An hour into our drive, we’re already discussing our hypothetical country home. Nothing fancy. Just a modest converted farmhouse with exposed-stone walls and vaulted brick ceilings. And a little land to plant vegetables, and raise chickens and bees, and eat dinner al aire libre in the summer. I don’t ask for much.
This happens every time we venture into the Catalan countryside. The rolling hills and blissful quiet make me momentarily forget that I love living in vibrant, noisy Barcelona. I remember what it’s like to see stars and hear crickets, and I’m ready to give it all up… at least for an occasional weekend.
Last Saturday, we rented a car and hightailed it out of town for an overnight trip to the Terra Alta region. About two hours west of Barcelona, and an hour inland from Tarragona, it’s still surprisingly wild wine country. You can drive for miles without encountering anything except vineyards, and the occasional house or village.
Terra Alta isn’t far from the better-known Priorat or Montsant regions. Its wine is gaining a solid reputation (this Wine Enthusiast article gives a good overview), but it’s still very affordable. Most of the wine we loved had a price tag of less than 10 euros a bottle.
We had less than 36 hours in the area, but we managed to visit three wineries and eat three fantastic meals, while still feeling lazy and unrushed.
You’ll need a car to explore the region. We’ve had positive experiences renting with Sixt, and this time we picked up the car at their location near the port (much easier than the chaos at Sants train station).
We visited three towns in the region – Batea, Gandesa and Vilalba dels Arcs. It takes about 15 minutes to drive from one to the next.
Where to Stay
Celler Piñol, a family-run winery offering organic wines, rents out four apartments above its administrative office, and around the corner from the cellar. We made our reservation through Booking.com. Our one-bedroom apartment was spotless, and featured a full kitchen, free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and an interior patio – plus a welcome bottle of white wine. The town is tiny, so you can easily walk to other wineries, and street parking is free and plentiful.
Wineries to Visit
As with most wineries in Catalunya, you need to make reservations in advance for tours and tastings. I started sending emails on Monday for Saturday and Sunday appointments, and several places said they were either fully booked or unavailable at those times. For our next trip, I’ll plan with a bit more lead time.
The winemaker, Juanjo, had a weekend busy with family engagements but still found time to give us a private tour of the cellar. The space looks small from the street, but it actually extends far back, and down a few flights of stairs. The garnatxa blanca grape reigns supreme in Terra Alta, and my favorite wine from Celler Piñol was the l’Avi Arrufi: 100% garnatxa blanca from old vines, aged in barrels for seven months. Refreshing and light, but with a slight hint of oakiness.
- Tours by reservation (he didn’t charge us for ours); Juanjo speaks Spanish, Catalan and English
- Address: Av. Aragó, 9, 43786 Batea
- Phone: +34 977 43 05 05
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
LaFou only opened in 2007, but the Roqueta family has a winemaking history that dates back to the 12th century. The winery is in a restored 18th-century home on Batea’s main square, and the tour leads you through the traditional and modern production areas. The tasting was in a lovely garden courtyard, and our guide, Joan, poured us generous samples of a white and two reds. We sat with a big chatty group of retirees from a nearby town, and the charming gentleman next to us wheedled a few extra pours for us all. My favorite here was the garnatxa blanca, Els Amelers, named after the almond trees planted among the vineyards.
- Tours by reservation (cost: 8 euros per person); they offer tours in Spanish, Catalan and English
- Address: Plaça Catalunya 34, 43786 Batea
- Phone: 34 646 85 02 77
- Email: email@example.com
I would recommend visiting this spectacular catedral del vino for the architecture alone; it’s a bonus that the wine is good. Our guide, Pilar, brought the winery’s history to life, describing how the residents of Gandesa – men, women and children – built it over the course of a year, from 1919 to 1920.
The Modernist architect, Cèsar Martinell, was a protege of Antoni Gaudí, and he designed a simple, functional and beautiful space using the limited resources the town had. We had the opportunity to taste four or five different Celler Gandesa wines, and I was impressed by the price-to-quality ratio. We bought several bottles of the garnatxa-macabeu blend, Somdinou, “a young wine produced with grapes from old vineyards” for around 5 euros a bottle.
Where to Eat
These are all small towns, with only a few restaurants in each (Gandesa had the most options), so it’s wise to do a bit of advance planning.
Vilalba dels Arcs
After reading glowing TripAdvisor and Google reviews of Nou Moderno, I made a Saturday lunch reservation, but I was a little nervous that it was going to be overly fancy or pricey. We were pleased to find it was neither. The staff was warm, and there was a 12-euro menú del día, even on a Saturday. It included three courses (without drinks); a bottle of house-made white wine was an additional 12 euros. There was also a 20-euro tasting menu with a few more courses, but we weren’t quite up it.
The gazpacho was one of the best I’ve tasted; heavy on fresh tomatoes, and light on vinegar. The grilled meats were simply prepared but flavorful. The flan was super light and creamy; even Brian liked it, and he’s not usually a big fan.
It was a happy accident that we ended up here on Saturday night. Our first choice in Batea was inexplicably closed when we arrived at 9:30, and the only other place serving food – packed during the Barça game – turned us away. We were starting to feel a little panicky, knowing that late dining options in rural areas can be few and far between. But Brian did some expert speed Googling (likely imagining the hangry monster I would become in an hour or two) and found Sibarites, which looked promising and was open till 11.
At this point, I would have been happy with some decent patatas bravas and chorizo, but we lucked out with Sibarites. Gourmet menu, fun ambiance, friendly staff. We each ordered the 20-euro menu, which included three courses and wine.
I don’t know where Sibarites’ octopus carpaccio has been all my life; thinly sliced, incredibly tender and generously coated in olive oil. Melt-in-your-mouth good. And then, fickle as I am, I forgot all about it when the beef cheeks arrived. The waitress told us it had been slow-cooking at very low heat for something like 30 hours. It fell apart when you got near it with a fork. We also licked the plates clean with both desserts: coconut ice cream, fresh fruit and ginger; molten chocolate cake with orange sorbet.
El Chef is a casual restaurant around the corner from Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa, and we popped in for after our tour. Once the plates arrived, we realized we probably have ordered two instead of three… but I have no regrets. Each was between 6 and 9 euros, and a glass of house wine was only a euro.
I can’t resist buttery, garlicky escargots (caracoles or cargols here). These were plentiful and satisfying. The fideuá (thin noodles cooked in broth) with seafood was also good.
Our whirlwind adventure in Terra Alta was just enough to give us a taste and leave us wanting more. We’ll be back for Round 2 soon.
Photo credit: Flickr/ angela_llop