Interview with Pedro Balda, Director of the R+D&i Department of Vintae
“It is good to keep in mind our tradition, but we cannot neglect the future, research is essential to improve”
After passing through some of the most prestigious wineries in the new world, earning his doctorate in Enology with a thesis discovering two minority varieties which had been recovered in Rioja and triumphing with the wines he makes from his family’s vineyards, this Sonsierra native takes up the challenge of leading the innovation projects of the Vintae wine Company. In his memory will always be the know-how he has learned from the generations that precede him, and on his horizon, the continuous improvement of everything that happens in the vineyard and in the winery. We have interviewed him so you can know Pedro Balda better.
What are the main research lines of Vintae’s R & D department?
There are several lines of research open, aimed at viticulture and oenology. In viticulture, we are focused on a project related to climate change, on vine cultivation at high altitude, with plantations in the highest and coldest area of La Rioja. It is a restricted plantation due to two factors, so relevant as temperature and altitude. We are outside the limits of the Rioja Qualified Designation of Origin, because with climate change, the altitudes at which the grapes mature have changed. We are testing different varieties, both rare and international short cycle ones.
Different climate models predict a generalized increase of 2°C by 2050. If we consider that the average temperature drops 0.6 °C every 100 meters of altitude increase, it would be necessary to raise the vineyards 330 meters above the current location if we wish to have the current weather conditions in the future. The average altitude of the vineyards of Rioja, is around 500 meters, so we are testing wine growing at 800 meters high, to anticipate that change.
And in the cellar?
Within the wine line we have three fundamental areas. One of them is the vinification without sulfur, which has already been developed in Aroa with Le Naturel and that we are now evolving with other varieties and other wine making techniques without sulfites. The second line is the production of sparkling wines, where we have already implemented the “champenoise” method or traditional method, and we are going to expand on the ancestral method. The third pillar focuses on aging processes. We are working with alternative materials to the barrel such as terracotta or stoneware amphoras, or polyvinyl egg-shaped wine tanks, which have permeability conditions similar to the barrel, but without the aromas or tannins that the oak transmits. We are also working with larger barrels, such as 3000 liter casks. We look for longer aging and a lesser sensory impact on wines, to highlight the characteristics of the vineyard even more
How does an R&D department work in a winery? What facilities do you need?
As we are an incipient department, our main work tool is creativity. Any project has a first “more administrative” phase corresponding to requesting and processing with different public bodies; and then, there is the phase that we enjoy the most: execution, “where we get our finger in the pie”. To execute the different projects we have in progress, and others that are to come, we are installing an experimental winery inside the own Hacienda López de Haro Winery. It will be like the replica of a warehouse, but on a smaller scale; with much more precise machinery, since all the tests are done on a small scale. There are two rooms of 250 square meters each. In addition, we also sometimes use part of the winery production facilities, depending on the project.
Research is almost always a long-term job, when can we see results?
There are two types of research, the fundamental one that is done at the university and the applied one, which is what is done in companies. In applied research we try to see results that are palpable from the beginning, in the medium or short term. In viticulture we already have the plantation at these high altitudes in the mountains, where this year we will have the first harvest of these eight different varieties. In the enology lines with sparkling wines we already have elaborated several vintages, although we are waiting to assess the latest results before going to market. In the sulfite-free line, we have a product that is already on the market, Le Naturel Blanco. At Vintae we always do applied research and all the lines are developed thinking about a product that is marketable.
Is it usual for wineries to invest in innovation?
It is not usual, only in large groups, especially in the New World environment, but it is not at all common for small Spanish or European wine companies to do so. Within the agri-food sector, the wine industry is very traditional. In terms of the countryside, even the fruit sector has developed much more than wine growing, with new varieties, new pruning systems, etc. But in the wine sector it seems that it is the other way around, we are going back to the old, to the varieties that our ancestors cultivated. It is not usual to invest in innovation, but we cannot neglect the future. It is good to know our tradition, but we have to look forward to innovating and improving all processes. Today we have much more knowledge than 20 years ago, proof of this is how the Spanish wine sector has improved in recent decades, but we are an industry that is not as developed or uses as much technology as other agri-food industries. Therefore, we innovate, yes, but with a broad respect for tradition and always trying to improve what we have inherited. We are not going to invent how to make wine, that has already been invented.
Tell us about the project with the Center for Biomedical Research of La Rioja (CIBIR) to prevent neurodegenerative diseases using the grape properties.
We believe that wine is a healthy food, but as a young, dynamic and open company that we are, that is not enough. We have the possibility of collaborating with Dr. Alfredo Martínez del CIBIR, and that is where we are at. We do not know about cells, nor can we develop experiments with mice like Alfredo does, but we can intervene in the part of product design, because if we have learned something during all this time, is how to taste! What we want is to “turn the concept around” of alcohol-free wines, which have had so little success in the market. We believe that there is a great possibility of bringing a drink to the market, based on the antioxidant compounds that the grape has, and that it can be very similar to what a wine is. Our main challenge will be that, by putting this future healthy product in a dark cup, and any wine, we will not be able to distinguish what we are drinking.