We have been importing wines from Castell d’Encus since spring 2010 and we love them because they are delicious and refreshingly different. Earlier this year, Ben and I had the opportunity to visit Castell d’Encus for the first time and we both left with the impression that there is a lot more to come from this fascinating new project in Costers del Segre. Despite the winery’s recent creation, it has already received glowing reviews from Jancis Robinson and Spain’s Guia Peñin 2011, plus the Castell d’Encus “Thalarn” 2008 was named “best new discovery” in last year’s New Wave Spain awards competition. As we drove away from the winery that day it was clear to us that we had to share with the world what Raul is doing in this amazing, and isolated, part of the world.
DO Costers del Segre is scattered around the city of Lleida in NE Catalonia and is composed of a number of subzones. Castel d’Encus is situated in Pallars Jussà, the most northerly subzone located in the foothills of the Pyrenees and it is a beautiful, remote and wild area not far south of Andorra. Raul Bobet was first drawn to the area while working for Torres as Technical Director during a search for cool climate vineyards that could offer a buffer against a warming climate in the future. It was on one of these forays he came across Castell d’Encus and this extraordinarily bold, pioneering vineyard and winery project was set in motion.
Our group, drawn from all corners of the UK, boarded an Easyjet flight from Gatwick to Barcelona in the morning, some of the party bravely (strangely?!) sampling the Easyjet selection of vinous offerings. Warm. This was followed by a three hour drive to our destination at the winery, which is up vertiginous road on the side of a mountain 850m above sea level. On arrival, we were welcomed by Raul, stretched our legs and took in the stunning panorama below us, across the valley below to the town of Tremp and hills beyond, which were bathed in the late afternoon sun. Firstly, we had a quick tour of the recently built winery. It is a well designed and thought out, functional space with custom made touches and its simplicity, yet attention to detail, reflects the winemaking ethos. In many new wineries this would be the main attraction, however the site of Castell d’Encus has a rich history and was occupied by Hospitalier monks for several centuries.
As well as the remnants of old buildings that they lived in and a chapel, which has now been renovated, Raul discovered old fermentation vats of various sizes dating back to the XIIth century that the monks had carved into the bedrock. The monks left the site in the 1700’s and the gravity fed cisterns had gradually filled with debris and been buried during the intervening years. A number of these have now been reinstated and Raul and his team have used them on an experimental basis for making the red wines. The discovery of these ancient vats was serendipitous and not part of the original winemaking plan and there is enough capacity to ferment the majority of the estate red wines within them in future to help create something special and unique.
It had already been a long day for the group so we retired to Hotel Bertran, in the nearby town of Salàs de Pallars. Raul joined us later and we had a delicious meal of traditional Catalan cuisine accompanied by the current bottlings of the Castell d’Encus wines, Ekam 2010, Taleia 2009, Quest 2008 and a limited edition single varietal Cabernet Franc. This was preparation for the following day, when we were scheduled to visit the vineyards and taste the wines in their various stages of development in barrel and tank in order to gain an insight into why these wines offer such a different taste profile from how it is commonly assumed Spanish wine should taste.
We were in the vineyard early the following morning. The Pinot Noir and Riesling vineyards are located right at the top of the mountain, above the winery at an altitude of 1000m. The vines at Encus are more closely planted than the norm in Spain and Raul explained the rigorous approach to canopy management to ensure that the vines remained balanced despite their youth. Being so high, up to 1000 m, it is a marginal environment for growing vines. The positive side of this is that the resultant wines possess clear varietal and terroir expression, however the downside was amply demonstrated as Raul described how hail had laid waste to the previous two vintages. In addition to the hail, 2010 was also a particularly difficult and cool year, which was exacerbated as much of the foliage was stripped from the vines by the hail. 2011 has benefitted from an early start and at the time of our visit pre-veraison was looking very promising. We are all hoping that the rest of the season is hail free and the team at Castell d’Encus are finally rewarded for all their hard work with a bountiful harvest.
We moved down to the barrel cellar to taste the wines in tank and barrel. The Acusp Pinot Noir was being assembled for bottling so we had a preview of it, a wine of lovely finesse, though sadly none will be available for export this year. Starting on the barrels we tasted some fabulous Syrah, made in an elegant, expressive N Rhone style, with vibrant violet and pepper notes. This was followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc and we were all intriguing to see the difference in style between the batch fermented in stainless steel and the batch fermented in rock. The wine from the rock fermenters exhibits a rounder structure and greater depth of flavour, without the herbal streak evident in the tank fermented wines. Before lunch there was also time to try some of Raul’s experiments with Sauvignon and Albarino, while he explained his plans to add Malvasia and Garrut, a native Catalan red grape.
Castell d’Encus has already produced some great wines, but it is exciting to see that it is still very much a work in progress. Raul likened winemaking to cooking, though he only has one chance per year to make a dish. He is determined to create something great and unique with his remaining harvests. He has chosen a challenging location to make his vision reality, however the obvious risks potentially bring great rewards. This visit was a tantalising glimpse of what is only the beginning of this inspiring venture and we all thank Raul for giving his time and sharing his knowledge so freely.
For more information visit the Castell d'Encus web site www.encus.org and if you happen to speak Spanish and social media is your thing (and we hope it is as we love it too!) then do follow Castell d'Encus on Twitter.
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