Like many grape growers in the Sherry Triangle, José Manuel Harana “Manu” doesn’t earn his living in the vineyards. In his case, he is employed by Williams & Humbert in Jerez. He likes his job but what he really enjoys is tending his seven hectares of Palomino vines in La Atalaya, a pretty vineyard with views of Sanlúcar and the river.
Grapes fetch such low prices in the region that being a grower is not a profitable job. Manu’s father, who sells his grapes to the local cooperative and just about manages to live off his vines, has taught him all the traditional tasks in the vineyard —the aserpiado, (digging trenches in the soil to retain rainwater) esbragado (to dig around the foot of the vine with a hoe) or the agostado (oxygenating the albariza soil). Their vines are trained with vara y pulgar, a traditional system that has fallen out of favour in the Sherry Triangle but one that Manu, fifth generation of mayetos, still uses in his Atalaya vineyard.
Despite the difficulties, Manu can see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the altruistic help of Ramiro Ibáñez, Manu and his colleagues Rafael Rodríguez and Antonio Bernal have created Mayetería Sanluqueña, a novel project to bottle their own wines sourced from their best and oldest vineyards.
“Sanlúcar has always had small growers and the best foremen in the Sherry Triangle,” explains Ramiro. “In 1980 there were 117 bodegas in town; nowadays there are less than 17. Most of them belonged to small almacenistas or wholesalers who 'locked' the wine in their bodegas, but the recession forced most of them to sell. Sanlúcar lost a golden opportunity back then.”
It might be impossible to make up for lost time, but Ramiro thinks Mayetería Sanluqueña is worth the effort. There’s a need to protect the old vine heritage still left in Sanlúcar and empower mayetos (as grape growers are known in the region) to keep working these vines. The final goal is that they take control of the entire cycle, from vine to bottle.
Ramiro did the initial screening to choose the first growers in Mayetería Sanluqueña with the following provisos: they had to be young (“otherwise, there would be no future”), be able to tend the vines, conceive this project for the short-medium term and be willing to make wine.
The first to join Mayetería Sanluqueña were Antonio, Manu and Rafael but the group is set to expand to two more mayetos next year —one of them is a woman with vines in El Hornillo.
Changing the way they work their vineyards overnight is out of the question but those vines that are used for Mayetería Sanluqueña must comply with a series of requirements that include the maintenance of old vines, manual harvest, a reduction of treatments, yields below 7,000kg/Ha or spontaneous fermentation in casks with native yeasts. The goal is to maintain their artisan soul and to see and taste the mayetos’ work in the vineyard in their own wines.
Manu, Rafa and Antonio first released their wines on the 2016 vintage —four Palomino whites with no veil of yeast and no added alcohol. They were named Corta y Raspa after a special type of cut practised in the vara y pulgar pruning.
The initial acceptance of their wines —sold in some of the country’s top restaurants— filled the trio with joy but, as Ramiro points out, recognition is well and good but this project must be profitable for them. “At the average grape prices paid in Sanlúcar, growers lose money if they don’t produce the maximum yield, which is 11,400 kg per hectare. That’s why it was really hard to convince them. I wanted them to know that this is a long-term endeavour that might even help them financially.”
The labels, an altruistic design by El Gatonauta, exhibit the name of the mayeto who has made the wine, the name of the plot and the vineyard and the number of bottles on release, which range between 600 and 1500 and are sold at €9 each. The back label includes the type of soil found in the vineyard and proudly indicates the generation of mayetos they belong to in their families.
Rafael Rodríguez “Rafa”, the youngest of the three (31), is a third-generation grape grower. His family owns an estate with a house to the north of Añina, a vineyard close to Jerez but which has traditionally been worked by growers and bodegas from Sanlúcar. Although the vineyard is mechanized, in 2016 Rafa reserved a few old vines in Las 40 and Morla for his Mayetería Sanluqueña wines. Morla was replaced in the 2017 vintage by Casabón, a plot that is adjacent to the family house in the estate. In both cases, only 600 bottles were produced.
If things go well, Rafa would like to quit his job as quantity surveyor and work full-time in the vineyard, his real passion. So far, he is in the process of revamping a small bodega in Sanlúcar’s Barrio Alto district where he plans to make his own wines.
Antonio Bernal, the oldest of the three, belongs to a family who has been working the Maína vineyard, to the west of Sanlúcar, for four generations. His father was the foreman of most of the vines in this inland vineyard that produces wines with sapidity and power. His 30-year-old vines are planted on highly-valued albariza de barajuela soils, which resemble a pack of cards. La Charanga is Antonio’s wine, of which he produces 1,500 bottles.
Manu’s wine is called Atalaya (600 bottles) and comes from the eponymous vineyard in Sanlúcar. For the 2018 vintage, Manu is making another Corta y Raspa with grapes from Charruado, a small plot with tosca cerrada soils (a tough type of albariza) in El Cuadradillo. The rest of the grapes from this single vineyard are sold by his father to the cooperative.
Eventually, Ramiro would like Mayetería Sanluqueña, which is in talks with a US importer, to become autonomous. “I’ve been responsible for the initial push but then it’s up to them to manage the project being coherent and demanding with themselves”, he concludes. “This stage is like primary school; the next is the take-off, with others joining the project”.
The model created by Mayetería Sanluqueña could well work in other villages with old vines in the Sherry Triangle, such as Trebujena. “It’s very similar to Sanlúcar in terms of knowledge and attitude to the work in the vineyards; on top of that, they have more than one grape variety,” explains Ramiro, who runs his own small project (Cota 45) in Sanlúcar and consults for a few producers in the Sherry region. Ramiro will not take it upon himself to initiate another Mayetería in Trebujena, although he hopes others will. I can’t handle any more work!”