Decanter | Expert's Choice: Terra Alta

by Beth Willard |

On the Catalan side of the border with Aragón, this lesser-known region deserves more recognition for its bright, fresh wines that beautifully capture the Mediterranean climate.

Visiting a Spanish winemaker in the south of Spain recently, I had driven down to see her from Terra Alta. She asked, ‘Where?’, and I repeated, Gandesa in Terra Alta. Again she queried, where?

If a Spanish wine industry professional is not clear on the region’s location, it’s hardly surprising that there are still far too few wines from Terra Alta in foreign markets. That’s such a shame, and I’ll tell you why.

A couple of hours’ drive southeast of Zaragoza and a little less southwest from Barcelona, Terra Alta finds itself where the wilds of Aragón make way for the rugged hinterland of Catalonia before the region meets the sea. Not quite on the coast but close enough to benefit from important sea breezes; not quite the highest part of Catalonia but high enough to profit from the freshness that altitude brings; and not quite famous enough to be on the main tourist route, yet its landscapes have inspired generations of artists, Picasso included.

The superstar grape is Garnacha (Garnatxa in the Catalan) in its white, red and hairy (Garnatxa Peluda) forms: of the DO region’s declared 39,400 tonnes of grape production for 2022, it made up more than half. And, with two exceptions, Garnachas are the dominant grapes in all the wines I selected here. To the great benefit of these varieties, winemakers are mostly restrained in their use of oak, producing balanced wines with more focus on fruit and freshness: you will note that many of the wines I have selected show very little oak influence or none at all.

Building on tradition

As in many regions of Spain, there is a return to the past with the creation of the Vi Brisat category for white wines fermented in contact with skins. This had been the traditional method to make white wines, but the practice was almost lost when modernisation and stainless steel arrived. The DO authority officially recognised the method in its 2022 bylaw revisions. I’ve selected two examples which I hope will satisfy both knowledgeable fans of orange wines and newcomers to the category.

Could this region be Catalonia’s best-kept secret? Over the past decade I’ve witnessed an enviable increase in the number of very high-quality wines. Newer, smaller producers are making characterful wines with unique identity, while more established growers have put a greater focus on single-vineyard sites, many of which are full of (very) old vines and are organically curated (as are nearly half the wines in my selection).

The wines from Terra Alta seem quite effortless, capturing the heat and intensity of Spain’s harsh interior but remaining bright and fresh, Mediterranean cool. My only complaint: there are many more wines of equal quality to those on this list that are not yet in the UK (or US) markets. Hopefully they will reach our shores soon.

Herència Altés La Serra Negre 2017

Immediate pleasure on the nose offering all the wild herbal and minty aromas of the region, 'sotobosque' (garrigue), with exuberant, ripe red cherries and raspberries. There’s a wonderful freshness and steely drive underlying this wine, surely from the old-vine Cariñena, and while the wine is taut, it opens up with time and air. Only 1957 bottles produced. Organically farmed. Drink 2023 - 2027.

Herència Altés Benufet 2022

Without any makeup – no oak – Núria Altés has produced a very pure expression of the star variety of the region. Pretty floral and bright citrus aromas are inviting, while a short time on lees adds some palate weight which is in perfect harmony with the wine’s lively acidity. Organically farmed. Drink 2023 - 2025.