Terra Alta – “Baby Priorat”?

Clua VineyardTerra Alta is just southwest of the much more famous Priorat region, about 100 km west of Barcelona in Eastern Spain. This is arid, rocky, and mountainous territory that immediately begs the question – why would anyone try to make wine here?

But we know the Romans grew vines here and there is some suggestion winemaking started even earlier than that. The traditional Terra Alta wine was white and “rancio” (a nice way of saying oxidized and sour). Until the 1980s, though, this was mainly co-op country with growers focused mainly on quantity rather than quality.

Why Not Us?
In the 1980s, forward-looking growers in Terra Alta began to notice the critical acclaim (and high prices!) garnered by their neighbors to the aast in Priorat and asked themselves, “Why not us?” Growers had secured DO status in 1972, but revised the DO rule in 1995 to increase the region’s focus on red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.

In many regions, we think the addition of Cabernet and other “international” varieties is a bad thing, often warping and undermining traditional wine styles in pursuit of big scores and “international style.” In Terra Alta, though, Cabernet has shown itself as an adept partner to Garnatxa Negre (“Grenache” in Catalan), adding structure and complexity without overwhelming the wine’s essential sense of place. In other words, the better wines of Terra Alta taste like they are from Spain, not Australia.

Xavier Clua Capturing the Essence of Terra Alta
xavier Clua familyIf Terra Alta is one of the most promising wine regions in Spain (and it is!), then Xavier Clua has to be one of the most promising winemakers.

The Clua family has been making wine for more than four generations, but Xavier is taking things to an entirely new level. Xavier worked in the family vineyards from his childhood, but left home and earned a degree in oenology in 1994. He then broadened his horizons further by working at several Chateaux in Bordeaux. He returned to Terra Alta with a new, somewhat paradoxical, conviction – that by modernizing his family’s vineyards and winery, he could produce honest, authentic, wine that married world-class quality with distinctive Terra Alta character.

So, he went to work. Blessed with 30-40 year-old Grenache vineyards, Xavier worked to improve his family’s plantings of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. The old-vine Grenache vineyards were converted from bush-vines to run along a trellis wire, allowing longer shoots and yielding smaller, more intense, berries. Xavier used temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vats to allow longer, slower, alcoholic fermentation and ensure controlled malolactic fermentations. Finally, he began working with small French oak barrels, learning how to gain the maximum benefit from wood aging without overwhelming or masking his wine’s sense of place.

Clua Millennium bottle

Clua Millennium – Power, Purity, Place
Xavier Clua views Mil.lennium as his top wine, the apex expression of his ethic, work and vineyards. And the wine has been very, very, good since we first encountered the 2005 back in 2009. Those early (for us) vintages showcased the power of Terra Alta, emphasizing richness, deep fruit, oak spice and intense, gripping, finishes. They were big, bold, wines that delivered what we (then) thought of as the essence of Spanish wine.

Over the past few years, winegrowers and makers across Spain have been exploring how to move beyond the pure power their old vines and hot, sunny, days easily give. More and more, we see fine Spanish wines that match ripeness of fruit and power of structure with something new: freshness.

Xavier, I think was a bit ahead of this curve: his wines have always matched ripeness with fresh, vibrant, structures. But the 2013 Mil.lennium seems to capture this balance better than ever. Yes, it’s a big wine with plenty of palate impact. But it’s also pure (not thick), clear (not muddy), spiced (not over-oaked), and fresh (not heavy or plodding). It certainly grabs your attention from first sniff and sip. But it will hold and deepen that attention as you move from one glass to the next. A delicious accomplishment you will not want to miss.

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