Meet DO Terra Alta and the 2015 harvest
So, where to start with DO Terra Alta? It’s probably best to say that they’re the most southern of Catalonia’s denominations of origin. They’re also one of the highest in terms of altitude with elevations starting at 400m and going up to 1,400m. Thus the name, Terra Alta or “high land” being as literal as it is evocative.
The funny part about this most obvious aspect of Terra Alta is that in real life, you don’t feel these heights. It feels flat, normal, and those pointed peaks in the distance are what seem to hold all the elevation. But this is one of the key differences of the region when compared to others such as nearby Priorat & Montsant in that it feels more consistent and unassuming despite its rather extreme geography. This is crucial to the microclimate as it is neither continental nor Mediterranean. Terra Alta sits somewhere in the middle and to a large degree they have the best of both.
The last time I really tasted the wines of this region in earnest was at a fair in Barcelona in May of 2012. At the time they were pushing a big promotion about how they have the ideal territory for White Grenache. To a large degree, this is true as this continental/Mediterranean climate does indeed allow for excellent ripening while at the same time maintaining acidity and balance with the variation of diurnal temperatures. While I admittedly don’t love every White Grenache from Terra Alta, there are many that I do and they are one of the very, very few regions that can make an excellent varietal wine from this grape.
Given this length of time and the election of Joan Arrufí as the new president of the DO last year, I thought it might be time to pay another visit. Coming from Priorat, as you pass through the county of Ribera d’Ebre you leave behind these flatter lands alongside the Ebre River and as you enter Terra Alta proper, you rise. The roads bend slightly one way, then the other as they take you gradually up in elevation.
As the ascent levels out, you come to what I believe to be a beautiful territory. I’m not alone in this as Pablo Picasso spent many years in the village of Horta de Sant Joan, working on his paintings with a view to the south of the striking Els Ports mountains which are pictured at above. But a touch to the north, in the village of Batea, I eventually found my way to Joan and his cellar, Altavins.
As Joan told me, “Viticulture is the heart and primary economy of Terra Alta.” It’s no surprise as they have some 6,000ha of vines and produce about 44 million kilos of grapes in a good year. Not a shabby amount and it’s some 50% more than Priorat and Montsant combined. Yet, they only see about 7 million bottles of wine which is just slightly more than only one of the DOs in the Priorat county. So, what happens to the rest of the grapes? Quite simply, winemaking titan, Torres buys some 12 million kilos or about 25% of their entire production. This is then bottled as DO Catalunya wine and thus, not final wine from Terra Alta.
I feel that, despite their remote, far-flung situation, it’s this ongoing work with Torres that has served them well over the years. Undoubtedly, given the general price of grapes in Spain, no one is getting rich in this affair but it keeps the lights on and has allowed for a vibrant boutique segment of wineries to develop. This boutique portion is a large part of the reason why a younger winemaker like Joan has come to be the president. He represents these winemakers which are now about half of the registered cellars. This is always a segment of any winemaking region that should grow.
The tendency for boutique cellars is to make smaller production wines that are striving for deeper, more interesting wines that carry a sense of locale so necessary to see a region at its finest. They will also often pay more for the higher quality grapes. Thus, the viticulturists make more and in general, they pull the whole region up in terms of quality. This is not an easy road to take but it’s one that the wines of Terra Alta are following and has been pushing their quality further upward with each vintage. They still have a wide range of production they have to contend with as there are some vines that produce the rather beefy totals of 6-7kg grapes and then others that produce a mere 1kg of very concentrated, excellent grapes.
While the region has become well-known for White Grenache in recent years, it isn’t a predominantly white region as I had thought at one point. In the words of Joan, “We have been producing more white grapes each year to the point where it’s nearly 50/50 in terms of white and red production.” But most assuredly it’s Grenache that’s the main grape of the region with the white and red variants making up half of the total production. There’s also a good deal of Macabeu and Pedro Ximénez in the white department as well as considerable Carignan and a decent hit of Syrah and Tempranillo (ergh…) in the reds.
While it’s a minor part of their production, they’ve made great strides in recuperating an old grape called, Morenillo. This was a grape that was nearly lost, but there are now five or six cellars producing wines based upon it that have received a good deal of praise in local press.
Like most all of Southern Europe, 2014 was a harvest to leave behind. The production was way down, but wines are good but should be enjoyed soon. The harvest of 2015 was a very different beast and one with which Joan is excited, “Very clean, very little hail damage, excellent acidity. All in all, an excellent harvest.” I’m looking forward to tasting more of these wines in the near future as this region appears to be pressing all the right buttons to put out excellent wines that keep getting more interesting and showing their region wonderfully. We will only see if I’m right in the vintages to come in addition to enjoying the very tasty vermouth that they produce.
Álvaro Palacios - L’Ermita 2016
Very light red cherry, raspberry, tea leaves, dried fennel, light touch of anise, bay leaf, dried flowers, touch of fig compote, truffle. Exceptionally light and delicate on the palate, very very fine red fruits, integrated tannins, plush with a slightly buttery, velvety aspect, very long finish.
85% Grenache 14% Carignan 1% "Others" · 15% · 1160EUR
Ancestral Wine Cellar - Khikhvi 2014
First harvest of Khikhvi. Light apricot notes, peach skin, lemon peel. Citric in the mouth, fresh, lively acidity, vibrant. Very holistic, full and deliciously good.
100% Khikhvi · 12% · 30GEL
Álvaro Palacios - Les Aubaguetes 2016
Linear plum and dark cherry notes, powdery cocoa, orange peel and blossom, raspberry at the base along with minor vanilla and dark spice touches. Delicate on the palate, light touches of dark fruit, good wealth of tannins yet held in check, medium plus acidity, very long finish. Needs much more time in the bottle.
77% Grenache 21% Carignan 1% Grenache Blanc 1% Macabeu · 14.5% · 455EUR
Petriaant Marani - Khikhvi 2015
Bruised red apple, touch of lemon peel, limestone minerality, and some white pepper notes at the back of it. High acidity and full in the mouth. Luscious, involving, elegant wine.
100% Khikhvi · 14% · 25GEL
Aquila del Torre - Primaluce 2015
Bruised yellow apple, bit of fig compote, chalky mineral notes, and hazelnut. Light oxidized touches that work to embellish the wine. Rich palate that carries lovely texture with the age of the wine.
100% Sauvignon Blanc · 13.5%
Domaine Augustin - Adéodat Blanc 2016
Lemon and white peach, strong kick of salinity, and toasted notes. Very fleshy and full on the palate, peach notes more prominent as well as Meyer lemon, medium plus acidity and a lengthy finish.
100% Grenache Gris · 14.5% · 20EUR
AA Badenhorst - Secateurs Red Blend 2012
Forest bramble with ripe red fruit, touches of cherry, ripe red plum, tiny bit of prune, cumin, anise, black licorice, wet cement mineral note, underlying fig jam. Crisp medium plus acidity, medium tannins, medium plus length, medium alcohol, overall medium plus body that’s ripe and lively but super fresh and balanced at the same time. Bit of rugged wildness to it but doesn’t get out of hand. Easy to drink but with just enough underlying complexity so that it stays interesting.
56% Syrah 27% Cinsaut 6% Grenache 4% Cabernet Sauvignon 7% "Others" · 13.5% · 12EUR
Domaine Treloar - Motus 2015
Dark ruby, minor rim. Big, mighty bouquet of red cherry and other brambly forest fruit, vanilla, almond blossom, orange peel, and cocoa. Rich and full on the palate with a wealth of tannins still integrating, leading into a crunchy, lingering finish.
80% Mourvèdre 10% Syrah 10% Grenache · 14% · 14EUR
Terroir Sense Fronteres - Guix Vermell 2017
Crisp red cherry fruit, touch of spice, flecks of pepper, baking spice, compacted, wet earth. Delicate on the palate, stays fresh, surprising high wealth of tannins, long finish.
100% Grenache · 13% · 250EUR
Tchotiashvili - Khikhvi 2014
Apricot, yellow peach, orange peel, and a touch of honey. Quite complex aromatically. Orchard fruit much more prevalent in the mouth with young apricot notes. Rich and elegant, touch of astringency in the finish.
100% Khikhvi · 13.1% · 28GEL