VINO: Spain’s Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and La Rioja Wine Regions

Many food and wine enthusiasts agree that Spain is one of the most exciting gastronomic countries in the world, with a vibrant passion for producing and enjoying outstanding culinary and oenological experiences.

Here is a fun fact – Spain is the second most mountainous country (after Switzerland) and has more land planted with grapes than any other nation in the world. Italy and France produce more wine, however, as Spain’s old vines grow in rugged, in-fertile, arid lands that produce low yields of highly concentrated and revered juice! Many think of Spain’s wines being born in the sun and heat, which of course influence its’ grapes. Yet the greatest Spanish vineyards are often located well above 1000 feet above sea level, where weather conditions are considerably cooler. While Tempranillo is king in Spain, there are multiple top-quality and very exciting black and white grapes produced in their famous wine regions and in lesser-known up-and-coming areas. On this trip, we traveled with dear friends and fellow wine lovers and met up with some of the most passionate winemakers I have ever known in Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and La Rioja.


The Priorat wine region in Catalunya has been growing grapes since before the Romans, but did not emerge until the 1990s as a top wine region. This is when some renegade winemakers invested money and energy into the region, thus producing some of the best and most expensive wines of Spain. In Priorat, vines are grown on the sides of steep slate mountains. Grenache is the primary grape grown, along with its partner in crime, Carignan, who produces intense, inky, and age-worthy wines.

Priorat is a designated DOQ (or DOCa) region which is the highest designation a region can receive and there are only two in all of Spain with this status – Priorat and La Rioja.

The charming villages that make up the DOQ Priorat are Bellmunt del Priorat, Gratallops, el Lloar, la Morera de Montsant, Porrera, Poboleda, Scala Dei, Torroja del Priorat, la Vilella Alta and la Vilella Baixa, and the grape growing zones of Masos de Falset and Solanes del Molar.

We stayed at the gorgeous Terra Dominicata, a tranquil boutique hotel and winery with 12th century monastic roots- in Catalonia. A sense of peace seems to settle over you the moment you arrive at Terra Dominicata. The buildings that make up this luxury hotel were originally part of a monastery- where monks passed their lives in prayer. Today- sparse cells may have given way to stylish suites- but echoes of the monastic life remain. It was the monks that began producing Montsant and Priorat wines here – a proud tradition continued by the Terra Dominicata winery. In fact- the hotel wine cellar holds the largest collection of these famous appellations in the world! The calming color palette of earth tones in the guest rooms, compliments the minimalist furnishings- with some including the original stone walls that tie these contemporary spaces to their past. Outside- warm terracotta tiles lead you to the pool- where swims come with Montsant Natural Park views. To take a closer look at your surroundings – set off hiking through the rugged scenery. Or visit the ruined monastery in nearby Escaladei. Back at Terra Dominicata – the tables at Alma Mater are laid for dinner, out on the stone terrace and a feast awaits with a modern take on traditional Priorat produce and recipes. A terrific outpost from which to explore the wines and villages of Priorat.

The rebirth of Priorat: The Magnificent 5. This is the nickname given to a group made up by René Barbier, Daphne Glorian-Solomon, Álvaro Palacios, José Luis Pérez and Carlos Pastrana who in the 1980’s invested in the region’s growing grades and established their famous “Clos” labels. Our first tasting included some of their best and most famous wines.

Mountains meet the Mediterranean here, and the Priorat vines are mostly hand-harvested on impossibly steep hillsides where vines labor through layers of black slate known as licorella to reach water and nutrients. The result is low yield, high intensity, and quality grapes from which gorgeous wines are made. We had an epic day of tastings incredibly unique wineries, from the ultra-elegant and stunning Merum Priorati, to the tiny in-town bodega of super-producer, Clos Dominic, and then to the oldest winery of the region Scala Dei. Grenache from Priorat makes complex, luscious, intense, and powerful wines full of perfume and fruit. Grenaches are often blended with the other native grape from the region, Carignan, which contributes intensity, depth, and concentrated fruit flavors. Cab, Syrah, Merlot, and Tempranillo can also be found and celebrated here as blending wines.

The lovely owner of the winery, Merum Priorati in Porrera, Priorat is shown in the photo below. The elegant single-varietal reds here are meticulously cared for in the vineyards and by their renowned winemaker. The Pere Ventura family business is famous for its elegant Cava production in Penedes, of which we also took home a beautiful bottle.

We toured the impossibly steep vineyards of Merum Prioati with the talented winemaker, Roger Oferil. The vines literally grow through the Licorella and help ensure the intensity of the wines. This is a gorgeous winery and the beauty begins in the vineyards.

Tasting the incredibly elegant and delicate granache’s – Inici, Desti, Desti 100% grenache, and El Cel

Here I am at one of the magnificent old villages of Priorat where we stopped for an outstanding lunch, and yes, the wine still flowed!

Visiting the historic bodega of Clos Dominic in the middle of the village of Porerra was a highlight. This completely unassuming and no-frills winemaker is one of the most successful of the region with many of her wines on the wine lists of the TOP restaurants in the country, including at the outstanding restaurant Abadia de la Retuerta in Ribera del Duero and in the Costa Brava at El Celler de Can Roca, awarded number one restaurant in the world twice! The wines and olive oil are outstanding and throughout our trip, Dominic’s name came up and in-the-know oenophiles were impressed we knew her!

In 1163, Alfonso II of Aragon founded a Carthusian Monastery called Scala Dei or “God’s Stairway”. We hiked up to the monastery for our morning exercise, only to find ourselves back tasting wines from the winery there, the oldest in Priorat. In fact, the region was named Priorat after the word priory.

Located in the village of La Morera de Montsant, walking distance from our hotel, Terra Dominicata, is Scala Dei. The sellers of Scala Dei operate today in some of the old buildings that once belonged to the monastery. We were in love with the Rose produced here – Pla dels Angels, but the red Grenaches CARTOIXA is considered one of the best in the region.

I highly suggest a visit to Slate Wine Bar in Gratallops. It’s a wonderful little tapas bar with outstanding service, and a wide selection of top wines from the region are happily suggested by the knowledgeable team!

We scored with these two killer Priorats!

Travel is an adventure and things don’t always go to plan. This makes for some frustration, aggravation, and even disappointment. In travel, as in life, it’s all how you handle what is thrown your way. Midway through a six-and-a-half-hour drive across the more desolate part of Spain, between the Priorat and Ribera del Duero wine region, our Hertz rental car engine started sputtering and then died. We were on the side of the road with the sun blistering down on us, and we had big plans on the other end of the drive. This is where patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor come in. My best advice is to never leave home without it. All the difference in the world is having travel companions that roll with the punches, and of course, great in-country contacts that have your back when things need to pivot. And above all LAUGH it off, if you can, we sure did!

Ribera Del Duero

Thanks to our incredibly capable travel team, we made it to a fantastic reward in Ribera del Duero (actually in nearby Sardon del Duero), the spectacular and not-to-be-missed luxury hotel and winery – Le Domaine Abadia Retuerta.

Expect a divine stay at Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine, less than a two-hour drive or a fifty-minute high-speed train ride from Madrid. This restored 12th-century abbey sits on 500 acres of vineyards along the Duero River; guests can explore the area by bicycle, foot, or Land Rover tour. Former monks’ cells and stable blocks are now thirty tranquil rooms and suites offering full butler service; let the world’s first spa sommelier recommend the perfect oenotherapy treatment. The Refectorio, the abbey’s original dining hall, is now a Michelin-starred restaurant, where haute cuisine is paired with the Abadia Retuerta estate’s award-winning wines. This may have been the most impressive meal of the trip! I recommend a stay at Le Domaine for wine enthusiasts but also for those seeking a wonderful resort rest between exploring Spains exciting cities!

So we made it, after all, a bit delayed, but safe and sound to a very, very special place that has been on my IT LIST since it opened in 2012 – Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine. This restored 12th-century monastery embodies the essence of style, clean lines, original artworks, exceptional service, a dreamy spa, yoga, and workout options. Did I mention the winery produces some of the top wines in the country and that their Michelin star dining room is an experience in itself? A perfect stop to calm the soul during an active Spain itinerary. 

So while the day involved a crazy drive and some car trouble, it all was massaged away in the spa, and our tasting menu paired with wines from Abadía’s vineyard was a rewarding consolation. 

Dinner including the setting, the service, and the gastronomy at El Refectorio may have been the most impressive of the trip – and that is saying a lot!

While Abadia Retuerta is not actually in the DO of Ribera del Duero, but instead in Sardon del Duero, it is considered one of the most successful avant-garde wineries of the region. We were thrilled to stock our cellars with its 100% Tempranillo, 100% Syrah, 100% Cab, and 100% Petit Verdot.

Our off-the-beaten-path winery visits today made for one of the best days of the trip!! First, we headed to La Aguilera, the new Cru of Ribera- everybody talks about this town and the Tempranillo grapes from here for their intensity and character. Dominio de Cair belongs to Luis Cañas Family, a classic Rioja winery that moved to Ribera del Duero few years ago. Here we saw modernity and technology coming together with the most classic Tempranillo. We tasted several outstanding wines from the Crianza to the super single plot wines and also did some tastings straight from the barrel to appreciate the differences between French and American oak.

Our second stop was to the village of Val Sotillo and the incredible and historic, Ismael Arroyo, one of the most important families in the Ribera wine region. He and another four families decided to found the D.O Ribera del Duero in 1982. Here, we visited the underground tunnels from the XVI Century with Mr. Arroyo- he once played in the caves as a young boy and now runs one of the top wineries of the area.

Our third and final stop was to Arbas winery, a small and more recent 100% organic and biodynamic winery. The real magic is Jesus Arbas – a renaissance man himself and a former dancer. Jesus made a fresh start a few years back alongside his wife, a famous Spanish ballerina, which started his outstanding winery. Jesus served his “Famous Lechazo al horno” (roasted suckling lamb) with other specialties along with some of his elegant wines. Tremendous fun was had, and lets just say that some dancing was inevitable as the video shows!

The beautiful and imposing castle of Penafiel.

La Rioja

La Rioja needs little introduction as the most famous wine region for over a century! Rioja is often referred to as Spain’s Bordeaux and the Tempranillo grape here is what the region is known for. The signature influence here is the exceptionally long aging of the wines in oak barrels. There are two schools of thought or styles of wine that predate among winemakers here. The classical winemakers often use older oak – often American – and age their wine for a very long time to produce well-aged, mellow wines with hints and vanilla. The modernists use brand new French barrels and age for a shorter time in the high-impact barrels for a pronounced dramatic effect of fruit and oak.

There are literally hundreds of very well known and historic producers. La Rioja is a very traditional wine making region and we visited an older guard and historic winery – Martinez Lacuesta in Haro – making wines in the classic Rioja style that is so easy to identify and also a more modern style showcasing the fruit and expertise in the vineyards. 

There are some renegade winemakers in Rioja, and again, we had insider access to some incredible talents. What an experience tasting straight from the barrels with the renowned, Basilio Izquierdo, including a daring and edgy 100% Graciano!

Finally we visited Bodegas Launa, a 9th generation winery owned by 3 siblings – Iker, Unax, and Usuri. Iker, the winemaker, personally cooked us a delicious lunch and sat with us serving up some stunning Tempranillos!

Tonight we stayed in the charming medieval city of La Guardia at the family-run Hostelleria Los Parajes.

We cheered on Spain in the European Championship which was so fun to do in a bar in LaGuardia. Sadly no W. Congratulations to my Italian friends!  

I absolutely can not say enough about the wines of Spain, and there are so many more regions to unveil! If you are as spellbound by wine as much as I am, I am glad to customize an insider access trip for you to discover your favorite wine regions anywhere in the world. Or if you would like to join me and other like-minded wine friends, please check periodically for my wine trip updates which always sell out very quickly – RTLM Curated Wine Groups.

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