Terra Alta is a Spanish Denomination de Origen (DO) (Denominació d’Origen in Catalan) for wines located in the west of the province of Tarragona (Catalonia, Spain) and covers 12 inland municipalities. As the name indicates (Terra Alta = High Land) the area is in the mountains. It is of great natural beauty and features in many of Picasso’s paintings.
Traditionally, due to its geographical isolation, this area traditionally only made wine for local consumption and has only recently started to produce modern Mediterranean style wines.
Several cooperative wineries were designed and built in the 1920s by Cèsar Martinell, a student of Antoni Gaudí, and are notable for their modernist architectural style.
In the times of the ancient Romans, the road from Zaragoza to Tortosa passed through the area, and is probably when grape growing was first introduced. In the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar planted vines, but the geographical distance to markets and to ports meant that a lot of vineyards were converted to olive groves instead.
There are extant legal documents on the regulation of the grape and wine industry: Las Costums d’Orta dating from 1296 and Las Costums de Miravet from 1319.
During the 19th century the vinos rancios (rancid wines) from Terra Alta, such as “Amber Blanc” attained great fame.
However, the area was devastated by the outbreak of the phylloxera virus. The current vineyards were replanted (by grafting onto New World rootstock) between 1920 and 1950, largely by means of the creations of cooperatives.
Terra Alta DO acquired official status in 1982 and there are currently 8,200 ha covered, with 1,800 grape growers and 42 wineries registered.
The main town in the area is Gandesa. To the east the Terra Alta DO borders on Tarragona (DO), while to the west it borders on the province of Teruel. The mountains reach a height of 950 m above sea level, though the vineyards are lower down on the slopes, valleys and plateaus.
The climate is mixture of Mediterranean and continental. The summers are long, hot and dry and the winters are very cold. The average annual temperature is 16.5°C (max 35°C in summer, min -5°C in winter). There is a risk of late frosts in spring. Average annual rainfall is about 400 mm. A dry wind, known as el Mestral from the valley of the River Ebro is influential in keeping humidity low and thus protecting the vines from disease.
The soils are clayey, with a good lime content, poor in organic material, with a significant proportion of sizable elements which allows for good drainage.
There are many authorised varieties, some traditional varieties and some of foreign origin:
White grapes: Garnacha blanca, Parellada, Macabeo, Moscatel and Chardonnay (experimentally, Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc and Marselan are also authorised);
Red grapes: Carignan, Grenache, Garnacha Peluda, Morenillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo.