wines!

    1. Oh we had some issues with the rental car too! Ha!

  7. Great story, well told! Loved the "Eres Nicole?" That must have been quite startling in the middle of nowhere. Having worked a short stint in a wine cellar I can really appreciate Carles' insistence on a pristine operation. Cleanliness matters!

    1. It really was! And yes agreed, it was a very different look from the rather gothic cellars we saw in Rioja.


Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!