Alella: vines vs. houses

Alella is the smallest DO in Catalonia, and also the closest to Barcelona. Indeed, the vineyards start some 10 km away from Barcelona’s centre. Eighteen villages are included, and they are placed at both sides of the coastal hills that run parallel to the Mediterranean.

This area attracted formerly holiday second homes from wealthy Barcelonese, and now is increasingly filling with permanent residents, seduced by the cool climate and the easy access to beaches. The building fever of the last twenty years has not been able to drive away the last winegrowers, heirs to a winemaking tradition that spans millennia. In fact, in the heart of the DO lands there is a Roman winemaking facility, Cella Vinaria, active from the 1st century B.C. till the 5th century A.D. The wines of this zone (laietanian wines) are mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Martial. Wine production continued successfully through the Middle Ages and beyond, to this day.

Alella DO villages

The DO has ca. 600 hectares of vineyard, with soils generally sandy (sauló) in the plots facing the sea, and with more clay in those facing the inland. Climate is Mediterranean, with hot summers and cool winters. Rain is relatively scarce (600 mm/year) and concentrated in spring and autumn. There are no important rivers, so humidity coming from the sea plays an important role. The hilly countryside gives plenty of opportunities for fulfilling the microclimate requirements of the different grape varieties.

Which are they? For whites, there are two recommended grapes: Garnatxa blanca and Pansa blanca (aka Xarel.lo). Other accepted: Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Macabeu, Malvasia, Moscatell de gra petit, Parellada, Picapoll blanc and Sauvignon blanc. Red varieties: Garnatxa negra (recommended), Cabernet Sauvignon, Carinyena, Garnatxa peluda (hairy) Merlot, Monastrell, Pinot noir, Sumoll negre, Syrah and Ull de Llebre. Many vines of the local varieties are over 50 years old, and grown as bushes. International varieties are younger and usually trellised.

With this range Alella winemakers (7 in total) elaborate an assortment which is surprisingly wide for a zone of this size: whites of all kinds, rosè, reds, sweets, and, as other Catalan DOs, Cava in its full choice.

The most well known type is the white made from Pansa blanca, the local name of Xarel.lo. It can be young or with oak aging. Chardonnay is the second most important white grape, and the others are usually complements in the blends, with the odd monovarietal. Excellent sweets, both red and white, and some outstanding soleras.

Alella wines, with their mild climate, tend to be lighter and more elegant than wines from other Catalan DOs with harsher climatic conditions.

My favourite wineries: this is difficult. Quality is generally high and with only seven winemakers…Anyway:
  • Alta Alella, with organic production 
  • Marqués de Alella, mainly whites 
  • Alella Vinícola (Marfil), attention to the soleras
Let us hope that these seven stubborn, resilient groups will resist the alluring offers for their land and continue to produce these wines, with a very defined personality within the Catalan wine world.


Clos Dominic, vines on the face of the pyramid

Porrera is one of the leading Priorat villages. Placed in the East of the DO, its labyrinthic streets hide more than a dozen of wineries and, for whatever reason, a similar number of sundials.

One of the more singular of these wineries is Clos Dominic. With the (tiny) winemaking facilities in the ground floor and underground of a village house, its real heart lies elsewhere: 2 km away from the streets and sundials, la Tena stands.

Dominic and Paco grew in Priorat. Paco had a tradition of winemaking in his family, but no land. Finally, in 1998 they purchased one of the best properties of Priorat: la Tena.

La Tena from the bottom
La Tena is a plot composed mainly of two pieces: a great coster, or sloped vineyard with vines planted unevenly and grown as bushes, with the form of a triangle and resembling the face of a huge pyramid; and a flat part at its feet, close to the riverbed.

The flat vineyard is planted with Garnatxa negra, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, around ten years old. The coster is home to very old vines, from 60 to over 100 years old, mainly Garnatxa and Carinyena, but with a sprinkling of Picapoll negre and white varietals: Garnatxa blanca, Macabeu, and even the odd, newer Riesling. In the sometimes impossible slopes of the coster, the old vines cling precariously to the slatey llicorella soil adopting outlandish shapes, and fighting for dear life as they stubbornly yield an average of 300 grams of grapes per plant. Meagre harvest in quantity, but the quality more than compensates.

Vines in the coster
Farming and winemaking are organic, with biodynamic overtones. Sulphur addition is kept to the lowest levels, and no other additives are used for clarification or other purposes; so much so that an allergy patient association recommends Clos Dominic wine to its associates. Fermentation is achieved with the yeasts naturally present in the grapes. And all the work is undertaken by members of the family.

This non-intervention policy yields wines with a defined personality that highlight the terroir and each vintage circumstances. Indeed, vintage to vintage variation is probably higher than in other wines with more “technology”.

Clos Dominic blanc is a very limited production (300 bottles) of a complex white, made from the white grapes of la Tena. It is fermented and kept for five months on its lees in new French oak.

Reds usually undergo ageing in French oak for 12 to 16 months. That lends them a suitable wood touch, without hiding the intense fruit and the minerality, typical of Priorat.

Younger vines in the flat plot
Clos Petó is the basic red, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnatxa negra grown in the lowest plot.

Flat plot at the bottom

Vinyes Baixes (literally Low Vineyards) comes from Merlot from the lower vineyards and some older Garnatxa negra from the coster.

Vinyes Altes (High Vineyards) is Clos Dominic’s top normal wine, the product of the old Carinyena (70 %) and Garnatxa vines of the coster in la Tena.
La Tena from midway up

Paco and Dominic adore their children (one girl is already on track to became Oenologist and Sommelier) and have given their names to special, selected bottles coming from the oldest Carinyena and Garnatxa vines. Look out for Selecció Andreu, Míriam or Ingrid; the production is minuscule and price high, but concentration of colour, aromas and flavours is stunning. Ingrid is Garnatxa negra 100 %; Andreu and Míriam, Carinyena 100 %.

Like a number of other small wineries, a visit to Clos Dominic, starting with a hike up la Tena among the old vines, ending in tasting their very special wines, and under the enthusiastic guidance of the Castillo family, is one of the “must-have” experiences for a wine lover.


Paco gazing up la Tena


Albet i Noya, the organic pioneers

Albet i Noya is a winery in Sant Pau d’Ordal with the typical mixed production of DO Penedès and DO Cava, as so many others in the area. This is a medium-sized enterprise, with a production of some 2 million bottles per year, out of their 76 hectares.

The estate of Can Vendrell, where the winery is located, lies in the first slopes of the Ordal mountains. The Albet i Noya family have been managing this estate for four generations, but it was the present one that bought the estate in 1986 and established today’s structure.

Vines grow in sloped plots or in man-made terraces. Soils are poor, with a calcareous bed and a thin layer of clay. All grapes are hand picked, and in some cases selected grain by grain. White varieties grown include Chardonnay, Macabeu, Xarel.lo, Parellada, Muscat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Garnatxa Blanca. As red varieties they have Cabernet Sauvignon, Ull de Llebre (aka Tempranillo), Merlot, Syrah, Garnatxa Negra, Caladoc, Arinarnoa, Marselan and Pinot Noir. This large variety is quite normal in Penedès.

It produces a wide range of wines: white, rosé, red, sweet, sparkling (Cava) of uniform good quality, and at reasonable prices; however, there are no really outstanding wines, no Parker ratings higher than 90, so to speak. The main brands are Lignum (white and red), la Milana red, Reserva Martí red, and the Col.lecció line, monovarietals of Chardonnay and Syrah.

What is special, then? Is this just another honest, unremarkable, upper-middle class winery?

There are mainly three features that make Albet i Noya remarkable.

The first one is that, in 1978, they were the first winery in Catalonia to embrace organic farming and winemaking, and have remained a benchmark ever since. Since 2004 they are also starting to grow grapes byodinamically in a part of the estate.

The Cava line also has some special things to offer, starting with manual degorjat and the date of this operation in all labels, to permit timely consumption.

Barrica 21 is a Cava with Champagne-like composition, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and base wine fermentation in French oak barrels. This lends a special body, enough to match the richest meats.

Also the Cava Dolç de Postres is one of the handful of sweet, quality products that are on the market. As happens with other quality sweet wines, low quality sweet Cava has created a bad reputation that is difficult to overcome, yet good sweet Cava is a perfect match for most desserts.

The third point is their program of recovery of ancient, perhaps pre-phylloxera grape varieties. They have dedicated one hectare to growing vines of obscure descent, often found by chance in the neighbouring mountains, and with DNA that does not match known varieties. A part of the cellar is dedicated to vinification in small quantities, including a metal press similar to ancient wooden, manual ones, and then samples of the resulting wines are distributed to experts around the world to assess quality. In this way they have already identified three grape varieties, two white and one red, which they deem worthy of producing commercial scale wines.

The red grape has been christened as Belat, which is at the same time an anagram of Albet and sounds like the Catalan velat, which means hidden or shrouded as becomes to this elusive grape. White varieties remain unnamed for the time being.

Hopefully in a few years these new grapes, and others to come, will have hit the market (I have a bottle of Belat to be poured sometime soon) and enlarged the choice for the discerning wine enthusiast.