After showing his winemaking talent at Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, Juan Antonio Ponce could have sought fame working for a renowned producer in a well-known area. Instead he chose to return back to Iniesta, his hometown in Cuenca (Castilla La Mancha), and try his luck with Bobal, arguably one of Spain’s most difficult red varieties to work with.
He has earned a reputation as a weird guy in DO Manchuela, an area where bulk wines are standard and quantity usually stands above quality with large operators and cooperatives controlling the business.
The family’s wine growing tradition dates back to Juan Antonio’s great-grandfather, although his father never made wine–he used to sell the grapes to the local cooperative. “Vinegrowers don’t make wine here,” Ponce says. “The area is full of prejudices, people lack self-confidence. I am positive that varieties like Albilla and Moravia Agria are not widespread because it wasn’t easy to make money out of them,” he adds.
Juan Antonio has fought against this situation with unique wines sold at unbeatable prices. “I want my wines to be bought by any ordinary person. We must be able to reach consumers in a straight-forward manner otherwise beer will cannibalize our markets.”
Working for Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez allowed Ponce to make wines in regions like Rioja, Toro, Toledo, Gredos, Alicante or Ronda. “Such an experience cannot be learnt from books,” says Juan Antonio, who expresses gratitude and talks highly of Pablo Eguzkiza, Telmo’s partner and the man in charge of the day-to-day management and winemaking side of the business. He thinks of his time there as a major stepping stone and an inspiration for his wines after studying viticulture at the School of Viticulture and Enology in Requena.
Ponce tried to replicate in Manchuela the “cosecheros” model in Rioja Alavesa, the vignerons who proudly make young, Beaujolais-style reds from their own grapes. In 2004 he conducted a test to find out what kind of wine could come from the family vines. “It was a pretty good young red,” he recalls, so he talked his father into setting up a small company to make their own wine. Convinced that they had “little to lose”, they started with the 2005 vintage with just 11 barrels and a €60,000 loan. Juan Antonio was still 23 at the time.
Nowadays, the family owns 17 hectares of vineyards although they work with up to 40 hectares. They have signed several 10-year leases to avoid the uprooting of old vines, a trend which unfortunately has been rather too common in the area. They are also working hard to preserve local varieties and are grafting Tempranillo and Syrah with Monastrell and Albilla.
For the first “official” experiment with Bobal in 2005 they used 300-litre barrels, although the following vintage they tried the Burgundy format (228 litres) which resulted in harsher tannins. Despite the general trend at the time towards big, powerful reds, Ponce rapidly shifted to 600-litre oak casks. “We don’t need to enhance tannins; we search to soften them up,” he explains.
Juan Antonio describes Manchuela as “a plateau within the plateau”. In his view, the climate is more Mediterranean than in other provinces of Castilla-La Mancha like Toledo or Ciudad Real. In fact, he finds more common elements with neighbouring Utiel-Requena in Valencia even if Bobal from Manchuela usually has higher acidity, deeper colour and lower planting densities than the standard in Valencia. “Yields per vine are higher so we can lighten up the wines. We have enough concentration here”, he says.
The Ponces know their terroir well. With plots no larger than 2.5 hectares, all of their vineyards are handled separately. The entry-level red Clos Lojen (28,000 bottles, €7) is actually a blend of eight early-ripening plots planted on clay-limestone soils. All of them are fermented, pressed (“a very important step in terms of tannins,” says Juan Antonio) and aged separately.
Freshness is another key issue with Bobal. In fact, Ponce usually picks grapes
10 days earlier than the average in the area to avoid an excess of ripeness and jammy notes. Winemaking facilities, which originally housed a processing plant for mushrooms, benefit from a cold chamber where grapes are cooled down for 24 hours, which means they can do without the standard cooling equipment. After a short maceration of around 7-8 days, wines go directly to barrels where they undergo malolactic fermentation. If tannins are harsh, thick lees are not removed in order to obtain creaminess and offset Bobal’s robust character.
PF (10,000 bottles, around €15 in Spain), which stands for pie franco (ungrafted) is Ponce’s best known Bobal. Sourced from a deep, sandy, phylloxera-free plot, it is a full-bodied red, but showing balance and consistency with lots of black fruit and aromatic herbs.
It is a step above La Casilla (around €12 in Spain, 12,000 bottles), which was originally sourced from two vineyards with distinctive limestone soils located very close to PF. Since the 2007 vintage grapes from a third clay-soil plot were used in the blend in order to tame the powerful character of the limestone soils. On the nose it is scented and evocative (ripe plums, rosemary), with notes of the surrounding Mediterranean scrub, but the palate features Bobal’s distinctive power.
The two top single-vineyard reds, La Casilla Estrecha and Pino (both of them around €21 in Spain), are full of character and will notably benefit from some further bottle aging. Both of them are released later than the rest of the range.
What started as a small project has turned into a respectable business which produces 100,000 bottles and sells 80% of its wines overseas.
“We want to make clean, simple, direct wines with no make-up on them”, says Juan Antonio. “We are humble family of vignerons who have managed to make our own wines and shy away from any kind of imposture.”
The region’s high altitude and good aeration makes organic growing relatively easy. Powdered sulfur has not been used in their vines since 2007 and copper has also been discarded. Ploughing is done just once a year and they study the wild herbs that grow in their vineyards in order to identify gaps or assess the balance of the vineyard.
The Ponces do not only master the Bobal grape; their respectful approach to both vineyards and winemaking are translating into great results. The latest addition to their range is Las Cañadas, a rosé “with no expiration date”, as Juan Antonio likes to put it. This is the personal project of Javier, Juan Antonio’s younger brother, whose name appears on the label. Using traditional techniques that are making a comeback in Spain like direct pressing or blending with white grapes, the wine displays original notes of blood orange and herbs followed by an unctuous, saline palate with fine bitterness on the end.
In terms of other red grapes, Ponce also produces the single-varietal Monastrell Depaula (23,000 bottles, €7) named after his daughter, who was born in 2013. It comes from very old vineyards grown at 900m of altitude in the village of Casa Las Monjas in Albacete. It was initially released under the Jumilla appellation but now comes under the VT Castilla umbrella. In the 2015 vintage up to 25% whole bunches were included for the first time resulting in a fresh, herbal red with sweet fruit and tomato jam flavours backed up by some pleasant bitterness on the finish.
Prices are extremely reasonable –it is uncommon to find such distinctive wines for €7 to €12 in Spain but Juan Antonio was set in creating brands that were capable of “providing sufficient financial injection to buy wooden vats and improve facilities”. He feels fortunate that all of his entry-level wines were sold out by August.
Two rarities which will surely delight wine nerds deserve a special chapter within the family’s wide range.
Registered since the 1940s at El Encín’s, Spain’s most comprehensive wine grape collection, Albilla is a white variety that has nothing to do with other Albillos grown in the peninsula or the Canary Islands. Vineyards are very much concentrated in the village of Villamalea (Cuenca) where they were apparently brought by a vet between the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. As these grapes are picked as early as mid-August, many winegrowers in the area planted cuttings in order to have an early income while they waited for Bobal’s full ripening in September.
Juan Antonio’s wine is called Reto (literally “challenge” in English) to highlight the difficulties of making a high quality white in such a warm area. Grapes are sourced from different plots grown on granitic, limestone and boulder-covered soils. After pressing the whole bunches, each plot goes to the exact barrel where it fermented and aged during the previous vintage and the wine remains there with its thick lees until February. Reto delivers a captivating minerality, amazing acidity and herbaceous notes –it really needs time to develop and gain complexity. In 2015 11,000 bottles were produced at the amazing prize of €12.
Moravia Agria accounts for 85% of the blend in Buena Pinta (7,000 bottles, €12) with the rest being Garnacha. Moravia is a long-cycle grape mainly found in the DO Manchuela. According to Ponce’s records, it is a thin-skinned, highly sensitive variety that seldom goes above 12% vol. —almost like Galician red grapes. The 2015 vintage shows floral and cherry aromas which evolve towards infusion herbs (chamomile, rooibos). With high acidity and a definitely more vegetal than earthy edge, it has a natural rusticity.
A lot of thought goes into each of the wines, from the rare and incredible Albilla to the most tannic Bobal reds. But the most surprising thing is Juan Antonio Ponce’s ability to put together such a complete range of wines in a relatively short time and without venturing too far from his hometown. Definitely, we need many more guys like him in Castilla-La Mancha.