Perched on the side of a mountain, Vilella Alta watches quietly as the sun moves across the Montsant. The mountains look back benevolently. Man and nature share in tranquil harmony.
Nothing is flat in this village. You can drop a bunch of grapes and find them later in the Siurana River bed below.
Maybe Vilella Alta was settled by one of the Vilella brothers, as legend suggests. The village does in fact start at the top of a mountain that is alt (high). However, the Carthusians enticed people from the village of Montalt, north of Barcelona, to settle in the Priorat and they might have adapted the name Montalt to Vilella Alt. As its crest suggests, its history is intertwined with grapes.
The distinctive terrain is made up of peaks and valleys that lend diversity to the character of the fruit from this area. The vineyards get every type of sun exposure, at a variety of elevations. Although it is on the east side of the Priorat, which gets more heat, the altitudes and shaded valleys provide moderation.
Both Garnatxa and Carinyena are planted here, along with other varieties, but the majority of the vines are Carinyena. The soils vary from llicorella at the higher elevations to sedimentary rocks deposited by the now-dry Siurana River. The wines are expressive and complex.
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.