As the sole winery in Rueda devoted almost exclusively to aging Verdejo in barrel, Belondrade is capable of producing roughly 80,000 bottles per year of white Belondrade y Lurton which is sold in Spain at around €25.
Owner Didier Belondrade is, without a doubt, a great champion of white wines. When I visited him at his facilities in La Seca (Valladolid), located in the vast Castilian plateau, he blurted out: “White wines must be thrust into the limelight. The ones we have right now in Spain are incredible, but every time our politicians toast, they'd rather use red.”
Didier Belondrade likes to display vehement statements about wine and life in general. He also describes himself as a perfectionist, somewhat punctilious and almost compulsive. One need only visit his winery to notice the careful design of the labels and website, or learn about the painstaking efforts to look after his vineyards. Both the winery and the wines are an extension of his personality and his view of Rueda, a region in Castille-Leon whose fame (and great commercial success) has soared during the last few years.
Things however were quite different when he arrived in the region in the 90s. To start with, Verdejo was in the stages of recovery at the time, given that the area had been invaded by the likes of Palomino and to a lesser extent Viura after phylloxera. Nevertheless its potential was pretty clear since Riojans form Marqués de Riscal settled there in the 70s. But the style of Verdejo that prevailed was a young and fruity white wine, with fresh herbaceous aromas.
Didier, already a fan of Spain who owned a house in Seville’s Sierra Norte, first tasted Verdejo in 1993. The bottle sent by a friend seemed peculiar and quite different: “As I found finesse and elegance, I thought I could make something interesting with this grape. I liked that bitter touch, so on my way back to France I paid my first visit to Rueda”. The stony soils reminded him of the Rhône. Climate data showing wide temperature fluctuations between day and night during the ripening season were perfect to achieve good acidity levels. “It was a rather cheap area –recalls Didier– as nobody talked about white wines in Spain at that time.”
The first Belondrade y Lurton, a 1994, was released two years later and in 1998 Didier moved permanently to Spain. The project was initially shared with wife Brigitte Lurton who brought a name of Bordelais resonances to the label, but after the couple's divorce, Brigitte returned to France and Didier continued with the business by himself. Nevertheless, the name of the wine remained intact. In 2000, a winery was built in the town of La Seca around which the vast majority of Belondrade’s vineyards can be found.
From the start the idea of making a high quality barrel fermented Verdejo from privately owned vineyards was pretty clear. Prior to 2006, as much as 30 hectares spread over 19 different parcels within the town of La Seca were purchased or planted. Since 2012 onwards all of them are organically farmed.
Clay and stony soils with sandy areas can change considerably according to varying percentages of clay, offering thus quite different expressions of Verdejo. Terrains with a solid layer of clay found two metres deep are specially indicated to retain water in the driest vintages.
Both bush and trellised vines are hand harvested (in a region where mechanical harvesting is the norm in over 90% of the vineyard surface) and yields are kept below 5,000 kilos per hectare. This really makes a difference compared with the current whites from Rueda, most of them focused on price.
Since the very beginning, cold macerations were performed as well as barrel fermentations. Today, 300-litre French barrels are used in order to avoid an excess of oak in the wines and barrels are removed every four years. For specific plots that give less structured wines, Belondrade uses mixed barrels made with oak staves and softer acacia wood for the heads while maintaining the microoxygenation effect.
Plots are fermented and aged separately. A first tasting takes place in January in order to assess which wines will go into the Belondrade y Lurton top white. The remaining wines will be part of a second wine which also includes grapes from young vineyards that have fermented in stainless steel tanks. Quinta Apolonia, named after one of Didier’s daughters, is sold under the VT Castilla y León indication and makes for roughly 40,000 bottles. In July a second tasting is carried out in order to decide the final blend of Belondrade y Lurton, thus the wine spends a total of 10-12 months in barrel.
Together with the introduction of larger barrels, the most important change in Belondrade’s winemaking has to a do with Didier’s unambiguous bet for natural yeasts, which seems to come as a logic consequence of his philosophy: “I don’t want to make an oenologist's wine; I want to make a wine with a soul that reflects its terroir, its climate and its grape.”
Both Didier and winemaker Marta Baquerizo were terribly sincere and admitted significant discrepancies concerning yeasts. There was considerable reticence on Marta’s side as she couldn’t completely control fermentations. It must be taken into account that technology is key in Rueda's winemaking (machine harvesting, cold-controlled fermentations, and aromas very much influenced by yeasts that usually follow the current trends). Very few wineries look for an artisan work in this regard, even less if they are to produce 80,000 bottles of a single wine as is the case with Belondrade.
Nevertheless, the final assessment is quite positive. The wines haven’t experienced drastic changes. On the contrary, they look more precise and interference-free (the new approach to oak aging also plays a role here). On the other hand, the winemaking team has adapted to natural fermentations in such a way that doesn’t even consider the use of Belondrade’s own yeast which had been selected in the meantime in collaboration with the University of Valladolid. "Working with many yeasts brings diversity and allows a distinctive expression of each vintage," says Marta Baquerizo, who has fully embraced this approach now.
Belondrade also produces a rosé Tempranillo. Named after another of Didier’s daughters, Quinta Clarisa accounts for less than 10,000 bottles and is also sold under the VT Castilla y León indication.
The next generation is already present at Belondrade’s. Jean, Didier’s son, is in charge of exports markets where over 30% of the wines are sold. His main aim is to reach as many markets as possible and place Belondrade’s labels in their leading restaurants.
The 20th anniversary celebration was a perfect excuse to taste vintages dating back from 2001 to date except for 2007 (there weren’t enough bottles available). All wines were served from 3-litre double magnums which had been previously decanted.
Belondrade y Lurton 2012. It is the current vintage on the market. 2012 was a very dry year, as well as the previous ones, so drought was a great concern. First vintage ever without any malolatic at all and also first to ferment in the new barrel facilities, which helped ensure that yeasts where really coming from the vineyard.
Deep lemon. Nice intensity and well-defined fruit (fennel, white fruit, lemon peel), more creamy than smoked. A good, fleshy and balanced Verdejo with a saline touch that reflects minerality and terroir. Much less oak influence than usual at this point.
Belondrade y Lurton 2011. Somewhat warmer than 2012 even if it wasn’t as hot as that year. But September was specially warm with less temperature variation between night and day.
Deep lemon. Toasty and lactic notes, infusion herbs (fennel), fresh butter. Quite a good concentration here, although somewhat less full-bodied than 2012, with saline notes also present and long finish.
Belondrade y Lurton 2010. Grapes were harvested later than in 2011. Temperatures reached 40ºC during the day but went down to around 12ºC at night. From 2010 onwards all wines carried out natural fermentations.
Deep lemon. Dried grass (hay), candle wax, white fruit and citrus with a smoked note. Quite toasty (sunflower seeds), lightly warm, intense and powerful in the middle palate. It certainly reflects Belondrade’s style.
Belondrade y Lurton 2009. Another warm and dry vintage, the kind of which winemaker Marta Baquerizo states that develops with elegance.
Intense gold. The bottle has nicely done its work (infusion herbs, chamomile, balsamic notes and nutmeg) and the lees also speak quite clear (toasty notes, butterscotch, praline). Toasty, creamy and very unctuous on the palate. It reflects the vintage and the style of the wines prior to natural fermentations. Very consistent although not highly exciting.
Belondrade y Lurton 2008. High-quality vintage which achieved and almost perfect balance, as explained during the tasting.
Deep golden. A fresh herbaceous note followed by toasty nuances (smoked and butter), quite elegant. Oak gets most of the attention on the palate; there’s a deep balsamic note afterwards. For the first time there’s a bitter edge that prevails over minerality.
Belondrade y Lurton 2006. Deep gold. Very buttery on the nose, almost in a chardonnay-style, so the variety doesn’t show quite as well; elegant though. Intense and flavorful on the palate, slightly warm, but creamy and nicely structured. Oak stands out clearly but there’s a nice and distinctive salinity in the finish.
Belondrade y Lurton 2005. Deep gold. Lightly reduced for the first time. Lactic and toasty notes (praline), infusion herbs, well defined aromas. Nicely structured and mineral, it fills the palate but it’s well balanced; oak is less dominant. Balsamic notes on the finish. Lightly warmer than 2006, but really good.
Belondrade y Lurton 2004. Deep gold. A bit closed on the nose, but quite delicate and complex, with balsamic and toasty notes. Good structure, balanced and tasty, not spectacular but everything is in the right place. I think everybody would love to find this after uncorking a 10-year-old white.
Belondrade y Lurton 2003. Amber gold. Passed its time, but nobody expected to find a great wine from the very hot 2003 vintage.
Belondrade y Lurton 2002. Grapes ripened irregularly, so they had to be harvested at intervals to avoid rot. From this vintage onward, 300-litre barrels started to play an important role for oak aging.
Deep gold. Interesting nose (herbs, toasty nuances, a touch of syrup). The oak is very noticeable on the palate but acidity counterbalances its effects. Slightly bitter on the finish. About to start fading.
Belondrade y Lurton 2001. Amber gold. Dusty, slightly reduced, with lactic notes. Also with some bitterness on the palate that shows its age, orange marmalade on the finish.