Terra Alta is an interesting region in the northeast of Spain in Catalonia. The region is not as well known as the adjacent regions of the Priorat or Montsant but for those in the know, the combination of its higher elevation (Terra Alta!) and its mix of clay, sandy soils, and limestone can result in very expressive wines. The potential quality and initial recognition of the region unfortunately did not escape the notice of "big players" that attempt to exploit every trend they see in the wine industry by then churning out cheap wines from those regions. That then results in seeing wines at $10 to $12 a bottle from such regions which cheapens the perception of an entire region.
As I focus on what the locals love to drink, however, that led me to Celler Arrufi in Batea. Celler Arrufi is a family project of Esteve Arrufi (whose family has long had vineyards in the area), his wife Sol, and their two sons, Francesc and Esteve Jr. The project was founded on the principles organically certified vineyards, naturally fermented and minimal intervention wines, and also vegan wines and some wines with no added sulfites.
When initially tasting at their winery I was particularly struck by the freshness and expressiveness of their wines. With an overall portfolio of mainly organically farmed and naturally fermented wines where I am also focusing on "expressiveness" with every wine (instead of "smooth and polished" wines!), I found the wines both fun and delightful. As a lover of Grenache (or Garnacha in Spain...or Garnatxa in Catalunya!), the freshness of their Garnatxa was really remarkable. Their main Garnatxa Blanca (Panical) was also really fun and fresh and their Garnatxa Blanca with no added sulfites (Sol Vi) was also a superlative example of the purity and expressiveness of well-made wines where no sulfites are added. I have now also added a sulfite-free Garnacha to my selections from Celler Arrufi with their incredibly fresh and expressive "77 Nits" (Nit means night in Catala).
By the way, concerning wines with no added sulfites, as an importer whose wines have to travel from Europe, I think I have been risk-averse about wines with no added sulfites although overall I mainly have what in my view are "natural wines" given that most of my wines are naturally fermented. Unfortunately the view of natural wines has had its own complex twists and turns to include extreme points of view such as they all have to have no added sulfites - or even that controlling fermentation temperatures to maintain the freshness of a wine is considered "intervention"!
I have begun to taste more and more really delightful wines with no added sulfites in Europe, however, and have selectively added more to the portfolio. Three very delightful examples also in the portfolio are the Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo from Ca del Bric in Monferrato in Italy. The freshness, purity, and expressiveness of those wines have been a revelation for my clients.
Unfortunately "natural wines" also have a reputation for "funkiness" but I also have some interesting observations about that from visiting lots of wineries all around Europe. The sulfite free naturally fermented wines that I've tasted that were fresh, clean tasting, and expressive also came from producers with immaculately clean fermentation areas and from winemakers that had a high level of attention to detail and wine making experience. The funky and umm, stinky, "natural wines".that I've tasted were all from producers whose cellars were funky and stinky and who appeared to be sort of "winging it" in the wine making process.
Vineyard west of Batea
Vineyard east of Batea
"Panical" Garnacha Blanca 2022 (OC, NF)
Aromas include camellia, gardenia, narcissus, honeysuckle, jasmine, yellow peaches, and honeydew melon. Flavors include honeydew melon, pear, white grapefruit, white peaches, and green apple. There is a medium body, good balance and acidity, and a refreshing medium finish.
Food pairings would include sole shrimp, crab, scallops, branzino, calamari, seafood pasta and salads, veal and pork cutlets, chicken, Asian pork, chicken, seafood and noodle dishes, Asian appetizers, yellow curries, Asian vegetable salads, Mexican pork, chicken, and seafood dishes, enchiladas, tamales, chile relleño, tacos, tapas, green salads, and medium, creamy, and blue cheeses.
"Sol Vi" Garnacha Blanca 2020 (OC, NF, NAS)
The aromatics seem very subtle other than an overall sense of “freshness” from the very high quality fruit farmed by Celler Arrufi but there are hints of white flowers and honeysuckle. Flavors include honeydew melon, kiwi, clover honey, and hints of pears and lemon oil. There is a medium body but with a sense of lushness and richness, good balance and acidity, and a refreshing minerally finish.
Food pairings would include shrimp, crab, sole, sea bass, clams, mussels, seafood pasta, salads, and soups, paella, tapas, veal, chicken, pork, Asian and Mexican chicken and pork dishes, Asian vegetable salads, chicken and pork enchiladas, pork verde, and green salads.
"Trepadella" Garnacha 2020 (OC, NF)
Aromas include plums, dark cherries, and hints of chocolate, pomegranate, and strawberries. Flavors include pomegranate, blackberries, dark cherries, and plums. There is a medium body, good balance and acidity, an overall perception of “freshness” to the wine, and a refreshing minerally finish.
Food pairings would include filet mignon, New York Steak, short ribs, beef stew, veal chops, pork tenderloin, pork chops, pork shoulder, BBQ ribs, hamburgers, grilled and roast chicken, salmon, tuna, clams, mussels, seafood soups, tapas, Mexican food, Asian beef and pork dishes, lamb curries, red curries, charcuterie, and mild, medium, and sharp cheeses.
"77 Nits" Garnacha 2021 (OC, NF, NAS)
Nit in Catalan means night and the theme of 77 nights is from an Japanese proverb that it takes 77 days (or nights) for people to forget about a rumor. The relevant rumor in this case is that "natural wines" are stinky, funky, and of poor quality. Although there are definitely poor wine makers who do produce such wines, this wine is incredibly pure and expressive and is 100% Garnacha with no added sulfites. Aromas include blackberries, dark cherries, dark plums, boysenberries, and blueberries. Flavors include blackberries, dark cherries, pomegranate, strawberries, and raspberries. There is a medium to full body, perfect balance and acidity, and a refreshing, saturated, and full finish.
Food pairings would include roast beef, short ribs, beef stew, rack of lamb, veal chops, pork chops, wild boar, chicken, duck, salmon, shrimp, swordfish, mussels, seafood pasta dishes, pasta with meat or tomato sauces, Asian and Mexican beef, pork, and chicken dishes, lamb curries and red curries, Tandoori dishes, beef and pork enchiladas, tamales, tacos, and medium to rich cheeses.