Legend says that in 1194, King Alfons sent soldiers to find a place for some Carthusian monks to live in Catalunya. They came upon a shepherd, who told them about a stairway that appeared over a large pine tree at the base of the Montsant Mountains. The man said the stairway went to heaven and angels ascended with wine for God. This sounded like a good spot for a monastery. Thus began the community known as Scala Dei.
The monastery itself was called Cartuja de Escaladei (monastery of stairs to God). A high arch dedicated to St. Mary was built at the spot where the pine tree was said to have been. It and some broken-down walls were all that remained after church lands were confiscated in 1835. But its restoration is in progress, stone by stone.
The monastery was sequestered, so a community was established nearby to manage the monks’ business interests. It was known as the Conreria but today it is the charming village of Scala Dei. The land was originally part of the municipality of La Morera and remains so today.
The vines planted here are predominately white varieties like Garnatxa Blanca, along with some Garnatxa Negra and Carinyena. Calcareous soil and cold winds result in wines with bright acidity and graceful minerality.
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.