After our recent piece about this Catalan region, focused primarily on Garnacha, we have profiled some of its most interesting winegrowers. This is our particular vision on who’s who in Terra Alta.
Boasting a long wine growing tradition, this family has been pioneering modern wines in the area since the 1994 vintage. The entire production, around 70,000 bottles, is still handled in the ancient cellars of the family house, right in the centre of Gandesa. Their White Garnacha has long been a benchmark in the area, but their work with the little-known Morenillo grape is highly appealing. Since daughter Pili joined the project, there has been a renewed interest in traditional skin-contact wines (locally called brisados) and the use of amphorae. Since the 2015 vintage, white wines are fermented with natural yeasts.
My favourite trio are El Templari, a delicate, juicy blend of Morenillo and Garnacha (6,000 bottles, €12.5); El Quintà —a serious, mineral, age-worthy White Garnacha (€15)— and Coma d’en Pou, a premium red which has gradually eschew international grapes to gain expressiveness, reduce structure and reflect the evocative, Mediterranean landscape (€20).
This is one of the region’s most notable historic producers with manager Juanjo Galcerà Piñol representing the fourth generation. He started with his mother Josefina in the 1995 vintage and their first brand was L’Avi Arrufi (avi means grandfather in Catalan). The family currently owns 70 hectares of vineyards, most of them in the village of Batea, and sources 30% of its grapes from local growers to produce around 400,000 bottles. Since winemaker Toni Coca started consulting for them 10 years ago, the presence of international grapes has been reduced to 20% or less in all of the wines. Old-vine Carignan is reserved for the reds Mather Theresina (€25) —an opulent blend of Garnacha— and L’Avi Arrufi (€18), where Carignan’s distinctive acidity is clearly present.
Piñol’s reds have structure and firm tannins usually balanced with acidity. Their top single-varietal red is Finca Morenillo (€40), boasting more body that the one made by Bàrbara Forés. Other interesting wines in their portfolio are the rich White Grenache L’Avi Arrufi (€17) and two sweet Garnacha wines, a red and a white (50cl, €18); they are really worthy of attention for lovers of this unfairly forgotten style.
After working for several multinational corporations, Joan Angel Lliberia decided to return to his hometown of Gandesa to work the family vineyards and start up a project of considerable size. The cellar, on the road from Gandesa to Vilalba dels Arcs, is like a big balcony overlooking the vineyards with terrific views of the surrounding mountains. All the vineyards (35 hectares of their own and 15 rented) are located in La Plana, a low-laying area. They are working towards organic farming and they hope to have the certification in three years.
Edètaria’s new top range goes beyond White Garnacha and aims to show the potential for red wines in Terra Alta. Although prices are high (up to €35) and productions are small (around 1,000 per wine), the trio formed by La Pedrissa (Carignan), La Personal (Garnacha Peluda) and La Genuïna (Garnacha Tinta which Lliberia calles “Fina”) sets a new standard for red wines in the area. In whites, Edètaria Selecció (€19-21) reflects the singular character of White Grenache when grown on panal, a distinctive sandy soil found in the area which originates from fossil dunes.
The arrival of Roqueta, a large Catalan group willing to craft high-quality wines, has been very positive for the region. Lafou is the personal project of Ramón Roqueta, a young and enthusiastic entrepreneur. The family has shied away from building a state-of-the art winery and has instead chosen to restore the old Figueras manor in Batea’s main square where they have rescued ancient tools and facilities which were used for oil and winemaking. Lafou owns 12.5 hectares of vineyards in Val Majó, an area which has been shaped over the centuries by different flows of water. The estate itself comprises 32 small terraces stretching down towards what used to be the main stream —the Catalan word fou means a gorge or narrow pass where a rainfall stream opens up.
A lot of trial and error work has been done to fine-tune picking dates, fermentation and aging vats or wine styles with the help of Joan Soler, former winemaker at Abadal (the group’ s best known winery) and current president of DO Pla de Bages. Local grapes have taken central stage for reds with Morenillo playing an interesting role while White Grenache has gained precision and ageing ability in Lafou Els Amelers (around €13), a wine that represents terrific value.
Xavier is a member of the third generation of a saga of winegrowers. He started in the 1995 vintage and now owns 24 hectares in the vicinity of Vilalba dels Arcs, Batea and to a lesser extent in Corbera d’Ebre. White and red Garnacha represent at least 50% of the blend in his wines, even though he uses fairly generous percentages of international grapes like Syrah, Merlot and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon in his barrel-aged wines. He is arguably the most accomplished producer in terms of working with international grapes –the fact that he doesn’t irrigate at all might help. Xavier produces between 80,000 and 90,000 bottles and is not thinking of increasing the number.
Although he works in his winery, built on the outskirts of Vilalba in 2006, he still maintains the old charming cellar in town where we tasted his wines. There are three levels of quality in his wines: the first is Mas d’en Pol range, which blends international grapes; on a second tier is Il.lusió (€10) a White Garnacha combining volume and acidity in equal parts, and the premium red Mil.lennium, a blend of 65% old Garnacha with Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot. Mas den Pol Barrica 2009 (around €10) is a delicious, juicy, great value red. The new Il.lusió red, due to be released by the end of the year, is a step above in terms of finesse and purity.
Francesc Ferré Frisach is only 28 but he is fully committed to his vineyards and terroirs. He was tired of seeing how quality grapes got diluted in the local cooperative so under the motto “Behind a cheap wine there’s an exploited vinegrower” Frisach set up on his own on the 2011 vintage. His exploring nature usually involves taking risks, but his White Grenache wines are deep, mineral and expressive starting with the entry-level L’Abrunet (20,000 bottles, around €7.5). Abrunet is the local name for a swallow bird and the label featuring a winegrower flying with swallow wings is his particular metaphor for freedom.
He is an advocate of low-sulfur levels, but he protects his wines with inert gas and also experiments with the traditional brisados (skin-contact wines). Whereas the citrus, mineral Vernatxa (2,500 bottles, €16) ferments up to two days with skins in order to extract the yeasts, for the wilder, more herbal, slightly tannic La Foradara (€12.5) the process takes place over 12 days with no sulfur added. His total production of 40,000 bottles also include the vibrant, fruity and sharply delineated rosé L’Abrunet (€8) made from Gris, White and Red Grenache and the reds sourced from local grapes L’Abrunet (€7) and Sang de Corb (€18, literally “raven’s blood”).
We tasted the wines at the top of a hill known as Cota 402 which housed the Republican command post during the bloody Battle of the Ebro in the Spanish Civil War. From this point you can see most of the valley including Gandesa, the Pandols and Cavalls mountains and some terraced vineyards grown by Francesc.
Despite its recent foundation in 2013, this is perhaps the most ambitious project I saw in Terra Alta. It was set up by a couple boasting extensive experience in wine export and sales: Nuria Altés was born into a local winegrowing family and worked at the sales department of Batea’s co-operative, and UK-born Rafael de Haan is the founder of Export Iberia. They have gradually purchased old vineyards and planted new ones in the area and now own up 30 hectares. Their new state-of-the-art winery in Coll del Moro in Gandesa, furnished with oak, cement and stainless steel tanks, can process up to 1m kilos of grapes. 90% of the wine is sold overseas.
The range features nine different wines, most of them using local grapes except for the reds L’Estel and Cupatge which include some Syrah in the blend. All of them are impeccable and carry beautiful labels; La Serra White Grenache and La Serra red (Garnacha and Carignan) are the best examples of their terroir.
Established in 2001 by three different partners, it is now managed exclusively by Joan Arrufi who is also the president of the Regulatory Board. The groundbreaking label designs are inspired in people and cultures which left their mark in the area. The White Garnacha Ilercavònia (€9) is named after the Iberians; the Garnacha Peluda Almodí (€8) is a homage to the Arabs and offers a great introduction to the wilder, more acidic profile of this grape variety with distinctive downy leaves.
The red wines Tempus (€12) and Domus Pensi (€16) blend some international grapes resulting in fuller-bodied wines. A top-of-the-range trilogy, set be released in the coming future, comprises White Grenache, Garnacha Peluda and Carignan single-varietal wines. In total, 220,000 bottles are produced.
A former winemaker at the co-operative in Vilalba dels Arcs, Joan Ramón Bada founded this project in 2009 together with winegrower Josep Arrufat and a third partner from Barcelona. The focus is on local grapes grown in 14 hectares within a 3km radius. The cosy cellar lies in the centre of the village and produces 25,000 bottles. They have a considerable number of amphorae which are used both for aging and fermenting, as is the case with the single-varietal Lo Morenillo (€23) and the skin-contact White Garnacha. After trying different types, they currently source their resin-coated amphorae —which induce a slow micro-oxigenation—from a pottery craftsman based in Cáceres (Extremadura).
While Garnacha is usually fermented in wooden vats, other grapes go through stainless steel tanks. Wild yeasts are always the norm and multi-sized barrels are used for aging. The single-varietal White Garnacha Cent X Cent (€11) is a great example of the area’s ability to deliver both structure and freshness in their whites. Red wines were somewhat closed and elusive on my visit except for Doña Carmen 2014 (€21), a red Garnacha grown on panal soils displaying delicate floral notes and pure Mediterranean character. Labels designs are both attractive and imaginative.
With 128 members working 800 hectares of vines, the winery currently bottles some 300,000 liters of wine. Since Catalan winemaker Toni Coca started consulting for the co-operative five years ago the whole range of wines has been revamped. Labels feature modern and straightforward designs, particularly in the case of Mistela and other traditional sweet wines. I tasted a very notable single-varietal Carignan which will be part of their new premium range. The co-operative is a breathtaking building designed by modernist architect César Martinell in the early the 20th century; it has been converted into a museum to attract wine lovers to the area.
Not exactly a winery but the project of brothers Joaquin and Fran López who run a Michelin-starred restaurant called Xerta as well as the restaurant in the modernist co-operative of Pinell de Brai –another architectural gem in this area. Under the brand L’Indià, they make a White Garnacha as well as a red Garnacha and Cariñena blend (slightly under €10 in Spain). Both of them are well-made, balanced wines and represent a great introduction to the area. Wines are made at Cellers Josep Viçens in Gandesa.