Family businesses tend to be a point of pride. Usually children take over their parents’ — or in some cases, their grandparents’ — venture with the notion of carrying on the family’s legacy and tradition. Maybe you’re involved in one yourself and have that sense of familial pride that goes hand-in-hand with it.
When it comes to Bodegas Balbas, there’s quite a bit of legacy and tradition to lug around, as it’s been in operation since 1777. Yes, you read that correctly: They’ve been making wine in Spain since the year after the Declaration of Independence was signed in the United States.
So, with nearly 250 years of winemaking and business as their calling card, including being a founding member of the Ribera del Duero denominacion, how does the Balbas family keep on keeping on, both professionally and personally? We spoke with owner Juan Jose Balbas, who along with his wife Clara de la Fuente and their daughters Patricia, Maria and Berta, are the latest generation to make the Balbas ancestors proud with their work.
Your winery was founded in 1777. Does that legacy add extra motivation for you to produce the best product possible, and has it brought the family closer personally when you’re not working?
Such a long tradition always gives you a different perspective when it comes to beginning new projects in this exciting world. But maybe what’s most important of all, is to be able to transmit a feeling that can only be understood when your parents and grandparents have transmitted it to you, in the same way that it was passed on to them. I have learned a lot from my family. From my father I learned a masterful lesson: “Wine is born from grapes and grapes are born from a vine. Take care of the vine; it’s the mother of everything.” The making of a great wine begins not in the cellar or in the techniques applied, or with its barrels, but in the fields, in the vine, feeling it and understanding it. This is so simple and yet so complicated to learn at the same time. My grandfather was always more quiet and subtle about this, but he was a magnificent teacher, regardless. He told me: “Juanjo, when you make wine, remember that rush is always a bad advisor. Give winemaking its time and I’m sure it’ll pay off.”
From my father I learned a masterful lesson: “Wine is born from grapes and grapes are born from a vine. Take care of the vine; it’s the mother of everything.”
With the passage of time you realize the meaning of everything and learn a great lesson, as it becomes clearer that the secret of making a great wine has not changed in recent centuries: “Love the vine, take care of it, make your wine with no rush and let the wine grow because it is alive, it’s there.” This is my philosophy, the one that I pass along to my family and the one that is getting my daughters to love this exciting world, so they also get, in the future, to contribute their bit to this legacy.
As one of the founders of the Ribera del Duero denomination, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of the region and its perception since the 1980s?
The world of viticulture has evolved a lot in the region since 1980. At that time, the excitement was the main motivator, the desire to innovate and do new things. As time passed, large companies have arrived and strong investments have brought professionalism and a modern approach. We have achieved that our wines be positioned in the menus of the best restaurants, that we are recognized as one of the most prominent, prestigious and attractive production areas. Maybe we have lost that nice initial innocence, but I think the final result has been very positive.
You list 10 different vineyards on your website, with specific details on each. When making your wines, how do you approach blending the grapes from different vineyards? What is the process like?
Bodegas Balbas owns 10 different vineyards that produce grapes with subtle differences and nuances. Our philosophy is that the essence of a wine comes from the grape. It is the grape that makes a wine and provides it the necessary nuances, and I say nuances because I think the difference between wines are barely nuances. Nuances that help you to be exceptional. With this philosophy, we have developed a vineyard cultivation system distributed by zones or plots, looking for the peculiarities of each vineyard. For example, we have vineyards that provide a great amount of tannins, others that have an early maturation and others that have a late ripening, etc…
We play with these peculiarities when making our coupages, which in certain wines are made at the time of harvest, or in others in which once the wine is made, the coupage is made depending on the type of wine. For example, in our Reservas, we use a blend of 10% of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety with 90% of the Tempranillo variety. We try to obtain the Cabernet Sauvignon from the most suitable area with a marked character, that for us is the Pago La Malata vineyard, and we obtain the Tempranillo variety in the Carreportillo vineyard, that has sandy loam soil, which gives us a more persistent wine in character, long-lasting.
With upland cultivation we get more structured and fleshy wines. La Malata vineyard is located at 940 meters of altitude. It was a risky bet, but as time passed we have verified that when the vine is subjected to extreme situations it responds with kindness.
You also mention that through some “Daring innovation” there will be “New products brimming with personality will soon be released.” Can you give any detail on those processes and products or the risks you’d like to take in the future?
One of the guidelines that are followed by Bodegas Balbas is to combine tradition and history with a modern approach. Technology gives us the necessary tools to develop ideas. Ideas show our personality. Fortunately, I think that the wine consumer is changing, it’s not someone with a fixed mindset, it’s rather a restless person, eager to grow and mature. At Bodegas Balbas, we are very clear about this concept, which has led us to prepare new wines, which will soon be released, with a more innovative cut.
I consider that when a bottle is opened, the fruit must be forthright and the oak only a complement. Wine has personality and soul, the essence that gives it its terroir taste, we should not hide it. We have looked for powerful wines in which the fruit stands out, in which the oak is the accompaniment. We are going to present wines in which their raison d’etre is to be drunk and enjoyed. We have thought of a wine that when someone has a glass, thinks about having a second; in short, a wine for the people.
Ribera del Duero evolves quickly and is good, but as a winemaker I firmly believe that our challenge, for the next few years, is to bring wine closer to young people who are our future, to make it known. As winemakers and oenologists, we must row together in that direction.