Speaking of Herència Altés
In Spain, judgment of a person is regularly passed based upon their given name. If you can figure out the origin of either of the family names, you base your conclusions upon that. If the family names are inconclusive, then you revert to the first name.
I suppose it was more like this in the US a half century ago but in Spain, your origins still very much define someone’s perception of who you are. While most probably don’t find this correct, which it isn’t really, in a country with four official languages in addition to Spanish (or Castilian as it’s called in Spain), it helps a great deal in knowing what to speak when meeting someone for the first time.
After much back and forth, and as fall was setting in, I finally found myself walking up to the front of the strikingly-modern cellar of Herència Altés. Rafael (or Rafa) as everyone calls him started this winery in Terra Alta with his wife, Núria Altés in 2010 when she started buying grapes from her father as, like many, the family tradition of viticulture was long-lived but the actual making of wine was not.
“Rafa, bon dia” (Hi Rafa)
“Bon dia, ets en Miquel, no?” (You’re Miquel, right?)
“Sí sí, finalment podem fer una visita del celler!”” (Yes, finally we can do the visit of the cellar!”
“Molt bé, som hi” (Great, let’s go)
We were chatting for a good 10 minutes about the history of the cellar and their general concept until I realized that Rafa wasn’t speaking with a native Catalan accent and I said, “Sorry, but are you from Catalunya?” “No, no, I’m British.” I then switched to English, “Well, since I’m from California, it’s probably easier to speak in English?”
It had to be one of the sillier moments either of us had in some time as Rafa has a very Spanish first name with a very Dutch last name, yet is British. I have a very Catalan first name with a last name no one can place (Israeli border guards think it Arabic, but it’s Slavic and from Croatia) and so we’d just assumed Catalan would be the working language. This happens more than you’d think.
Rafa had actually met Núria back when they were both selling other wines as he comes from a wine-importing family in the UK. Starting the project together in 2010 in the village of Batea allowed them smaller experiments with various blends and winemaking techniques. “There were some wines we weren’t pleased with that we sold off in bulk as we have a very fixed trajectory for the winery.”, Rafa stated without any hesitation which I always have respect for. It’s up there with wineries who decide not to make certain cuvées in off years as they just don’t reach the quality levels. Sure, there should be no “bad years”, but the reality is that sometimes, it just is what it is.
Little by little they grew and started buying up various vineyard tracts around Terra Alta, many had dubious futures as there seemed to be no one in the families able to work them anymore. It’s a common story and thankfully some regions have people like Rafa and Núria who can readily understand the quality of the vines and see fit to not let them vanish. Some regions, aren’t as lucky.
But what now total 60ha vineyards, farmed with full or pending organic certification, have their fruit arrive to the new cellar Rafa and I stood in. Built in 2016 just west of Gandesa, it was a massive undertaking both personally and financially but they’re two people in the growing handful of others who see there’s nowhere but up for the region.
The cellar sprawls along the side of the main highway through the Terra Alta county and is paradoxically next to an Iberic village excavation. These were the prehistoric peoples living in the region before the Romans arrived. The irregular white and dark bands were created to mimic the trees on the hill and given how new it is, it stands out a great deal but is slowly working its way into the landscape.
Inside is what’s most impressive as Rafa and his winemakers have set up an enologist’s playground with what seems like every conceivable fermentation vessel there to use. “We’re at around Step 4 of what I see to be a 10-step process.”, Rafa comments.
This is very much true as I first visited them in 2017 and we tasted a Hairy Grenache from the tank to which I commented, “This is absolutely great. It’s one of those wines that wine critics are loathe to give high scores to, but it’s just an absolute pleasure to drink.” Rafa responded, “I just kinda want to knock off and keep drinking it now.” Fast forward over a year later and after tasting the latest vintage for a full DO Terra Alta report, I can’t help but think they’ve jumped another two steps in Rafa and Núria’s overall plan for the winery as that Hairy Grenache was stupendous. In fact, all the wines were even better despite many coming from 2017 which wasn’t a top year for the region.
It’s not only encouraging, but also impressive to see such rapid evolution in a cellar. DO Terra Alta in general has come a very long way in a short time to arrive at being a high-quality wine region and Herència Altés is one of the vanguards.
Rosat Especial 2017
Serious loads of garrigue and herbs, red fruits more subtle. Creamy and rich on the palate with the herbal notes coming back into play.
100% Grenache 13.5% 16€
Garnatxa Blanca 2017
Pulpy grapefruit, white blossoms, light fennel notes. Very nice citrus notes and tension on the palate, good length and push to it.
100% White Grenache 13% 9€
** Q 91
El Benefut 2017
Ripe peach, bitter melon, light wildflower notes, creamy beeswax quality. Nicely balanced with pulpy, juicy fruit and vibrant acidity on the palate as well as a lingering finish.
100% White Grenache 13.5% 15€
** Q 92
La Serra Blanc 2016
Light cantaloupe and melon peel, white peach, light honey, sweet lees with a touch of vanilla, old wood, minor wild herb notes, thyme. Rich and spicy on the palate with medium plus acidity and a wealth of orchard fruits, very well defined with a touch of salinity and bitter almond in the finish.
100% White Grenache 14% 25€
L’Estel Negre 2017
Light red cherry, bit of graphite and pencil shavings, dense fruit concentration of dark chocolate, violets, and notes of bell pepper, and field flowers. Wonderfully crisp and fresh on the palate, bright, high acidity with racy red fruit and a very long finish.
Grenache, Syrah, Carignan 14.5% 15€
Garnatxa Peluda 2017
Very delicate red cherry and raspberry, crushed roses, fennel, anise, soft mineral notes. Crisp red fruit on the palate, nice tannins albeit a touch green at the moment but holds pleasing medium plus acidity and a long finish.
100% Hairy Grenache 14.5% 18€
La Xalamera 2016
Chalky and plush in the nose, dusty strawberry and chalky notes. Great acidity and balance, still a bit tight, but excellent red expression of the region.
14.5% 100% Grenache 24€
*** Q 94
La Serra Negre 2016
Dark cherry fruit, underlying fig, broad notes of earthiness, truffle, touch of cut herbs, rosemary and thyme. Dark-fruited and densely-packed with a wealth of acidity and volume to age and blossom.
Carignan, Grenache 14.5% 38€
Lo Grau d’Inquisidor 2016
Dark cherry, underlying raspberry compote, red licorice, apple blossom, light touch of rocky, earthy minerality, orange peel, and a touch of toffee. Dark fruit dominated on the palate, good wealth of medium plus tannins yet well balanced and stays overall fresh with some lively spiced notes in the medium finish. Definitely something of an outlier in their overall style, but still highly enjoyable.
90% Syrah, 10% Hairy Grenache 14% 45€