Running south from the spectacular Pyrenees mountain range and along the eastern Mediterranean coast is the fascinating province of Catalunya, home to a number of diverse wine regions. The best wines from the most renowned regions of Priorat, Montsant and Penedès continue to attract much global attention and prices to match! In fact, so much critical and consumer attention is (understandably) lavished on these regions that smaller and less established areas like Alella are often overlooked. But this is our loss, for there are some very exciting developments happening in this small vineyard north of Barcelona.
One of Spain's smallest D.O.
Alella is currently one of the smallest D.O or appellations in Spain, with only nine registered wineries to its name and just over 300 hectares of vineyards. Yet, this part of eastern Spain has been producing wine for centuries and has long enjoyed a close proximity to Catalunya’s stunning capital, Barcelona, which is a mere 20 minutes by car. As was the case through-out Western Europe, the Romans – who christened Barcelona as Barcino – introduced widespread vine cultivation across Catalunya in the 1st Century AD. However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire wine production in the Catalan region all but ceased to exist, it could not survive the onslaught of the Gothic and Vandal tribes from the North, or the Moors who invaded Spain in 711. Catalunya’s wine resurgence occurred in the Middle Ages, re-introduced by religious orders from Burgundy and the Rhine who brought their wine knowledge to Catalunya. Alella’s wines subsequently achieved great recognition and were served at the Royal Court in Aragon to great acclaim.
As the region’s fame grew so did its vineyards and by the 18th century there were many more vines along the Mediterranean coast than there are today. Trade with the Americas in the 1700s brought great prosperity to the Catalan wine trade, although the advent of the Phylloxera louse during the end of the 19th century devastated many of the vineyards. In the 20th century Alella became famous for producing Spain’s sparkling Cava, which is today primarily made in the much larger Penedès zone south of Barcelona. It was awarded D.O protection in 1953. Although Alella’s vineyards continued to shrink as urban development encroached on the land, the 1980s heralded significant improvements in the winemaking methods as much needed investment was used to modernize equipment and standards. Today, a visitor to the region will encounter several, quality focused wineries, whose passionate owners are constantly striving to raise the profile of their often excellent wines.
Alella, which takes its name from a small town in the Maresme region about half an hour up the coast from Barcelona, is a tiny yet important sub-region in the Catalan landscape. The vineyards are located along the coastline but also run into the foothills of the Sierra de Parpes range. The best terroir is to be found in the higher altitude sites on the Parpes slopes, which enjoy a more continental climate sheltered from the sea breezes. Wines of real concentration, balance and structure are increasingly being produced from these superior sites. Conversely, the oldest vineyards that run along the coast tend to produc softer, less structured wines with a lower acidity. The coastal vineyards are planted to dark soils, whereas the higher altitude areas, known as Valles, contain more limestone in the soil structure. The distinctive quality of the Alella terroir is the all-important topsoil, known as Saulo in Catalan. This sandy, granite-based soil retains heat and ensures that full ripeness is rarely a problem for Alella’s wines!
The most important white grape varieties in Alella are undoubtedly Xarel.lo (known as Pansa Blanc in Alella) and Chardonnay, whilst the reds are predominately blends of Merlot, Garnacha, and Tempranillo, known locally as Ull de Llebre. Small amounts of Macabeo, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are also found across the region. A real and incredible value highlight from Alella is the classic white blends and more modern varietal wines, offering a light, fresh aroma, ripe fruit flavors and real class for a brilliant price. The reds vary from the light and every day to the thoroughly modern, barrel aged and powerful, as local outfits continue to refine their winemaking style. Much credit for raising awareness of the Alella region must go to the family owned winery Alta Alella, whose passionate owners have done much to promote Alella to a wider audience.
Alta Alella was founded by the enologist Josep Maria Pujol-Busquets and his wife Cristina Guillén, who purchased an estate in the beautiful Serralada de Marina Natural Park. The family planted their first vines in 1991 and the first vintage was release in 2001 to great acclaim. This 17 hectare estate today is fully certified as organic and produces a fantastic range of reds, whites and cavas, which easily rival the best of their neighbors further south. In fact, Alta Alella represents everything that is attractive and positive about the Alella region: a dynamic and forward thinking approach, combined with an age old tradition of respecting the natural environment which gives rise to such vibrant, fruit driven and exceptional value wines!