Venturing into Catalonia's remote Priorat

Published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, October 22, 2010. 

It all began with wine. In 1989, a group of wine connoisseurs visited the Priorat, an impoverished, mountainous rural area inland from Tarragona, in the Spanish province of Catalonia. They had heard of the region's unique conditions for growing grapes, although the wine being produced was unrefined and usually sold in canisters rather than bottles.

The group was led by René Barbier, the veteran winemaker from La Rioja. The others were Álvaro Palacios, also the son of winemakers in La Rioja; Carles Pastrana, a Spanish journalist and wine lover from Tarragona; and Daphne Glorian, a Swiss-French lawyer. With them was Josep Lluis Perez, a local professor of oenology and founder of the Oenology School in Falset, the Priorat's capital. They must have liked what they saw, for each started buying land, rehabilitating old vineyards, planting new ones, and making wine under names such as Clos de l'Obac, Clos Erasmus and l'Ermita that have since elicited praise from wine pundits all over the world.

"We don't deserve any merit," Mr. Palacios says. "The merit is all with the Priorat. If we went there, it was because of the quality of the wine. When I first tried it, it was like a diamond in the rough. The area has an exclusive personality. It's so beautiful and at the same time so difficult; it requires a lot of effort, but it's worth it."

Dominated by the impressive, flat-topped mountain range of the Montsant natural reserve, the landscape is rough and striking. Vineyards and olive groves cover the terraced slopes that rise from unblemished valleys. The medieval villages dotting the hilltops have escaped the urban atrocities committed on the nearby coast. And the wine is produced in a traditional manner, with grapes picked by hand and irrigation systems rare. The Priorat feels like a remnant from another age that has been magically preserved in these mountains.

"When we first arrived, some people wanted to innovate, introduce new types of grapes and change the cultivation system," Mr. Palacios recalls. "They were disappointed. We found centuries' worth of winegrowing tradition, and people were doing it this way because it worked. So the traditional methods are being preserved, even though it sometimes means using horses instead of tractors. But the mentality here is to preserve."

Twenty years after the winemakers arrived, the Priorat is again making the balancing act between economic development and the preservation of traditions and the environment. The area is opening up to tourism, with a focus on wine and hiking. One of the people spearheading this effort is Cristina Beltran, the 38-year-old manager of the Falset tourism office. A native of the small village of Masroig, she witnessed the transformation of the Priorat from destitute backwater to flourishing wine country. And she is happy with the progress they're making. "When I started, in 2001, there were a few restaurants but practically no hotels, no wineries that received visitors, and no organized activities," Ms. Beltran recalls. In 2003, the tourism office persuaded six wineries to open their doors to visitors; today, there are 46 that offer tours.

It wasn't until 2004 that a road was built, offering a comfortable journey from Tarragona to the region's two biggest towns, Falset and Cornudella. The real breakthrough came in 2006, when the Catalan government awarded the region funding to promote tourism. Suddenly, there were five people working in Ms. Beltran's office, a professional website was launched, and the team came up with ideas such as the recuperation of the old trails that had connected the villages before roads were built, and their promotion as a lighter form of hiking. The strategy worked. "Tourism is now the second source of income in the region, after wine," Ms. Beltran says.

The effect has been felt nowhere more than in Siurana, a tiny village of 35 inhabitants in the northeast of the Priorat. Formerly the seat of Moorish regents, Siurana was the last fiefdom in the area to fall into the hands of Christian conquerors in the 12th century, after what is believed to have been an arduous siege. Contemplating its location, it seems surprising that it fell at all: Perched on the edge of a cliff, the village is surrounded on three sides by deep falls and on the fourth, by the towering rocks of the Montsant.

Andreu Bartolomé, a descendant of one of Siurana's original families who left the village for the coast, recalls the dire situation of the 1970s and '80s. "At some point, there were only three families left. One could only get by foot to Cornudella. There was no future," he says. In 1992, a road was finally built, and a few years later Mr. Bartolomé decided to return to Siurana to take over the family's winery and goat farm—"to become a shepherd," as he puts it. He met his wife and the two took over the family restaurant, which served home cooking to Catalan hikers. Then the boom happened, and now the couple has built a six-room luxury hotel with gourmet restaurant, called Mirador de Siurana.

Today there are five families in Siurana, and everybody is living off tourism in one way or another, according to Mr. Bartolomé, who understands that the charm of the region lies in a focus on small scale and high quality. "Our visitors are quite demanding. This is a quiet region, and the people who come here are very different from those who go to the coast," he says.

Martin Kirby, an Englishman who moved his family a decade ago to a farmhouse in the south of the Priorat, concurs. "It's the reverse of glitz and party," he says. "The Priorat is for people who are looking for an active, mentally stimulating and physically rewarding holiday."

Mr. Kirby, a journalist and writer, came to the region in search of a simpler life. He doesn't see this threatened by tourism. "Here in the Priorat, families and communities are still very closely knit. Of course the region has evolved; it's opening up and tourism is growing. But it's sensitively done and very well handled. There are no ugly hotels; people are building very beautiful places. They want to preserve its beauty and its culture."

Like the region's traditional wine industry, the Priorat itself may survive its encounter with the rest of the world unscathed. "We were just a circumstance," Mr. Palacios says about the pioneer winemakers. "The most important factor was the region itself."