Terra Alta: exploring Spain’s wine highlands

Header image: Terra Alta Landscape by Angela Llop / CC BY-SA

Take the road to Terra Alta (literally high land) and you begin to understand the region’s struggle to get on Spain’s wine map. Stuck in the far south-west of Catalunya, on the right bank of the Ebro river, getting here can be a trek. County capital Gandesa is just 55 km inland from the Mediterranean, but if you’re unlucky enough to get stuck behind a lorry as it clanks its way through the gears on the climb up from Reus, it can feel a lot further.

But stick with it, it’s worth the wait. As you slip down the hill past Falset, resist the temptation for a side visit to Priorat or a stopover in Montsant and push on for the last 40 km to Gandesa. Cross city limits, and immediately the wonderful modernist cooperative building surges into view. Designed in 1920 by César Martinell, disciple of Antoni Gaudí, the building´s vaulted roof and minaret-like water towers seem more of an architectural homage to the surrounding viticulture than a working building.

Celler Cooperatiu de Gandesa (Catalonia) Architect: Cesar Martinell
Celler Cooperatiu de Gandesa (Catalonia) Architect: Cesar Martinell. Mgclape / CC BY-SA

Terra Alta Terroir

This is a county defined by its Mediterranean agriculture. Covering some twelve towns with a combined population of around 12,000 people, the plains, plateaus and valleys are planted with olive and almond trees, but above all vines. With just over 5,000 hectares (more than any other DO in Catalunya) planted at between 350 and 600 metres altitude, grapes are the region’s core crop, and every year the harvest brings in close to 40 million kilos of fruit.

In many ways, the region is defined by its climate and meteorology. Mediterranean with continental influences, mild autumns tend to be followed by cold winters, late springs and hot summers. Wind is a key factor too, and helps keep the vines healthy – the cierzo wind funnels in cold and dry from Aragon to the north, while the garbinada which blows in from the Mediterranean brings warmth and humidity. Rainfall is relatively low – 450mm/year – thanks in large part to the Els Ports mountain range to the south, which can act as a buffer to clouds rolling in from the Mediterranean.

Terra Alta Grapes

Garnacha, especially of the white variety, is king here. At 1,400 hectares, Terra Alta is home to 90% of the white Garnacha planted in Catalunya, or one-third of the global total. For many of the region’s growers, the variety’s ability to reflect the characteristics of the soil in which is planted, coupled with its ability to adapt and withstand drought, makes it an ideal choice.

Looking south towards Els Ports from the Edetària winery

Edetaria vineyards

Joan Àngel Lliberia, owner at Edetària, one of the region’s top producers, certainly shares that sentiment. A native son of Gandesa, grandfather an enologist and father a viticulturalist, Joan Àngel originally studied agronomy before being lured off into the commercial world. After twenty years selling everything from coffee to Land Rovers, in the mid-1990s he finally tired of the rat race, completed a Masters at the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), and came home to showcase the best Terra Alta has to offer.

Joan Àngel Lliberia, Luis Otero & David Martín at Edetària

The Edetària estate is typical of the patchwork agricultural landscape of Terra Alta. Covering a total of 60 hectares, vineyards are sliced into 65 separate parcels all with slightly different soil composition and orientation. Garnacha is the dominant variety, but there are also some 4 hectares of Syrah and Viognier.

The tapàs soil at Edetària (image courtesy of Edetària)

Ask Joan Àngel what sets Terra Alta apart from the competition, and the answer is very clear: soil. Sure, he concedes, this is not neighbouring Priorat with its famed llicorella (decomposed slate), but Terra Alta’s trademark panal (fossilized sand dunes) and tapàs (silty soils with clay) make for well drained soils where the vines are forced to make the effort and dig deep for water and nutrients. Lliberia also praises the region’s old plantings which ensures there’s no shortage of raw material to work with, and can make for slightly thicker skin on the grape, thereby protecting against water loss and locking a little more freshness into the wines.

Wine selection

This sharp focus of effort is perhaps most apparent in Edetària’s premium red range; single vineyard, single variety bottlings of old vine Carignan, Garnacha Fina and its Terra Alta variant Garnacha Peluda or ¨Hairy¨ Garnacha (so called because of the hairy underside to its leaves which helps protect against drought). But its also apparent in Edetària Selecció made from small crops of white Garnacha grown on panal soil and gently aged in 500 litre French oak before bottling. Powerful and long, the wine’s mineral complexity tinged with white fruit and petrol notes is a great introduction to the region’s white wines.

Luis Otero, winemaker at Edetària

So much for the top end, but Lliberia is also keen to win over new converts with more affordable wines that nevertheless have the Mediterranean stamped into their DNA. His iTant range of red, white and rosé wines – coupled with an, increasingly fashionable, vermouth and a cava – has been developed with the export market strongly in mind. Beautifully presented, the wines are designed to be an unfussy but authentic introduction to the main wine-growing regions of southern Catalunya: Priorat, Montsant and Terra Alta. The name itself gives the best clue to what it’s all about – i tant is a Catalan phrase, used when the penny drops, and something you’ve suspected all along gets confirmed. In this case, that something is the distinctive aroma and flavour of the native grapes, leaving the drinker in no doubt they have a glass of something from southern Catalunya in their hand.

Further reading

Read more about Spanish wine regions.