Doing the same old thing simply isn’t in the cards for the Belondrade family, who make wines in Rueda that will buckle your knees and send your mind swirling with romantic thoughts. Think they’re your typical Spanish producer? Wrong: They’re French, but know a good thing when they see it, which is what brought them to Rueda and the Verdejo grape 21 years ago.
With their French sensibilities and knowledge, the Belondrade family is a shining example of what’s possible both now and in the future for the Rueda region. And Jean Belondrade, who at just 25 serves as the family’s export manager and also voice-of-a-new-generation, says that they’ve only just begun to tell their story.
Here’s what Jean had to say about Belondrade’s wines, his experience, and why he’d pair his music with The Roots.
If you had to tell the story of Belondrade winery in a tweet (140 characters), what would it be?
“A real story is too big to be told in 140 characters…@Belondradevinos is no exception #sorryaboutthat”
What sets Belondrade apart in your mind?
Asking this question regarding a personal or familiar project can’t result in an objective answer. It’s like asking a grandmother about her grandson — she’ll say hers is the best! I grew up with this project, and it’s the reason why I will not be much more objective. But to answer the question, Belondrade for me is the balance between nature and man’s work. It’s the encounter between modernity and tradition, simplicity meeting detail.
We have an approach to wine which might seem complex, but is truly authentic to our terroir. We really try to take the personality and the characteristics out of our environment and translate it in the most direct way possible into our wines.
Our wines comes entirely from our own vineyard, which is organic certified. Each one of our plots is harvested separately and by hand at their optimum ripeness. Once in the winery, there is a second selection to make sure that all the grapes involved in our vinifications are in perfect shape. Once crushed and macerated, the fermentation occurs in a totally spontaneous way, which means that we do not use commercial yeasts.
This is my dream job! And looking around me, I consider myself the luckiest man on Earth.
To make it simple, we try to be as fair as possible interpreting the score of the vintage and the terroir in our wines!
Was there ever a question that your career would be in wine? What would the alternates be?
I have to say that my parents were always very fair regarding that matter, as they always let their children do what they thought was right for themselves.
As an example, my two sisters work in two totally different fields that have nothing to deal with wine. I think they just wanted us to be happy and responsible since the beginning. I believe now they are happy and proud to see that I want to carry on with the project, bringing new ideas and new energy, but this wasn’t written.
This is my dream job! And looking around me, I consider myself the luckiest man on earth. Taking into account the current situation in Spain, where the youth unemployment rate is still very high — one of the highest in Europe — a lot of people from my generation have to accept jobs they do not want, with endless shifts, minuscule wages and no professional future.
Speaking of Spain, how was your transition from France to Spain at a young age?
I was 11 when I moved to Spain — in 2001. It is the age at which learning a new language and taking in a new culture is still pretty easy. Obviously, it’s always tricky, changing schools, friends, environments and neighborhoods — and when you extrapolate that to a whole new country, even more! However, I have to say it’s by far the best decision I ever made. Discovering and growing in another culture opens your mind.
What’s one thing about Rueda you’d want someone not familiar with the area or its wines to know?
Whenever people think about Spain, beautiful and sunny beaches is the image that usually comes to mind. Here it is almost the opposite.
There are three things about Rueda that would surprise even the most experienced wine “connoisseurs.”
The first one would be the weather. Whenever people think about Spain, beautiful and sunny beaches is the image that usually comes to mind. Here it is almost the opposite. We are 2,500 feet above sea level and the weather is really extreme! The winters are cold and windy, but the summers are like hell. Temperatures often reaches 40 celsius (~105 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and below 15 (~59 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. But, that is the key to reach perfect ripeness with good acidities in white wines. The weather here is very dry with few rainfalls along the year. After almost 14 years here, it still surprises me.
The second point would be the soils. We’re very close to the Duero river and you can notice that. It’s amazing.You find mostly find sandy soils, clay, and lots of pebbles on the first layers. In Spanish, it’s called “canto rodado” or “cascajo” – when you see these big rocks in the vineyards, you ask: ‘Where am I?’ If you send a picture to any expert, he/she will certainly say ‘Rhone Valley?’
The third and last one would be the colors — the skies here are amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I travel the world for my job, and I’ve never seen skies like there are here. From red to yellow to blue, when you see the vines with the land and the sky — it’s incredible. I still admire it and will keep doing so, that’s for sure!
As a winemaker, what’s the balance between the intense, sometimes scientific, process of winemaking while also keeping the romantic side of it?
It’s a tricky question. I’m still a wine consumer even though I’m in the industry, and it’s so deeply rooted in the culture here in Spain and Europe. Why are people always doing tastings and exploring wine? Because there’s something magical, always changing and evolving.
I love beer, but you will recognize that it is probably easier to be surprised by wine (for the good or bad!). Usually, when you order a beer, you know what to expect. Ordering a glass of wine is undiscovered land, you never know what it will be like. And all of the variables come in to play — the people you’re with, the setting. It’s indescribable, it’s romantic, it’s philosophical, and that’s what people are attracted by.
On the scientific part of the coin, I would say that unfortunately, in the last few years the scores of critics had a huge (and negative) influence on wine production. Most of winemakers live on the tightrope, because they need to sell their wines — that’s the final objective of any winemaker. In order to do that, they need to get good scores, and it’s the reason why they often leave their personality and taste on the side. And by doing so, you are also giving up on what wine really is, uniqueness, individuality and identity.
If you are going that way, forget making wine and start thinking about making soda. It’s easier and cheaper to produce, that’s for sure!
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about one of your wines?
I really enjoy looking at people’s reactions. When you see their eyes changing, opening wide or just a smile coming across their face, it might be the best and most honest compliment you can get.
White wines offer a range of aromas and texture that you probably don’t find in reds.
Talking about words, there’s this compliment I’ve heard a lot of times — “I’m a red wine drinker, but I’m in love with Belondrade.”
Here in Spain, we used to have this terrible sentence (which is slowly disappearing): “El mejor blanco es un mal tinto” — which translates to “the best white is a bad red.” In France, people know there are great white wines, whites that can age almost as long as reds — same in Italy. Here in Spain, things have changed, but most people tend to think white is for women or just for chatting. White wines offer a range of aromas and texture that you probably don’t find in reds. With the years, I became more a white drinker than a red drinker, as they give me more of a reason to be surprised.
Can you share a winery or winemaker in Ribera del Duero that you think has an incredible story or is doing amazing work?
There’s this guy called Bertrand Sourdais — he came over to Spain in the early 2000s and started a project by the name of Dominio de Autauta. He finally left the project and decided to start something much more personal. He’s doing a wine called El Antidoto. Talk about an example of perseverance, personality — if you taste these wines, it’s something unique and totally different than what you could expect from “traditional” Ribera.
Finish this sentence: My key to happiness is …
Something tangible would be family and friends. It’s the most important thing in the world. You can have the best job in the world and make millions of dollars, but if you have nobody to share it with, it’s nonsense.
Something intangible, I’d say ambition — setting goals you can achieve: Learn a new language, discover new places, change your habits. If you’re ambitious and set goals you can achieve, that will only bring you pride and happiness: ‘Wow I didn’t know it was possible that I could do that!’ Be ambitious.
If you weren’t working in wine, what be your alternate dream job?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a pilot. Like any other kid, you see the pilot and you think he’s doing something more than a job. They’re always dressed up, surrounded by stewardesses. But nature has something special that nothing else can offer, and I am deeply rooted to that. Instability (weather conditions, diseases…), means extra effort over the course of time, but hey, that’s life! So if I wasn’t working at Belondrade, I’d like to be working in anything related to agriculture, in a nice outdoor environment.
Good wine and good music pair perfectly. What’s your favorite songs/albums/artists to pair with your wine(s)?
I have such an eclectic taste in music. This morning I woke up listening to The Roots, and then I’m on to Glenn Miller. A few weeks ago, I had some friends over and we just sat in my living room, opened a nice wine and we were listening to some nice Spanish guitar (Paco de Lucia), then we put on Chuck Berry. As a kid, I was very influenced by American music!
To answer to the question, I would say that pairings (for music as for food) are something very subjective. But if you are asking about my personal taste, Nina Simone, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, The Roots — artists who are unique and take risks.
If you compared your wines to a famous person – an actor, a writer, a politician, etc. – who would it be and why?
I can’t pinpoint a person, but someone defending something that’s not accepted yet. I’m not a science freak, but if you look at someone like Galileo — believe me, I’m not comparing what we do to Galileo — but he died because he was defending an idea that wasn’t accepted. And that’s it, defending something you are convinced by, even if people think you are crazy or wrong.