It’s been one year since I started travelling around Catalunya visiting vineyard locations. Some have heritage winery buildings. Some have hundreds of years of family history. Some have historic castles. Some have history dating back to the first millennia AD. Some have park areas protecting botanical heritage.
My trip to Castell Riudabella marked the first time one visit had all of that and more. And I mean ALL of that.
The Gil clan is a famous family in Catalunya. Taking a peak at the Spanish version of Wikipedia pretty much sums up an incredible family history. Pedro Gil Babot, the grand patriarch of the family, was a banker, politician, art collector, merchant, shipowner, and businessman. His banking business meant he was friends with Napolean III, the founder of the Catalan Society for gas lighting in Barcelona (now known as Endesa), owned mining companies in Catalunya and Aragon, established merchant/ship businesses in Tarragona and Barcelona (including the export of wines to Cuba), and controlled salt production in Catalunya. That is just for starters.
In 1841, as the Spanish Treasury owed considerable sums to Pedro Gil Babot, they ended up giving him numerous farms and properties confiscated during the Mendizabal business, which began in 1834, in lieu of monetary compensation. This included Castell Riudabella and the Poblet Monastery. Pedro Gil Babot’s son, also named Pedro, was entrusted with the protection of the 7 counts of Barcelona and the Kings of Aragon who were buried at the monastery. Pedro the younger then had them reinterred at the cathedral of Tarragona. In 1940, Pedro returned the Poblet Monastery to the Cistercian order, who refounded and reopened the monastery. He maintained ownership of Riudabella and passed it onto his sons to the current owner, Pedro Gil. This is a mere snippet of the incredible family history.
Castell Riudabella itself has a long and storied history, and the current Gil incarnation has maintained and improved upon the incredible legacy, which began in the 300s AD. Pedro has painstakingly restored the Roman pool in the location where its remnants were discovered, and has preserved the Roman era botannical elements present at the base of the castle, and above the Roman pool on the hillside opposite the castle. Pedro and his forefathers have found many Roman-era antiquities during various restorations and excavations including coins, pottery, tools and more.
Riudabella compound has several incarnations, leading to its current makeup. It has the remnants of Rome, followed by a castle built in the 1100s, lost to the Moors, who did some modifications to it, then reclaimed by Aragon after the Moors were vanquished. The king of Aragon bequeathed it to the Cistercian order who returned to Poblet. Riudabella became a retirement home for the monks at Poblet, and there were several buildings constructed for those retired monks, whose main activity was the production of wine.
These activities continued until it was abandoned after the conclusion of the Spanish Inquisition in 1834, and then turned over to the Gil family.
Today, the castle is one of the few in Spain which is still active, maintained, and lived in. Pedro Gil and his wife live in the castle full time, welcoming guests to their two apartment rentals, and guests who wish to use the grounds for weddings or corporate events. Their son, Pieter, has restarted the family winemaking tradition in earnest, with the production of two white wines and one red. Pieter spent considerable time studying in Washington State, and also France, prior to beginning commercial winemaking at Riudabella a few years ago.
Of course, wine was still being produced by Pedro, but not to the scale of his grandfathers. The castle still holds two of the largest oak barrels still in existence in Spain for fermentation/ageing at 66.000 litres, and they are intact. Most of these types of oak barrels or fermentation vats were either destroyed for firewood during the Spanish Civil War, or replaced with more efficient steel ones. The only other I’ve seen of this size resides at Cellers Scala Dei in Priorat. More original barrels used for winemaking in the 1800s are still present, some dating back to the family business of wine export to Cuba.
Seeing that Zoltan, who accompanied me on this trip, and I were ardent wine lovers, Pedro took us to the secret family ranci wine barrels. We sampled several barrels of varying ages, the most noteworthy one dating back to 1955, which had a top secret infusion of honey. It is one of the best ranci wines I have tasted in my life. I think Zoltan is still speechless.
The Gils do entertain guests, and guests who do stay have the option of having dinner/lunch/breakfast provided, and we were treated to a heavenly lunch of local vegetables, iberico ham, an incredible gazpacho lightly laced with homemade vinegar, amazing lamb cooked in a stone oven dating back the 1500s, and a divine molten chocolate cake. They are currently planning/discussing expansion of their hospitality into more rooms remodelled in the actual castle, and based on what I had, I cannot wait for them to enact their expansion plans.
What of the wine? Pieter Gil is a talented winemaker with a bright future ahead of him. His Autor de Vino is a red wine aged for 9 months in French oak, which not only had a slight oaken from ageing, but dare I say a hint of the Roman oak trees surrounding the castle. Berries, liquorice, and a creamy flavour make this one a nice illustration of the history of Riudabella. His two whites — Blanco Joven & Chardonnay Barrica — show his versatility. Chardonnay Barrica, as denoted in its name, is fermented in barrel, giving it volume yet smoothness without sacrificing its minerality, and highlighting its woody vanilla flavour. Blanco Joven is a white not aged at all, allowing the Chardonnay and Macabeo to showcase its pineapple, banana, and apple. Slightly chilled, this was dynamite on the upper terrace of the castle, looking out across the vineyards to Poblet monastery.
We spent an entire day at Castell Riudabella, and it still wasn’t enough. I’m a massive history buff, so the experience for me kept my adrenalin pumping all day. Seeing the original architecture, the restored architecture, a chapel constructed by Cistercian monks that still had the design elements made by those monks, amazing historical wine artefacts, let alone the Roman history, is an experience I will remember for a lifetime. The family museum, on the second floor and just off the grand dining hall, had works by Moya and other famous artists, plus a Gil historical artefacts which exceeds the best Perelada has to offer.
I can’t recommend Castell Riudabella enough – for the accommodations, the food, the wine, the location, the architecture, and the history. You’ll just have to see for yourself, and if you’re nice enough, maybe you too might get the opportunity to try the best ranci wine I’ve ever had.
Tim Brown (aka Timmer on social media) has been involved in marketing for over 20 years and a wine enthusiast since his first exposure to Duck Pond Winery in Newberg, Oregon, back in 1995. After coming to Europe in 2012, he made his home in Catalunya in 2013 and became enchanted with the wines and winemakers of the region. Now he shares his experiences so international visitors can enjoy the region’s wines, while continuing his work in the marketing world. Sommeliering and wine snobbery isn´t his thing, and he continues to learn more about wine from a Catalan perspective on a daily basis.