PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

A Spanish region rocked the wine world when it began producing top-class wines in the 1990s, setting the stage for a Spanish wine revival. Until Priorat burst onto the scene, Spain's most revered wines came from Rioja, about 500km west of Barcelona. Long admired for its aged complexity and modest character, Rioja was shocked when Priorat captivated powerful wine reviewers such as Robert Parker.

The name Priorato, or Priorat in local Catalan dialect, is derived from the word 'priory', which is a small Catholic monastery. According to legend, a sleepy young shepherd dreamed he saw angels ascending a staircase to heaven in 1163. Based on this divine vision, King Alfonso II of Aragon established a Catholic Carthusian monastery on the auspicious slope. The priory is long abandoned, but the small hamlet nearby retains the name Scala Dei, God's Stairway. One of the region's larger bodegas, called Cellers de Scala-Dei, is housed in the cellars of stone buildings that once belonged to the priory. Surely they play Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven for visitors?

Vines are not new to Priorat, but the region had produced little by way of quality since the end of the 19th century. In the late 1980s, winemaker Rene Barbier, who believed the region was worth revitalising, convinced five friends to invest in the region and the rest is history.

The main grape featured in Priorat wines is grenache. This workhorse grape is valued by winemakers for its high yields rather than its sensory qualities. Aside from Priorat, the most famed use of grenache is in popular Chateauneuf du Pape from southern France's Rhone Valley, but these two wines are chalk and cheese. In the Rhone and Priorat, this obliging grape is blended with up to some half-dozen varieties, but in Priorat, most producers doll it up with classic grapes such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. This is a familiar story in Italy, where avant-garde winemakers tarted up a little-respected grape called sangiovese with astounding success, producing the so-called super-Tuscans Priorat's cult status is being challenged by other Spanish up-and-comers, such as Ribera del Duero, but its position as Spain's premier producer of grenache is assured. Success comes at a price for isolated Priorat, however, where the cost of the viticulturalist's most valued piece of farming equipment - the donkey - has reportedly increased 10,000-fold. This is hardly the bustling Mongkok of Spain: the key village in the region is called Gratallops, which in Catalan means, 'place where the wolves howl'.

While Priorat's producers differ as to their preferred cepage, or blend of grapes, expect these pricey wines to show the elegance of a Bordeaux-styled blend, but with juicy, black-raspberry overtones. Top producer Alvaro Palacios' L'Ermita can be purchased via Altaya ($1,890) and his excellent second label, Dolfi, at Watson's Wines ($698). Prices on Priorat can be stratospheric, but what else should one expect from a stairway to the gods? meiburgde@aol.com