Before we finally arrived at Castell d’Encus in mid-afternoon on the 22nd of May 2015, we missed a turn somewhere around Tarragona and had to double back, necessitating anxious moments and criminal driving. The winery looked to be only a short detour off of our chosen route from Barcelona to Bilbao; I’m sure the Països Catalans use a great many idiomatic expressions, but apparently “as the crow flies” isn’t among them.
Castell d’Encus sits over 1000 meters high in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenèes, and sunshine flooded the valley below us when we looked south towards the 9th Century village of Tremp. We knew a little about the property, having tasted some of the wines and seen online photos of the “lagars” (stone fermentation vats carved by hand into the rocky hillsides), but we were unprepared for the majesty of the site and the history living in its craggy corners. Somehow I’d got it in my head that the lagars were about 300 years old; I don’t know how, maybe it just seemed logical to my American brain. In our modern wine world, even very old places and things aren’t usually much older than that.
I was wrong. Raül Bobet chose the site in 2001 chiefly because he believes its altitude and forest cover will help protect his fruit as our world warms, but also because the lagars provided propitious evidence of ancient winemaking. Ancient, indeed: the oldest of them is believed to be about 900 years old, the youngest about 750 or so. Most likely they were excavated by slaves in thrall to the Knights Hospitalier, whose monastery atop the peak was ceded them in 1151 by the nearby Counts of Arnau Miro & Aurea; the warrior-monks remained on the property until at least 1752, outlasting the Knights Templar by a good four centuries. Insert conspiracy theory here.
That all of his wines undergo at least partial primary fermentation in what are essentially holes in the ground is quite a story, although Mr. Bobet (like every thoughtful winegrower) will rightfully tell you that viticulture remains his top priority. Winegrowers in the Costers del Segre DO can choose from abundant varieties, both local and international; Castell d’Encus has parcels planted to sauvignon, semillon, riesling, cabernet, pinot noir and syrah (among others), positioned below and above the winery for controlled exposure by variety. The winery is sleek and minimal, starkly contrasted against the medieval lagars. As simply delicious as the wines are, you will find a tension flowing through them, like the sound of an underground stream, derived from the collision of ancient and modern. This is the magic of Castell d’Encus.