Love Among the Rootstock: Castell d’Encus and the Art of the Backstory

I asked my buddy Elie for winemaker with a decent backstory, and he gave me Castell D’Encus and Mireia Taribó, who turns out to have a back-magnum opus, which is better than a backstory, better than a backrub, and lasts longer than either one.

Mireia Taribó

Mireia Taribó

Imagine a winemaker from Barcelona falling in love with the only Native American winemaker in the United States (who also happens to be a woman), flying to California to marry her, then getting stuck in a Twilight Zone of visa FUBARs and missing the next couple vintages in Spain.

That would be the introductory paragraph—the front-story grows from there.

I wedged myself in next to Mireia at a dinner she hosted at the hoary, venerable, stuffy old Birmingham Country Club, the precise kind of joint that Groucho wouldn’t join if they’d have him for a member.

Those of us from Detroit often manage to bounce between urban robberies to suburban snobberies with such dizzying frequency that it’s a wonder we don’t all have pneumonia from the climate change.

Anyway, Mireia was in town—when she should have been at Castell d’Encus schlepping grape crates—because of some ongoing difficulty with emigration, which I’d share in detail if I understood it.  Since she can’t be back in Catalan making wine, she is now the  Brand Ambassador for the estate owned by the remarkably eccentric Pyrenean enologist Raül Bobet.

Some words on Bobet before returning to the imposing, decaying majesty of the BCC:

Lagars

Lagars

Formerly the wine boss at Torres, Raül Bobet had a bucket list filled with passions, philosophies and personal perfectionism that he’d been exploring in a number of outside projects.  This includes Ferrer Bobet in the slat-filled soils of the Priorat, and a high-altitude experiment on a mountaintop above Tremp in the central Pyrenees.  There, on the grounds of an Eleventh Century monastery, he discovered outdoor, fully-exposed rock fermenters, essentially chambers gouged from living stone.  They are called ‘lagars’ and are cut primarily from silica, which is key because they do not change the pH of the grape must. Turns out that the fact that Bobet could ferment a portion of the harvest outside in rock only added to his obsession with ecology, his commitment for the natural and his penchant for the peculiar.

It figured prominently in his decision, in 2002, to purchase the estate.

There's cold in them that hills...

There’s cold in them that hills…

Castell D’Encus is in God’s country—literally.  His ninety-five acres of vineyards, planted in 2004,  are among the highest in Spain, at elevations averaging more than three thousand feet.  Bobet has a fascination with cool climate grapes, especially Riesling, which most growers in Spain wouldn’t even consider let alone focus upon.  Bobet’s respect for indigenous grapes is clear, but hardly overstated: He grows Albariño and Garnacha, but his main focus is on Riesling and Pinot Noir, with acres of Bordeaux grapes, white and red, and, surprisingly, Syrah.

Why I express surprise at the Syrah will be revealed directly, but meanwhile, the soils of Castell D’Encus are calcareous and clay-loam with low organic content, and beneath a continental climate, the vineyards enjoy extreme temperatures between day and night, which would generally result in shivery acids and ripe fruit.  Ideal Riesling conditions, in other words.

Raul Bobet and his fermenters

Raul Bobet and his fermenters

With the nose of chemist (Bobet is a UC Davis grad with a doctorate in enology) and the tongue of a poet, he claims, “I consider the triangle formed by the climate, soil and grape variety as a matrix that includes many other parameters we desire to discover; it has been the engine that has brought us where we are, in a sort of challenge, to fit the different variables that can go into the style of freshness that we seek in our wines , but with complexity and a stamp of personality.”—which is pretty much what every winemaker says, only in fewer words.

It means ‘We work with what we’ve got, but we make what we’ve got into what it is.’

Mireia Taribó came into the picture at Castell D’Encus in 2008, fresh from Escola Mercè Rossell i Domènech where she’d earned her Master’s degree in viticulture and enology.   She took full responsibility for at least two vintages as Dr. Bobet had his logs in many fires, including work for a biotech company; she’d completed apprenticeships at J. Lohr in Paso Robles and Raïmat in Lleida, but she had not worked at ground level (pun intended) with vines so young.  These, she learned, require the dedication of a wet nurse:

“When they are young, vines grow like children—they need constant attention.”

As a result, she found that 90% of her time as a winemaker was spent in the vineyards, employing the various Bobet-learned techniques for plant density, pruning, foliage management and the thousand incidentals that combine with terroir to accentuate the positives in  Castell D’Encus’ wine.

kitaHer life changed trajectory when she met Tara Gomez at J. Lohr, although she didn’t know it yet.  Gomez is now at Kitá, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians—the tribe to which she belongs.  By all accounts, beside being the only Native American winemaker of any gender, she’s a phenomenal one:  In January of this year, she took home two Double Gold medals at the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition: 2012 Pinot Noir, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Camp 4 Vineyard.  Not only did Kitá not have a national profile before this, 2012 was the first vintage the tribe even produced wine.  I can imagine the synergy these two might tap into should they decide to work on a wine project together: All’s fair in love and enology.

Thank God I’m a Country Club

Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, amid the undulating greenness of the greens and the blustery blueness of the blood, Mireia Taribó poured a number of wines, which I will pepper with accompanying notes.

taleia2013 Taleia ($21): This is a traditional Bordelaise blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, but would not be mistaken for one.  The wine is fat, but sharp on the palate, imbued with cold-climate acids that probably could use another year to settle in.  But that’s fine: The wine has sufficient structure to gain complexity over that span.  Light stone fruit notes interplay with leesy richness and a mineral backbone.

2012 Ekam ($26) : Groundbreaking wine, no doubt.  It is clearly Riesling, with Mosel-like clarity and an undertow of citrus, lemon especially, and nascent notes that are often described as ‘petrol’, but the wine does not show a lot of depth of complexity yet, which I would attribute to the relative youth of the vines.  Riesling is one of those grapes that improves immeasurably as the plant itself matures.

acusp2012 Acusp ($38):  A cool climate and well-drained soil are table stakes for good Pinot Noir, after which, proper canopy management and cellar technique separate the good from the great.  Acusp is a beautiful Pinot, very fragrant with a nose of wild raspberry and red cherry, moderately rich and quite tart.  There is barrel spice and vanilla in the background, but the crisp red fruit notes dominate.  A wine I’d like to try again in a decade, then try one from vines that have had that additional decade to evolve.

2012 Quest ($32) :   Cool climate Cabernet resonates a bit differently; this one showcases some of a red fruits that a typical Bordeaux blend might display as blacker and sweeter.  This wine displays pomegranate and cherry on the nose, backed by a palate filled with white pepper and perhaps some cola, tea leaves and menthol.  It is a vibrant and expressive wine with a fine tannic structure.

2011 Thalarn ($33):  This was the wonder wine in my book—a book that suggests that Syrah will not truly speak its mind at this elevation.  Even the relatively cool, mistral-influenced vineyards of Côte-Rôtie sit, for the most part, at under a thousand feet—these vines are three times that.  And the wine has a distinct amount of meat on the bones, with near soulful density to the fruit; the wine shows dark cassis, bright acid, rich and silken tannins.

weddingThalarn would have stolen the show if it wasn’t for witty, charming, self-confident and fascinating Mireia Taribó, who, in the dusty, stuffy confines of the Birmingham Country Club finds herself equidistant from her two loves, Catalunya and Tara Gomez, but manages to pull off the

I’m probably a bit of a prick for secretly hoping that the visa snafu draggles out for a while longer, because I’d love to see her stick around long enough to play with some Santa Ynez fruit.

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One Response to Love Among the Rootstock: Castell d’Encus and the Art of the Backstory

  1. Aaron says:

    I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting Tara Gomez at a local tasting here in LA. Kita wine is, indeed, quite good and wonderfully not excessively priced 🙂 And she’s a wonderful person.

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