Terra Alta and the finesse of Garnatxa Blanca
For the current issue of World of Fine Wine I was given free rein to write about all that is wonderful when it comes to the Garnatxa Blanca (White Grenache) grape in DO Terra Alta. Given that nowhere else produces varietal wines of this grape (and 1/3 of all its vineyards in the world are in the county of Terra Alta) hopefully I’ve shed a bit more light on what excellence the producers in Catalunya’s “deep south” have been doing for the last few years.
As Garnatxa Blanca may be a mystery in terms of profile to many, the first question is, what is it like? For that, you start in the vineyard and tasting grapes at the end of last August from Joan Arrufí’s old vines, there was an easy to detect brisk acidity as well as full structure and vibrant orchard fruit flavors. There was also this whooshing sound as if the fabric of time was being split right above my head; like three Jedi light sabers had started orbiting each other for no apparent reason. The sound was from the wind turbines that loomed high on the horizon and, despite being 100m away, filled the air with a sonic heaviness that’s impossible to describe unless you’ve been around one.
The reason for the abundant wind turbines (of which no one is a fan) is also what makes for good viticulture. The winds blow consistently, allowing for good circulation that drops incidents of rot and fungus. But more importantly, due to ripening of Garnatxa Blanca happening in the middle of the hot, Mediterranean summer, the winds cool the region significantly at night, dropping temperatures even more than the other pockets of wine production in Catalunya that sit close to the coast. It’s not unheard of to see a shift from day to night of 20C which allows for the preservation of natural acidity, granting freshness to the wines and sees them reach full phenolic maturity due to a longer growing season.
Garnatxa Blanca is neither easy nor flexible to vinify and it is in fact a tremendous amount of work to make a fine wine of it. Clearly, picking at the right moment when everything has been done correctly in the vineyard is the first part of the equation. But then once you bring it in, it must be well-tended for many of the same reasons as its red progenitor.
To date, this is not a grape that takes well to hands-off, non-intervention, or “natural” winemaking. It readily wants to oxidize and once it’s direct pressed, you lose the protective cap of the skins so care must be taken to limit oxygen exposure. If oxygen gets in, it’s not only able to be detected in aromas but the wine can take on an unappealing orange-ish tint, much as is seen in Rosés based upon red Grenache.
But picking earlier rather than later is paramount to everything given that it’s a very weighty grape in terms of potential alcohol. Breaching 15% is not difficult, but usually doesn’t make for pleasant drinking in a white wine. And most everyone will use temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, sometimes dropped to as little as 18C for fermentation so that aromas aren’t lost due to the ferment getting too hot. Grenache, whether red, white, or “grey”, has a tendency to take off like a rocket…
If one has encountered “Grenache Blanc” in any form, it’s most likely from a French wine in the Rhône, Languedoc, or Roussillon. While not always the case, there is a leaning towards sharp green fruits with a hint of floral notes. This is in no way representative of the Garnatxa Blanca of Terra Alta where the fruit is practically livid in profile.
In most all of the wines, orchard fruits will dominate with a wealth of delicate white peach or white pear. Green apple notes will sometimes be present but in minor amounts. Lemon pith and crisp, zesty citric notes are almost always on offer. And the floral notes are amplified to beguiling levels with almond and orange blossom in the best examples. Despite what I’ve seen stated to the contrary, having tasted the entire region over several vintages, the profile is surprisingly uniform, especially when compared to other now-cool Spanish grapes such as Godello.
Alcohol can often range from as little as 12.5% up to 14% but due to the elevation and climatic conditions, the acidity stays pronounced and crisp, giving length and lift to the wine. A light nutty aspect will develop in the wines with aging potential. The oxidative qualities work to the grape’s advantage in this instance which is only starting to be explored.
If wanting to explore more, here are 17 wines that are majority Garnatxa Blanca for anyone looking to see what it is that makes this grape the region’s vanguard.
Altavins - Selecció Blanc 2014
Delicate grapefruit and peach, dried apricot, yellow wildflower blossoms, very light vanilla and toasted notes. Very well balanced, light with medium plus acidity and no end of length showcases the well-formed fruit and tertiary notes of light nuttiness.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 29EUR
Edetària - Edetària Selecció Blanc 2016
Red peach, red apple skin, golden pear, pressed dried flowers, violet, firm mineral notes, as well as waxy touches and honeycomb. Very crisp and vibrant on the palate with scads of depth and length, stays fresh while maintaining complexity.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 20EUR
Vins del Tros - Cent x Cent 2017
Heavy stone fruit, mature peach, apricot, touch of marmalade, damp, pressed orange blossoms, light notes of white pepper and chicory. Full, lovely mouthfeel, cured lemon zest, vanilla, and aged wood, along with medium plus acidity and finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 12EUR
Lafou - El Amellers 2017
Sweet honeydew, cantaloupe, ripe white peach, minor honey notes, very pleasing wildflowers, orange blossoms. Full on the palate, balanced bitter almond and honeyed sweetness, medium plus, verging on high acidity, very fresh, clean and expressive without being overbearing.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 14EUR
Herència Altés - El Benefut 2017
Ripe peach, bitter melon, light wildflower notes, creamy beeswax quality. Nicely balanced with pulpy, juicy fruit an vibrant acidity on the palate as well as a lingering finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 13.5% · 15EUR
Edetària - Finca la Terrenal 2015
Dried yellow peach and apricot, mature golden pear, light floral notes, touch of yellow field flowers, almond blossom, good hit of lees and toasted notes, stark limestone mineral aspect. Lightly sweet on the palate with the vanilla aspect coming through more, great deal of backbone and structure, medium acidity and finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 38EUR
Celler Piñol - L’Avi Arrufí Blanc 2016
Bitter melon with desiccated green apple, white pear, dried flowers, soft herbal notes of chamomile, fennel, lime peel, and an underlying minerality. Medium plus acidity on the palate with a good wealth of backbone to it overlaid with the lime peel notes and a lingering finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14.5% · 18EUR
Herència Altés - 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 he finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 25EUR
Sant Josep Vins - Llàgrimes de Tardor Blanc 2016
Ripe apricot and yellow peach, hibiscus blossoms, sweet lees notes with an underlying vanilla aspect, quite complex in aromatic profile. Rich, ripe yellow fruit on the palate, medium in acidity but an overall thorough and linear palate structure, clean, fresh finish but with great length to it.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 10EUR
Celler Josep Vicens - Mon Iaio Cisco Blanc 2016
Light white peach, touch of lime peel, minor floral notes, honey. Broad and structured on the palate, citric and honey notes coming through, stays very fresh with good length.
100% Grenache Blanc · 13.5% · 12EUR
Bernaví - Notte Bianca 2017
Soft, light peach and bitter melon, white pear, minor almond blossom notes, and a nearly earthy minerality. Excellent balance on the palate, medium plus acidity, and crisp lemon peel notes. Still developing.
100% Grenache Blanc · 13.5% · 9EUR
Vins Algars - Trufes Blanc 2017
Delicate green apple and pear, apple blossom, light bitter almond, white peach, pineapple, crisp mint. Delicate and very articulate on the palate, very night crisp green fruit and integrated, medium plus acdity that makes for a lovely, long finish with no end of complexity.
100% Grenache Blanc · 13.5% · 7EUR
Bàrbara Forés - Abrisa’t 2017
Cured lemon peel, red apple, hazelnut, walnut, old wood, hit of salinity, light clay, stony aspect, great deal of dried fruit. Very dry in the mouth with a good wealth of tannins, medium plus acidity and medium finish. Generally fresh despite very solid backbone to it.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 17EUR
Rialla - Blanc 2017
Rich, ripe cantaloupe, plump apricot, yellow peach, and well-developed orchard fruit aromas, good hit of yellow blossoms, turmeric, white pepper, and light spices. Very fresh on the palate, still a bit tight and showing more green fruits, but generally developing well with crisp, medium plus acidity and a bright finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 13.5% · 9EUR
Herència Altés - 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% Grenache Blanc · 13% · 9EUR
Casa Mariol - Garnatxa Blanca 2017
Very light white pear with a hint of white peach, bitter melon, wildflowers, chamomile. Rich and flavorful with fresh lemon citric notes and a perfect balance of acidity to drive the wine into a lengthy finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 12.5% · 5.50EUR
Bàrbara Forés - El Quintà 2017
Ripe cantaloupe, yellow peach, lemon marmalade, touch of briny salinity. Continues with the saline aspect on the palate with dried lemon peel, medium plus acidity and a long finish.
100% Grenache Blanc · 14% · 17EUR