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Grape full of honor

The Catalan wine region includes 9 Denominacio d’Origen (DO) and 1 Denominacio d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) – The Priorat. Destination of Origin (Do) is a part of regulatory classification system primary for Spanish wines. Products labeled DO, apart from being of superior quality, are expected to carry specific characteristic of geographical region or individual producer and be derived from raw materials origination within the region.

Terra Alta (‘High Land’) is Catalunya’s southernmost wine region and one of the most mountainous. This area was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain. But the altitude and the mountains surrounding the region did not prevent the Romans, religious communities or the Knights Templar from trying their hand at winemaking here. It’s located to the south of the Priorat DOQ and shares a similar winemaking history. The first recorded evidence of grape growing and wine production in Priorat dates from 12th century, from the monks from the Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei, founded in 1194, introduced the art of viticulture in the area. Terra Alta was originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called "amber blanc," but the inevitable arrival of phylloxera forced wine growers to replant.

The Terra Alta was awarded DO status in 1985 and has undergone a period of modernization since it’s promotion. Wine region covers an area of 6,500 hectares and consists of 42 vineyards (Bodegas), which produce 12,5 million liter of wine annually. Local cooperatives led the way, modernizing their cellars and replanting with a wider selection of grape varieties. While traditional rancios, white wines and rosés are still produced, Terra Alta's red wines are becoming more important each year.

Terra Alta's list of permitted grape varieties was changed in 1995 to allow winemakers to use a wider variety of grapes in their blended wines. Syrah and cabernet sauvignon, in particular, are showing promise. Terra Alta's top white wine varieties are garnacha blanca, macabeo, parellada, moscatel and chardonnay. Garnacha tinta and cariñena (called samsó locally) are the most-planted red wine grape varieties; garnacha peluda, morenillo, syrah and cabernet sauvignon are also popular.

Although Terra Alta is a bit off the beaten path, especially with the lures of Barcelona and Tarragona nearby, the area wineries is worth a visit. César Martinell, Antoni Gaudí's student, designed several of the region's cooperative wine cellars, including the main structures used by the Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa and Celler Cooperatiu del Pinell de Brai. Martinell himself called the latter the "cathedral of wine."

Your visit to Terra Alta should include a stop at Celler Cooperatiu del Pinell de Brai. Don't miss the tile frieze on the outside of the building. Artist Xavier Nogués created approximately 149 feet of tile depicting local workers making wine and olive oil. When you enter the cellar building, you'll see Martinell's unusual elliptical brick arches, which look a little like Gothic-gone-yoga. The winery staff recommends that you arrange your visit in advance. You can see more of Martinell's work at Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa, built in 1920. Here, again, you'll find his trademark brick arches. Don't forget to look up to see the gargoyles and the water towers on the roof.
Nearby Edetaria, which takes its name from Via Edetana, the ancient Roman trade route between Tortosa and Zaragosa, offers winery tours, but you'll need to arrange your visit in advance.

Visiting Terra Alta present a perfect opportunity to try some of Terra Alta's top wines. While Terra Alta's wine industry has room for more improvement, the region shows a great deal of potential. Terra Alta's winemakers are experimenting with new blends and modernizing their equipment and processes. All of this energetic effort points toward a hopeful future for this strikingly beautiful wine region.