Wines From A Once Forsaken Land: Bodegas Ponce

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Red wine has undergone a revolution of late. It used to be that the only red wines people wanted to drink were those with substantial fruit, heft, and tannins. This was in no small part due to the popularization of the Robert Parker point system, where heavily oaked wines were rewarded with 100 point scores and Napa Cabernet became a benchmark of what made a quality wine. Now, the shift back towards old fashioned methods of making wines that emphasize freshness and drinkability is starting to gain traction once again. So, this week, we bring you wines from a vintner that embraces the old ways. These are the wines of Bodegas Ponce.

Words are a funny thing, especially when making the transition from one language to another. In the English language, the term "ponce" has long been seen at best unfortunate, and at its most truthful, derogatory, but in the heart of a once forgotten land, one winemaker is bringing new meaning to his surname with the revitalization of old vineyards and old varietals. Bodegas Ponce, the eponymous creation of Juan Antonio Ponce, is located in the heart of the Manchuela DO, and in the small town of Iniesta, his cultivation of Bobal alongside other even more obscure native varietals like Albilla and Moravia Agria, is making wine critics take a longer look at the small DO just 262 kilometers southeast of Madrid.

Bobal is often relegated to being the other Spanish grape. For one, it hasn't been grown internationally, instead almost exclusively grown in the Utiel-Requena and Manchuela DOs in southeast Spain, nor does it have the acclaim of the tempranillos of La Rioja or Ribera Del Duero.  But like its more prominent kin, it was most often found as a deeply extracted red, with chewy fruit and big tannins, and often conditioned in American oak as the Spanish wine world tried to compete with the American wine market.  

 Manchuela had once been an epicenter of agricultural production, especially saffron, but much of the population migrated to the cities in the midst of the 20th century, leaving these once large production vineyards on their own in the Spanish wilderness.  Here, the Bobal vines are free standing, in gnarled goblet trellises that stick out amongst the more manicured vineyards of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot that are used for the bulk wine market.  

The average elevation of vineyards here is about 2,500 feat above sea level, which helps mitigate the classic heat of the Spanish wine growing region, that, coupled with near constant breezes from the Mediterranean to the east, allow for dramatic temperature swings between night and day, allowing Bobal and the other varietals to preserve their natural acidity, and the combined elements of heat and wind prevent rot and other invasive pests from being a large problem.

The clay tipped limestone soils are also adept at water-retention, and with only 330 millimeters of rainfall on an average year, that makes all the difference for Bobal to thrive.  

 Juan Antonio Ponce opening one of his stellar wines, the white "Reto".

Juan Antonio Ponce opening one of his stellar wines, the white "Reto".

Juan Antonio Ponce has had wine growers in his family dating all the way back to his great grandfather, but he got his start working for Cía de Vinos Telmo Rodríguez, working with vines from the likes of Toro and Rioja. But he fell in love with the traditional methods of the Rioja Alavesa, what's locally known as “cosecheros”. The old method ascribed to a modified version of carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation. Picked young grapes were dumped into an open wooden or cement tank, called a ‘lagar’. Fermentation began inside the grapes themselves until the pressure caused the skins to break, releasing the juice.  Once fermentation stopped, the juice, stems, pips and skins were trodden with the workers’ feet, the wine was filtered and bottled. 

 Vineyards in Manchuela.

Vineyards in Manchuela.

 

So when he moved back to Iniesta, his hometown, Ponce set about making a wine in that method with Bobal. He was impressed enough with the results that at 23, he convinced his father to go in with him on their own wine-making business, and so Bodegas Ponce began in 2005 with just 11 barrels, and has grown from there.

We're thrilled to have four of their wines in stock this week, two with his classic training of Bobal, and two distinct wines that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere outside of Manchuela.  

Reto or "challenge' was the first white wine that Ponce has made. It contains Albilla, a native white varietal sourced from vineyards planted in 1965.  This is a stunning example of a full-bodied white with heft and structure, enough to consider that it has great aging potential.  The wine is made with great attention to organic practices, and is vertically pressed before fermenting and maturing in old 600 liter oak barrels.  Jancis Robinson fell in love with this wine when she had the opportunity to try it some years back, and had this to say:

 It has real structure and potential and I loved its honey and apple-skin aromas. The Sampler's own tasting notes mentioned 'waxy preserved lemons'. Certainly this is one of those full-bodied whites with great tension and not an ounce of flab. In fact, it's so nervy I could imagine enjoying it without food, even though it should stand up to quite a lot of competition on a plate. The alcohol level is a robust 14.5% but it is not heavy. The bottle looks good too - very simple, classy design.It is just one of an army of dry whites that is posing an ever greater challenge to white burgundy.

 

It should be said that Jancis Robinson doesn't give out profuse praise when its's not deserved, so it's no small thing that she spoke so highly of the first white wine made by this young winemaker.

 The gnarled Bobal vines of Bodegas Ponce.

The gnarled Bobal vines of Bodegas Ponce.

 

Clos Lojen is a good entry point into Ponce's red wines, selected from six small parcels of the local variety Bobal: Abuleo,Señorita, Cerro, Lujan, Embudo y Almendros. This biodynamic wine is produced from traditional bush vines that are between 30-50 years old and soils of mainly chalky clay. Vines are grown at 800 metres above sea level, producing fresh, balanced juice from slow maturing grapes with fantastic acidity. There is no fining or filtering on this bottle, and it sees 8 months maturation in old French oak before another 7 months of bottle aging.  The result is a wine that boasts a sweet, ripe nose with warm, plummy dark cherry and blackberry fruit, and a hint of baked cherry pie. The palate is ripe and sweet but with a pronounced savoury, structured edge. Clos Lojen is dense, mouth-filling and spicy with some drying tannins.

La Casilla is a step up from the Clos Lojen, with the Bobal sourced from vines planted around 1935 sourced from vineyards that range from 804 to 950 meters in elevation. This biodynamic wine undergoes whole cluster fermentation in 4,000 kg wooden vats before maturing for 10 months in 5th to 8th passage old French Oak. Also made without fining or filtering, La Casilla features aromas of dense, spicy blackberry, dark chocolate and licorice, with a hint of lavender in the background. The palate is concentrated and fleshy, offering bitter cherry and dark berry flavors and a suggestion of candied flowers. Finishes long and powerful, with lingering smokiness and supple tannins.

The Buena Pinta is a different wine all together, featuring Garnacha and a unique local varietal called Moravia Agria. Often just simplified to sour Moravia, this varietal is unique for maintaining its fresh acidity and keeping its sugar levels low even in high temperatures.  This brings freshness and structure to the fuller fruit driven Garnacha. The Moravia is sourced from vines dating back to 1965, while the Garnacha was planted more recently in 1995.  Despite the difference in varietal make-up, the Buena Pinta undergoes the same fermentation and aging process as the Clos Lujen, seeing whole cluster fermentation in large vats and maturation in old French oak for 8 months before an additional 7 months bottle aging.  

Red wine is no longer limited to the big voluptuous styles that Robert Parker eschewed in the making of his 100 point system.  Balance is proving to be just as important as structure, and Bodegas Ponce exemplifies this style, with fresh red wines that deserve a seat at the table in the summer.

The Fine Print:

Bodegas Ponce Clos Lojen -  ̶$̶1̶7̶.̶9̶9̶ $16.19

Bodegas Ponce La Casilla -  ̶$̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $22.49

Bodegas Ponce Buena Pinta -  ̶$̶2̶1̶.̶9̶9̶ $19.79

Bodegas Ponce Reto - $̶2̶4̶.̶9̶9̶ $22.49

Further Reading:

The Grape From Manchuela - Eric Asimov of the New York Times

Bodegas Ponce Profile from T. Edward Wines & Spirits

Manchuela DO Official Website

A Profile of Juan Antonio Ponce

Learn More About The Science of Whole Cluster Fermentation - SevenFifty Daily