At one time there were packs of wolves roaming the Priorat, enough to give the village its name: grat means “pleasant” and llops means “wolves.” The village symbol incorporates a pine tree, which may have come from the name when it was occupied by the Moors (Villanova del Pi, village of the pine tree). Some believe the wolves represent the Gratallopencs who chased the Moors up the tree and away. That would fit their historical reputation for being fighters.
Gratallops is where the recent renaissance of the region began. It is home to the last remaining cooperative in the region, the Vinicola, so the tradition that at one time offered salvation to the region continues to provide opportunity to the growers not producing wine on their own.
The Mare de Déu de la Consolació hermitage, or L’Ermita as it is more familiarly known, is the silent overseer of the Priorat. It sits perched atop a mountain just beyond Gratallops, in view of the entire region. Still inhabited by a cloistered nun, it is a quiet reminder of the original legend of angels taking the wine of the Priorat up to heaven.
It is hot in Gratallops, and there is a great deal of llicorella, including some black slate along with granite and other sedimentary soils. Garnatxa, Carinyena and some Bordeaux and white varieties are planted here. The wines are powerful and complex, with sweet tannins and spice.
On a clear day the villages appear across the landscape like wedding cakes sprawling down hillsides. They are close enough to each other to feel connected, but before there were roads, which was not that long ago, they were too far apart to reach in a day. Imagine working in the vineyards, seeing a friend on a hillside across the valley collapse from the hot sun and having no cell phone to call for help. These circumstances kept each village reliant upon its own community. But some people managed to fall in love with “exotic” spouses from other villages, though they were all intrinsically bound by the Montsant.
Technically there are nine villages in the Priorat. Only the land around El Molar and Falset is within the DOQ Priorat, not the villages themselves. Scala Dei is technically part of La Morera, but it has its own community and terroir distinctive enough to be referenced independently. Some villages have less than 10% of the population they had at beginning of the century. After the phylloxera epidemic the population plummeted, and by the end of the Franco era the region was in stasis. But the Priorat was not depressed because, while the people had little money, they still had their land and their freedom, which had value all their own.
As the region finds prosperity again, families are returning to their ancestral villages and restoring their family homes along with the regional pride. Narrow pedestrian streets now make room for modern cars, but the church squares remain the place for social gatherings. The older generation stroll the streets, recollecting each stone and plant along the way. Some things are changing, but others never will.
Ethos Priorat is vividly panoramic. It is best viewed in landscape format to fully enjoy the experience.