04-09-2018

Priorat’s Terra Dominicata has arrived

The county of Priorat, in terms of a wine region, is not lacking for places to stay after a day of enjoying the fine wine of DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant. What have been lacking are fine places to stay. Both Hostal Sport and Lotus Priorat in Falset are the general go-to options whenever anyone asks me where to stay in the region. Central in terms of accessibility, modern (Hostal Sport just renovated most of their rooms) and accessible, they’re the best options in the region in my opinion.

The problem gets to be if either you want to stay in one of the small, charming villages, or the other typical problem: Lotus and Hostal are full. As Hostal has 28 rooms and Lotus, nine, filling up is a regular issue, especially during busy times of the year. The owners of Lotus have told me that for the annual wine fair in May, they’re booked a year in advance.

There are plenty of other what are called “rural houses” or then smaller, boutique hotels scattered around but there is a core issue with all of them in that they generally have no reception desk and they usually want to rent weekly or monthly and not year round.

The reason for this is that many people in Priorat, due to its ever-dwindling population own many houses that they don’t know what to do with. Instead of renting them or selling them as would be logical, they decide upon the “rural house” option, usually posting them to Airbnb with ridiculous prices and a lack of professional hotel attitude or furnishing. Clearly, something has needed to change.

One hotel I’ve not mentioned is Trossos del Priorat in Gratallops. It’s actually both a winery (with quite good wines) and a hotel of seven rooms. It’s small but the views are stupendous. Started by the Vives Balmes family, it wasn’t just by chance they decided to do it. They own a hotel and touristic apartments in Barcelona as well as another hotel in Prague. Trossos appeared to be something of a testing ground for the winery/hotel in Priorat premise and given that it’s been quite successful, they’ve now taken on something much larger with Terra Dominicata.

What happened to Masia Duch & Mas del Tancat?

To give some historical background, this property dates back to 1118 as was recorded by the monks at Scala Dei and is listed on official maps as “Mas del Tancat” roughly meaning, “the closed-off farmstead”. It’s an understandable name given that while it sits on part of the downstream, cultivable area from the monastery, there are a couple of rock formations that close off this little spot of the valley–trapping in the heat in the summer to some degree as well.

As was often the case with these old, classic houses in the region, it was abandoned at some point given the difficultly of life in Priorat as well as well the arrival of phylloxera in the later 19th century. It wasn’t until 1985 that Delfí Duch bought it, renovated the house, planted vines in 1987, and then built a proper cellar, lending his family name to the property in the process. Until Terra Dominicata opened, it was known to all in the area as Masia Duch which was engraved on an old millstone that sat at the entrance.

They were producing wine under the auspices of DOQ Priorat for a good while until it appears they ceased operations around 2008. Stories abound as to why ranging from a disagreement between father and children to a death in the family to who knows what but the reality was that this was the onset of the Global Financial Crisis and that undoubtedly that played a large part in their ceasing to produce wines. They continued to cultivate the vines however with the grapes being sold to other wineries in the region. And thus, a turnkey winery lay waiting for the right person to buy it.

House & Hotel

Around 2014, it appears that the Vives Balmes family entered the picture as the property had been on the market for years. They bought it and set about performing heavy renovations to the property which suffice to say, have been a complete success. Their background as hoteliers readily shows as the there is a linear, thematic consistency to the property with rooms and amenities being first rate and modern, set into an ancient property. It’s a look that can be a complete disaster or be completely sublime and this is very much the latter.

The rooms are luxurious without being opulent and it seems they have adequate soundproofing so you can’t hear your neighbors doing all manner of whatever it is people usually do in hotels. The 26 rooms span a range of options with some in the main building and others off in various “corners” or racons that are three rooms by themselves which lends a good deal more privacy for those seeking it. This attention to detail is all good news as the starting price for rooms is a not insignificant 300€ a night, on up.

There are some minor bits that could easily do for an eventual change. One wonders if the road in will eventually be paved as given that the dirt has already washboarded in many spots, it detracts from the entrance to an otherwise grand estate. While there is a swimming pool on the premises, it seemed to me perhaps a bit small if there is full occupancy with 50+ people staying in the place and I wonder if there are plans for a larger pool eventually as while Priorat is only 27km from the coast in a straight line, from Escaladei it takes a rather tiring hour to get there.

The Wine Spaces

Given that there is a functioning (yet currently rather industrial-looking) winery on the premises, there is of course a heavy emphasis placed upon the wines. They have a dedicated “Taller de Tast” or “tasting workshop” they’ve set up for anything ranging from a quick tasting of the wines from Terra Dominicata or their other winery in Gratallops to more involved workshops that are still being planned.

This is a lovely space that mixes industrial hard edges with the warmth of old farmhouse. And while this portion of the workshop occupies the main floor, above there are two large seminar rooms as it’s clear they’ve planned to be available for mixed use events in the future–a wise move as there really is not proper space for this in the region. Also, they’ve hired experienced people for the wine tastings and enotourism side of things so I have no doubt that while nascent, it will grow and be successful for those who stay at the hotel.

The Restaurant

For anyone not familiar with the Priorat region, Terra Dominicata truly sits in the middle of nowhere. While there is the Cartoixa monastery nearby, there’s little else in terms of amenities–this was by design as it’s how monks liked things. You’re a minimum of 15 minutes by car to Poboleda which is itself a very small village or then 30 minutes to get to Falset, the county capital, where there are more restaurants and shops.

Given this, there is a need to be much more self-contained and they built in a restaurant not just for guests but also for the public. The interior follows in the theme of the rest of the hotel with a modern-retro interior that fits in well with the space. The wine cellar is off to wine side, enclosed in glass but with the bottles standing upright for some reason I couldn’t fathom. I suppose so you can point and choose as to what you want like the tank in a seafood restaurant. That part I didn’t get.

The wine list I don’t really get either. Bravo for having the focus be DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant wines but there could have been a touch more balance. Other restaurants have a few interesting wines from other regions in Catalunya and further afield in order to keep those interested who dine locally often. With Terra Dominicata’s wine list I feel like there was this line drawn in the sand to have all the villages of Priorat and subzones of Montsant but it lacks a cohesion and theme. Wine lists are however a long tail pursuit and as this is very early on, we’ll see what direction it takes. Hopefully they’ll work to have more vintages than just the current releases available since most of the wines are far too young or then some of the older vintages they have are far less than optimal (namely, 2012 and 2011.)

Outside (and I assume only for the warmer months) dining is had on their terrace, a large, open space with a view across the small valley to the slopes on the other side. It’s not the view you get at Trossos, but at the same time, it’s quite nice.

I can’t say the same for the amenities. I dined there in a group of 10 and we were seated on hard metal chairs that might have been nice for having a coffee on but were not the correct seating for a three hour meal. Other people appeared to be seated on more reasonable chairs and it wasn’t until we were halfway through the meal that I realized how insanely uncomfortable these chairs were and how unacceptable they were for a locale striving to be top end.

The service is a different story as it is in short, horrible. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly but it needs to be said and I’m not sure where they rounded up the front of the house staff but it feels as if none of them have ever worked in fine dining before. The number of errors committed would be fine (even charming to some extent) for a simpler, local place but one catering to people spending 300€ a night on up for a hotel, it’s simply unacceptable.

For example, wine glasses should never be trundled out six to a hand like some sangria shack on the coast; they should always be brought on a tray. Drink service is from the right. Food service is from the left. There were also timing issues to the meal and smaller problems, but I attribute this more to their having recently opened.

But these were vocational errors that can be rectified as the larger problem is in the approach to the service wherein there is a hustling aspect to get you to spend more. The woman who appeared to be the manager talked our group into sharing appetizers. It’s a shoddy, cut-rate way to get a group to spend more as people will always by talked into ordering a larger quantity than needed. In the end I think we had 12 or more starters arrive to the table when one each would have sufficed, especially as the “Catalan cheese” plate was extremely unsatisfying and more importantly: cheese isn’t a starter plate, ever. It smacked of them needing to move some of the cheese they’d overbought which is why we ended up having it hoisted upon us like when a restaurant ends up with a skunky wine vintage. We also ended up with croquetes which were very plain and lifeless. Honestly, you can buy better ones in the prepared food section of the supermarket. There was a coca (Catalan flat bread) which was decent but not amazing.

I should also add that there was an amuse bouche that had arrived prior to the starters and didn’t serve the function of the plate. A mix of various seafood, it was muddled and soft, not working in the least bit to open (or “amuse”) the mouth as it is supposed to do. It was also presented as the “a-moo-say” which lends more to the theory that the staff doesn’t have a fine dining background given that no matter where you are in the world, it’s always pronounced in some manner approximating the original French, not a Spaniards literal reading of every syllable.

Mains were lackluster at best. I had the “Secret Iberic” which is a higher-end cut of pork. Despite asking how I wanted it cooked to which I said, “medium”, it arrived very much well-done on a bed of bland, uninspiring couscous. How you make couscous uninspiring is beyond me as it’s such a simple dish that is very easy to dress up.

Desserts were universally not met with approval by my group either. A “crema catalana” which is more or less crème brûlée arrived in this “inspired by crema catalana” approach which my friends who’d ordered it were not impressed by. My dessert was a soufflé of hazelnuts with red berry ice cream. The souffle was the only part of the meal that was truly pleasing with a rich texture and a creamy inside that was delicious but the problem was the acidity of the ice cream was searing and overbearing, making the dish unpalatable if one were to eat the entire presentation.

Our final bill came out to 69€ per person. This may initially seem quite reasonable for people used to dining in San Francisco, New York, or London where dropping double that or more is normal for a dinner. But to put this into perspective, we had two magnums or essentially four bottles between 10 people. Normally we’d have ordered six bottles so it was far less wine than normal. Also, no one had coffee which shaved another couple of Euros off the price. If we had gone all out like a normal meal, this would have easily have been 85€ a person. In relation to other restaurants in the area, you can have dinner with wine for less than half that and come away very satisfied. As it was, I came home and ate a much more satisfying sandwich with bread I thawed out from the freezer.

Who’s who in the Priorat

Prior to starting our meal, a few people in the group noticed that Patrick Kluivert was dining at a nearby table. If you don’t know who this is, it’s because you don’t follow soccer and thus, I had no idea who he was. This is going to be one of the main issues with the hotel in that it appears the price is attracting that Spanish “A(ish)-list” crowd. It’s well known that any restaurant where soccer stars eat at in Barcelona is usually the “it” place for a while and is surely not going to be a good value nor a fine dining experience which is exactly what we’re seeing with Terra Dominicata.

As noted previously, it’s a gorgeous hotel with a great wine component in a beautiful region of the country. All the issues of the restaurant, while aggravating and definitely not living up to the perceived standard could be overcome in less than a month if the desire was there to change them given that the foundation of the project is so solid. If, however, the owners are content to have it be a “seen and be seen” kind of place, then the charm will quickly wear off and they’re going to have an exceptionally hard time making it as they will definitely need clients who aren’t the jet setting types in the slower months. And this is exacerbated by much of the staff neither speaking, nor even understanding a lick Catalan which, in the Catalan countryside you just can’t do as it will further turn off locals from the cities looking for a classy getaway in their home region.

I say this as Priorat has historically had a location problem. It’s a beautiful region but it’s just too far from the coast for international tourists heading there and too far from Barcelona for quick day trips and so it falls upon the local tourist to make up the gap and they do as Catalans/Valencians are the largest group to visit Priorat. They’ll also be the people visiting in the shoulder months where it can be otherwise difficult to fill a place. So, independence issues aside, this just isn’t good business to not pay attention to the local crowd, although given that the default language of the website is Spanish, as in, not Catalans, it seems they’ve done just that unfortunately which is a potentially serious mistake that has cost other businesses dearly.

They opened at the beginning of August so it’s early yet and I would very much like the enterprise to succeed as a higher bar by one raises the standard for all. I hope the fixable aspects are indeed fixed and bring a new level of lodging and dining to what is one of Spain’s best wine regions.