You can hardly find Priorat, or Priorato in Spanish, on a map, it’s so small. This tiny Catalonian wine region covers just 4,151 acres – Rioja, in comparison, is over 150,000 acres in size – but Priorat’s impact on the world of wine is large.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Named for the local monastery, or priory, that began producing wine in the 12th century, Priorat lies inland from Tarragona in northeastern Spain. Monks of the Scala Dei (“Ladder of God”) monastery planted the hillsides around the priory with wine grapes. The vineyards flourished, thanks to the area’s fertile volcanic soil and dry summer climate, until phylloxera’s arrival in the late 1800s. Priorat’s wine industry was ruined.

Winemaking returned to Priorat in the early 1950’s, and the region became a DO in 1954.

Winemakers rediscovered the area’s unique soil, called “llicorella” in Catalan. Llicorella consists of tiny bits of slate, both red and black. Like the soils around Italy’s volcanoes, Priorat’s topsoil is perfect for grapes.

Priorat’s unusual climate also leaves its mark on the region’s wine grapes. Summers are typically hot and dry, but winters can be cold and windy.

Priorat is quite hilly, so each vineyard seems to have its own microclimate. In some areas, the hills shelter the vines, while in others, winds from warmer areas can blow onto the grapes. Priorat’s wines reflect these distinctive pairings of soil and microclimate.

In recent years, Priorat’s winemakers have devoted a great deal of time and energy to improving their production methods. During the 1990s, many Priorat winemakers focused their attention on creating high-quality wines, with excellent results. Priorat became a DOCa, or DOQ in Catalan, region in 2000.

Today, Priorat’s red wines, such as Celler Mas Doix’s Priorat Costers de Vinyes Velles 2005, Ester Nin’s Priorat Nit de Nin 2005 and Álvaro Palacios’ Priorat L’Ermita 2004, receive top scores and command high prices.

In Priorat, garnacha grapes predominate. Reds are made from garnacha tinta grapes; garnacha peluda, carineña and cabernet sauvignon are also permitted. Priorat’s white wines are made from garnacha blanca, macabeo and Pedro Ximénez; only about six percent of Priorat’s vineyards are planted in white wine grapes.

If you plan to visit Priorat, perhaps as a side trip from Tarragona or Barcelona, you’ll discover tiny villages surrounded by steep hillsides and terraced vineyards. Priorat has no large cities; Falset, with around 2,500 inhabitants, is the largest town. Most of Priorat’s vineyards are near the towns of Gratallops and Porrera.

Visiting a Priorat winery is easily arranged; of course, it’s always best to contact the wineries you’d like to visit in advance. Buil & Giné offers winery tours and tastings; you can even take the “long route” tour by Segway. La Perla del Priorat is open for tastings and visits on Fridays and Saturdays, but only from 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.

Viñedos de Ithaca’s winery has an ancient Greek theme, complete with a stone statue of the legendary Trojan horse. Run by the father-daughter team of Josep and Silvia Puig, Viñedos de Ithaca is open for visits, provided you contact the winery in advance.

Perhaps you’d like to see the original Scala Dei vineyard area, where Priorat’s wine history began. Today, the Scala Dei vineyards are partially owned by Grupo Codorníu, and the wines produced there are bottled under the Cellers Scala Dei label. The winery is open from 9:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. and from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. daily; calling ahead is preferred.

Of course, there’s more to see in Priorat than wineries. The ruins of the Scala Dei monastery, known today as the Carthusian Monastery of Escaladei, are open Tuesday through Sunday. Escaladei was Spain’s first Carthusian monastery, as well as the home of Priorat’s first vineyards.

You can also visit the Natural Park of La Serra del Monsant, the rocky mountain range above Priorat’s hills and vineyards. Here you’ll find prehistoric caves as well as medieval hermitage buildings dedicated to Saint Anthony Abbot, Mary, the mother of God, and other saints. You can hike into the hills to watch wildlife or enjoy a guided nature walk. Some of the park’s free events are presented in English.

Wherever you go in Priorat, you’ll see the vineyards, symbols of the region’s new prestige. When it comes to wine, Priorat’s presence isn’t measured by the acre, but by its quality.