On the road to Spain – visiting Vilella Alta and Escala Dei in the Priorat

It is November 2019. We are spending two weeks in the appartment of our friends at L’Hospitalet del l’Infant. Some days ago we had already visited the Priorat to walk in the vineyards of Bellmunt. On a sunny day, we now return to the Priorat to visit another wine village, Vilella Alta, where we buy some wine in the bodega Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat. In addition, we look at the ruins of the former Carthusian Monastery Escala Dei.

Source: Googlemaps


Steep vineyards in the Priorat aound Gratallops

Just before arriving at Gratallops we stop to have a coffee in the restaurant La Cassola with the amazing view of the small town perched on a mountain edge…

… and with the view of these steep vineyards above the river Siurana.

This is an amazingly steep vineyard with very loosely planted vines that shine golden in the sun.

And here is the view of the Siurana valley with the table mountain Montsant in the background.

Gratallops is the wine village, where in the 1980’s the Priorat started to revive (Vinos de España, p. 171). Gratallops is pretty and worth a visit, but today, our target is Vilella Alta.


Vilella Alta, wine village perched on a rock, and the welcoming Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat

Vilella Alta is another pretty Priorat village perched on a steep hill. The streets are narrow. This is the Carrer Major with the view of the church.

Here we stand below the small village and look uphill.

In one of the small streets, we find this beautifully restored house. with the carefully arranged plants in front of the main entry.

I look for the Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Monsalvat. I walk down this street, almost to the end of it. Ursula stops in front of the door arch of the small house on the right hand side. “Come back, the celler is here”, she says.

Yes, Ursula is right, here it is, the bodega Cellers de Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvant that I have looked for, based on the hints found in “Vinos de España”, p. 172 and in “Més d’enlla del vi – DOQ Priorat”, p. 123. The Montsalvant is a small family owned bodega. This unpretentious entry in the narrow street reminds me again of how different the DOQ Priorat is from the second Spanish DOQ Rioja, where some bodegas have been constructed by star architects and are visited by hords of tourists. Here we are alone… almost…

According to “Més d’enlla del vi”, Francesc Sánchez-Bas, has founded the bodega de la Cartoixa with two friends in 1995, and he took it over ten years later, when one of his companions became president of the Conseil Regulador de la DOQ Priorat. 1995, this was almost 25 years ago. We count back – yes we were in our forties then, and hence Francesc Sánchez-Bas must be in his early sixties now. Is this him, rushing through the large door just below where we stand?

Yes, it is him. He is about to leave for Tarragona, but nevertheless finds time to prepare two bottles of his best red Montsalvat (2006, mainly Carignena, aged 18 months in barrels and made from old vines) and one bottle of white Montsalvat 2016 (made from Trepot Blanc, Macabeu and  Garnatxa Blanca, two months in barrel… I am particularly interested in the Trepot Blanc, an autochthonous Priorat grape that is new to me). Francesc gives us “identity cards” of his wines and apologizes that he does not have the time to show his bodega to us.

Well, we might return to this friendly place next year. We say good-bye and hope, the bodega helps to build a future for the children of Francesc, as he said in “Més enllà del vi”.

We take another photo of the surroundings of Vilella Alta…

… and admire some fragmented slate that is favorable for the wines of the Priorat. On his wine identity card, Francesc talks about “granite and quartzite shards”, which might be the better term coined by engineers in agronomy.

Next we continue to the monastery Escala Dei.


The Charterhouse Escala Dei – the nucleus of the Priorat, now a ruin

The ruins of the Carthusian monastery or charterhouse of Escala Dei are in a gorgeous location just below the table mountain Montsant. The monastery was the nucleus of the Priorat. It owned the nine villages that now form the DOQ wine region Priorat and – being a monastery – gave the area the Name: “Priorat”. The monastery was built, where a shepherd once saw a ladder with angels climbing to heaven. “Escala Dei” means “ladder  of God”. It was the first Carthusian monastery in Spain and for centuries it was an important cultural center. Now, it is even not mentioned in my art guide books, neither in Dumont’s “Katalonien und Andorra” nor in Barbara Bongässer’s “Katalonien – Kunst – Landschaft – Architektur”. The formerly wealthy monastery, reconstructed in baroque and neoclassical style from the 16th to the 18th century, has been destroyed effectively in the beginning of the 19th century. However, the monastery is well worth a visit, due to the amazing location and the restoration efforts that started in 1989 and illustrate life in the former monastery.

Entering Escala Dei is just stunning. The Montsant massif watches over the line of three gates and the alley of cypresses. This is the second gate…

… and the Santa Maria portal leading to the center of the monastery.

The style of the Santa Maria portal looks baroque to us, with Maria standing in a niche.

The small Romanesque cloister has been reconstructed with the elements excavated. A film in the former refectorium documents the process of reconstruction. The ladder to heaven or “Escala Dei” is engraved on the fountain.

The ladder of God is also on the tableware in the reconstructed living area of the monks. There is a room for study and praying, a second room for cutting wood, a third room for handcrafting and this is the room for eating and sleeping. All rooms are arranged around a small garden, it is just like a small “atrium house”. Through a small, “curved” window, the  monk received his meal from a laybrother that could not see the monk through the pass-thorugh.

Behind the “atrium house”, there is a double garden on two levels. This is the upper level. The monk planted his herbs and vegetables in these gardens.

A complex system provided water to the monastery. Above the monastery, spring water was captured in a cistern and distributed to the individual cells (or “atrium houses”). Each “atrium house” had its system of tubes and fountains. First the upper garden received water (top level in the scheme), second the water continued to the fountain in the lower garden (middle level in the scheme), and third the water arrived at the lowest level, the “atrium house”, where the monk lived (lowest level of the scheme). At this lowest level, an underground tube collected the water.

This is the fountain that carries water to the lower garden.

And this is the (reconstructed) lowest fountain that the monk used in his small “atrium house”, for his personal needs.

We look back to the refectory in front of the Montsant massif and say good-bye to the charterhouse Escala Dei.

We have lunch in the small restaurant near the monastery and then return to Hospitalet to enjoy our balcony with the view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sources: Sebastiano Albo, “Més enllà del vi – DOQ Priorat”, Barcelona 2011; “Vinos de España”, Larousse, Barcelona 2008; Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015 (for the monastery Escala Dei) and explanatory plates in the monastery Escala Dei.


On the road – mysterious ermità on a red rock and Bellmunt in the Priorat

We spend the whole month of November 2019 in Spain. Now we are staying in the appartment of our friends in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant. One day we go for an excursion to Montroig del Camp (where we buy leather bags from our favourite leather workshop) and then drive through the Llaberia mountains to the Priorat, to Bellmunt. On the way, we stop at the Ermità de la Mare de Déu.

Source: Googlemaps


La Ermità de la Mare de Déu de la Roca – spectacular location

So far we have always ignored the signs pointing to the Ermità de la Mare de Déu de la Roca, when driving through the Llaberia mountains. This time, we turn left and arrive under this sandstone rock with the mysterious building on top. It is the Ermità de la Mare de Déu de la Roca, and I can understand, why this ermità is called “de la Roca”.

The ermità is closed. Turismo of Montroig  shows, what it looks like inside. Their site explains that the ermità, going back to the 13th century, has been ingeniously integrated with the red rock. Yes I agree, But – red rocks? Now I understand, why the village Montroig del Camp is called “Redmountain” (in Catalan “roig”, pronounced “rotsh/rotsch”, means red and “mont” is “mountain”): Montroig lies in the fields at the foot of the red sandstone mountains.

We enjoy the view towards Tarragona, with olive groves, forests and the Mediterranean Sea.

Then we climb up to the viewpoint with the pictoresque sandstone formations shaped by wind an water.

From the “sandy” rock, we look back to the ermità. Gorgeous place and very secluded.

We continue on curvy roads across the picturesque Llaberia mountains to reach Bellmunt in the Priorat.


Bellmunt – quiet village of winegrowers in the Priorat

Bellmunt stretches along a mountain edge above the river Suirana.

The table mountain Monsant can be seen in the background.

The village is surrounded by vineyards,…

olive groves,…

… and almond trees.

Bellmunt belongs to the wine area Priorat, one of the two highest Quality or DOQ wine areas of Spain. A panel at the village parking shows the nine wine producing villages of the Priorat.

Casa Gran del Siurana is one of the bodegas of Bellmunt. According to their website, the bodega was founded in 2000 and belongs to the Peralada Group, a family owned commercial conglomerate from the Empordà (Catalonia).

This bodega is named after a large house or “casa gran” located on the banks of the river Siurana; it once was inhabited by Carthusian monks from the monastery Scala Dei that owned all nine Priorat villages and introduced vines here in the 12th century.

We slender through the vineyards of Bellmunt that shine in autumn colours…

… and cross a small affluent of the river Siurana.

We admire the elaborate terraces made from stone and…

… carved into the steep mountain slopes.

We return to the village…

… and stroll through the narrow streets with the laundry hanging on the windows.

The village was vivid, when we arrived, as it was full of joyful children returning from school. The smell of lunch was in the air. Now the streets are empty and quiet, it is siesta time. We even do not find a bar open to have a coffee.

We decide to return to our appartment in Hospitalet by driving through the hills of the Montsant DO. We take a foto of this Monsant vinyeard near El Guyamets. The DO Montsant wine region forms a ring around the DOQ Priorat and in general, the Montsant vineyards are less steep and the vines planted more densely. Some innovative villages and wine growers also make excellent Montsant wines, one of the most successful being the Celler of Capçanes.


Some backgorund Information about the DOQ Priorat

Having arrived in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant, we stop at the city library, where we find an excellent book about the villages and winegrowers of the Priorat, written by Sebastian Alba : «Més enllà del vi – DOQ Priorat », Barcelona 2012. It gives general information about the Priorat wine area and each winegrower of the Priorat has a chapter of his own to talk about his background and about his bodega. Though the book is written in Catalan, we understand pretty much of it, as we speak both French and Spanish. From this book we learn:

  • The Carthusian monks of the monastery Scala Dei (ladder of God) introduced vines to the Priorat in the 12th century. They owned what is today the DOQ area of Priorat, and the name “Priorat” still reminds of the monastery.
  • The fate of the village Bellmunt is connected with their plumb mines. They were closed in 1972 which caused an exodus of inhabitants. The mines can now be visited and a museum tells all about them.
  • In the late 1990’s and beginnings of 2000 seven bodegas were established in Bellmunt, mostly family enterprises. The vineyards of one of them, La Gran Casa de Siurana, I have photographed, and another one, Rosa Maria Bartolomé Vernet, is the offspring of a family that immigrated from Andalusia to work in the mines. When the mines closed down, this family stayed. They started their wine growing business in 1997.

“Vinos de España”, Editions Larousse 2008 tells us more about the Priorat. The Priorat is mostly hills, some very steep – up to 30-40%, called “costers”. The best wines come from slate fragmented ground that is called “licorello” here. The Priorat wines have been almost forgotten in the 20th century and revived in the 1980’s thanks to four innovative winegrowers. In 2001 the Priorat received the label DOQ. Today about 22 winegrowers produce Priorat wine that is renowned in the large wine markets of the world and can be ordered in the best restaurants. The Priorat vineyards comprise just 1600 ha in all. 1600 ha… compare that to Rioja, the second of the two DOQ wine regions in Spain: Rioja comprises 48’000 ha. The total of vineyards of the Priorat makes just 3.3% of the total of the vineyards of Rioja. Rioja being so close to France has evolved since the 19th century, when the French turned to the Rioja area, after having been hit by Phylloxera. Rioja is stunning with some prestige winegrowers that have engaged the best architects of the world to build enormous bodegas. The Priorat is more modest with its nine villages crouched on hills among steep vineyards, where vines grow uncongestedly on terraces; the bodegas are sober and functional, mostly owned by families some of which have relations to larger companies from other Spanish wine areas.

Rioja and Priorat – both DOQ regions have their own charm, though being very, very different.

Priorat – the DOC wine area amidst steep hills

Just 30km away from Hospitalet – this is what we discover on the map – there is the small town Falset (‘Falset – accent on the first syllable) which is the gateway to the DOC wine region Priorat and the adjacent DO region Montsant . On the map we select a round tour from Falset to Gratallops and back to Falset. Later we will return to explore the Montsant region with Escaladei (literally staircase to God).


Falset – a charming small country town

Falset is a charming small country town located in a friendly broad valley with olive trees, fruit trees and vineyards. There are many wine cellars, the most known one being the Cooperativa Scala Dei. Falset also hosts an enology school and a wine technology institute called Vitec that allows the local wine growers to analyze and optimize their wine production. I found this in Miquel Hudin: “Vinologue Montsant”, Liberdúplex 2004.

The town is quiet on this Sunday, the restaurants are full with people eating around three in the afternoon (the normal time for lunch in Spain).


Continuing through steep hills to Gratallops

We continue north towards Gratallops. Our road climbs and meanders through steep and rocky hills. No vineyards. I am surprised. Where are the Priorat wines? We have a coffee and a crema Catalana in the restaurant “La Cassola del Priorat”.

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Around this place we can see the first vineyards, terrassed on steep hills.

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The vines are loosely arranged, it must be hard to grow wine here.

Behind the next hill appears this gorgeous village perched on a hill. This is Gratallops.

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We enter the village. Narrow streets…

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… a church,…

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and a restaurant closed right now, on Sunday.

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Also the shop selling honey is closed today.

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One shop is open. We buy some wine – Garnatxa red (Lluna Vella) and white (l’Udol), a bottle of  Vermouth by de Muller, some local marmalade and the guide to the Montsant wines by Miquel Hudin. Three innovative wine growers have their cellars just outside of Gratallops: Alvaro Palacios, René Barbier and Carlos Pastrana. This is for some other time… I would have had to call them beforehand.

We continue our way along a narrow street above the Siurana river. Around us the steep vine gardens of the Priorat.

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Torroja of Priorat is just above the river Siurana.

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The road winds uphill with vineyards and olive groves on steep slopes. I had not imagined Priorat being so precipituous. In the “Vinologue Montsant” I read that in the DOC area of Priorat, 90% of the vines grow on llicorella slate (slate mixed with quartz), while DO Montsant has many different soils which also makes it interesting, as winegrowers start to produce wines exploiting the variety of the terroir.


Montsant – I am curious and will go back to Priorat

In the background we see the rocks of Montsant.

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Prices for wines are not as high as in the Priorat region, where prices reach even several 100 Euros. The Canadian Miquel Hudin fell in love with Monsant and wrote his book “Vinologue Monsant”.

While already the Romans had grown wine here, this tradition was interrupted during the Moorish reign, until 1153. Then the “Cartoixa de Santa Maria d’Escaladei” was  founded as the first Carthusian monastery in today’s Spain. A shepherd had a vision here: Angels climbed a staircase to heaven. Hence the name “scala dei” or “staircase to god”. The monastery owned the land that subsequently was called “Priorat”. In 1835 the ecclesial possessions were abolished and the farmers destroyed the monastery.

After reading this book and having seen the rocks, I am curious and decide go back to the Montsant area of Priorat with its staircase to God (Escaladei)