Barely 30 kilometres separate El Molar, one of the southernmost villages in Priorat, from Corbera d’Ebre, Terra Alta’s first hamlet further to the west. The trip takes half an hour, but very few wine lovers seem keen to visit Catalonia’s most remote appellation which stands relatively high (hence the name Terra Alta, which means Highland) on the right bank of the river Ebro, between the towering mountains of Pàndols Cavalls and Els Ports and the border with Aragón.
Terra Alta is worth a visit for its distinctive vinous landscape where terraces of different size and width have been shaped throughout the years in order to maximize rainfall. This scenery is said to have inspired Picasso’s first Cubist paintings during his short but intense stays in Horta de San Joan; now local producers are looking forward to show it to the world –in 2018 Terra Alta will host the sixth edition of Grenaches du Monde wine competition.
Vines are the main crop and source of wealth for this sparsely populated region with just 12,000 inhabitants in 12 villages. At the beginning of the 19th century, winegrowers mortgaged their lands to build large facilities in Gandesa. The old co-operative, now turned into a museum, was designed by modernist architect César Martinelli, who was a specialist in farm buildings. The functional layout of the rooms and the way it maximizes light is still remarkable today. Rails were used to transport both grapes and the press from one tank to another while strategically placed windows served as a complex ventilation system. Turrets crowning the roof were not just ornamental; they were used as small tanks to store rainwater.
Low rainfall (around 350-450mm annually) and plenty of sunshine are common features in the area and explain the custom of making Mistela (mixture of grape juice and alcohol) and red and white vins de liqueur, a tradition laboriously preserved by Celler Piñol and the Gandesa cooperative along with other producers in what is seen as a growing interest in this style of wines.
"Oranges are grown just behind the mountains, but here the climate is markedly continental”, explains Joan Angel Lliberia from Edetària, a respected producer based in Gandesa, the region’s main town. Along with Bot and Corbera d’Ebre, Gandesa forms La Plana, a low altitude area in stark contrast to the higher plateau starting in Vilalba dels Arcs and stretching towards Batea and other villages. Paradoxically, vineyards on the lower parts can be fresher than those on the plateau as they benefit from the southeasterly garbinada wind, which brings sea breezes and humidity. The plateau is more influenced by the much drier cierzo, a northwesterly wind which prevents vine diseases and helps to extend ripening times.
After its gradual disappearance in other wine regions of the Ebro valley, specially in Aragón where White Garnacha plantings have dropped from 4,200 hectares in 1990 to a mere 300, Terra Alta has become the grape’s greatest stronghold in Spain. The region boasts 1,400 hectares under vine, which account for 33% of the world’s White Garnacha plantings (75% of Spain and 90% of Catalonia). The Regulatory Board uses the Terra Alta Garnatxa Blanca indication to distinguish the best 100% single-varietal wines in the appellation.
The variety’s most distinctive feature is its ability to produce full-bodied wines. When young, it offers a fairly defined profile showcasing white fruit (pear) and Mediterranean herbs. L’Indià 2015 from Pagos de Híbera offers a great introduction to the category and can be tasted and bought in Pinell de Brai, at the other modernist co-operative designed by Martinell in the area which currently houses a fine restaurant.
The best wines may develop almond, stone fruit or petrol notes and become increasingly rich on the palate. Try L'Avi Arrufi F. Barrica 2013 from Celler Piñol to experience such opulence and creaminess. If you are lucky to find a bottle, Lafou Els Amelers 2012 offers a tighter, citrusy version, with pleasant length and a hint of petrol.
Chalk is a key component of the area’s soils and contributes to the wines’ appealing mineral and occasionally salty nuances. Carme Ferrer from Bàrbara Forès, a producer who was the first to bottle quality wines in the area, argues that “White Garnacha reflects the soils where it grows and adapts pretty well to the drought conditions in the area.”
Panal is the region’s trademark soil —it is basically sand coming from fossil dunes made of materials which were at one time under the sea. Drainage is perfect here even if vines can suffer in hot years. Panal-grown White Garnachas include the complex Edetària Selecció 2013 (wax, white fruit, petrol) and El Quintà 2014 from Bàrbara Forés, a lovely combination of fruit, dry stone notes and unctuous texture.
Many producers in the area are currently trying to add some length and depth to White Garnacha’s distinctive broadness. They also try to tame in the high alcohol combining relatively early and late harvests. In the case of Lafou Els Amelers, they blend an almost green harvest with a second one picked in the middle of the vintage and a third with overripe grapes which undergo skin contact.
Terra Alta has traditionally distinguished their whites between vírgenes and brisados. For the former, producers used to press grapes and ferment the must, but in the case of brisados fermentation took place with skins. Xavier Clua, who launched his own project in Vilalba dels Arcs in 1995, recalls: “Until the 1970s when vertical presses where the norm, it was not possible to process large amounts of grapes so fermentation was done with skins. The arrival of continuous presses completely changed the process and Macabeo was gradually planted (it currently acounts for 1,000 hectares).”
With orange wines almost established as a category and an increasing number of open-minded wine lovers, a renewed fashion for brisados sounds likely. Vins del Tros produces a full-bodied white with dried and stone fruits notes which is fermented in amphorae and spends 25 days in contact with skins. La Foradada from Celler Frisach (no added sulfites) feels more mineral and wild showcasing lots of herbs and some tannins. After 12 days of skin contact, it spends eight months in stainless steel tanks with no lees stirring.
Aside from White Garnacha, almost all of the Garnacha variations can be found in Terra Alta with the exception of Garnacha Gris (or Roja) which is not even included among the authorized varieties. With distinctive downy-leaves and roughly 30 hectares under vine , Garnacha Peluda is increasingly drawing attention. Most producers describe it as finer and lighter that Garnacha Tinta with higher acidity and less prone to coulure. For less than €8 Almodí 2015 from Altavins provides a good introduction to this grape, locally also known as garnatxa borruda, displaying earthy and wild berry aromas followed by a light but juicy palate. On a higher price range (slightly above €35) La Personal 2013 from Edètaria offers a fabulous, slightly wild expression (bramble) with lovely, almost citrus acidity, fine tannins and good length.
This producer, in fact, distinguishes between Garnacha Peluda and “Fina”. According to Lliberia, the latter is “the local phenotype with tight, small bunches and considerable coulure which ultimately restricts yields in the most natural way.” He reflects the riper character of Garnacha Fina in La Genuïna, one of the reds in his new ultra-premium range.
Morenillo, a light-coloured, long-cycle, aromatic (herbs, flowers) red grape deserves a chapter of its own despite it not being accepted by the DO until it successfully enters Spain’s official register. Morenillo is an explosion of freshness. It finely blends in with Red Garnacha as it is the case in the alluring El Templari from Bàrbara Forés which offers great value (€12 in Spain).
By contrast, the varietal Finca Morenillo from Celler Piñol is one of their top reds and retails slightly above €40. It provides far more structure after 13 to 15 months in barrels, but it retains the fruit and the juiciness. A good example of pure, unoaked Morenillo is available at restaurant Moderno in Vilalba dels Arcs where owner Josep sources grapes from very old family vines and extracts as much fruit and freshness as he can. Feel free to ask him anything vinous —he is very well informed about what goes on in the region.
Even if producers like Xavier Clua manage to craft balanced, interesting reds with foreign varieties in the blend, the general trend favours local varieties with Carignan being increasingly present in blends. I also found an outstanding Carignan single-varietal red like La Pedrissa from Edetària (another jewel within the winery’s new top range) and a forthcoming red which was my preferred choice in the Gandesa co-operative.
Beyond Garnacha, Terra Alta seems to have all that is required to attract wine lovers of all sorts.