Pepe and Paco Blanco apologise when we arrive at the property in El Hornillo, one of the highest vineyard areas in the Andalusian town of Sanlúcar. A truck and a couple of tanks lay outdoors revealing they are expanding the winery, built in 1997. “We are reorganizing our 700 casks and the space we have to work more comfortably”, explain the Blanco brothers. Callejuela has little to do with those cathedral-like constructions dotting the Sherry Triangle; the grandeur here is in their vineyards.
Things are going well for the brothers, but everything they have achieved comes from toiling over their land, not leaving anything to chance and getting their boots soiled in the vineyard. “We are here 365 days a year; we don’t know what a holiday is”, they claim. This is something they learnt from their father, Francisco Blanco Blanquito, a man with a farsighted approach who worked for 20 years as a labourer before he was able to buy vineyards in Sanlúcar, Jerez and El Puerto. After a life of continuous work, Blanquito could call himself a mayeto, as winegrowers are known in Sanlúcar.
Some of the plots purchased by Blanquito are right behind the winery building and command a view of the river Guadalquivir and a considerable extension of vineyards where albariza soils still resist against real estate pressures. His son Pepe names all the pagos (as vineyards are called in the Sherry Triangle) on sight: “Pastranilla, on the road to El Puerto [de Santa María], El Carrascal, with more Atlantic influence, or Las Flores, there on the background”.
The Blancos own just over 28 hectares under vine in pago Callejuela, El Hornillo, Macharnudo and Añina, where they have the oldest vines. Macharnudo and Añina (Jerez) are interior pagos whereas El Hornillo or La Callejuela (Sanlúcar) are river pagos given their proximity to the Guadalquivir. They know these lands like the back of their hands —as Pepe and Paco say, “we are different to everyone else because our origin is in the vineyard”.
Three Blanquito generations have been working the land. “Most of the town lived off viticulture”, explains Pepe. “Soils used to be classified according to their quality; there were albariza soils, albarizones, which are lower quality albarizas, clay and sand. And the base wines were also classified according to their origin. That’s all changed; the only thing that matters nowadays is that it comes from albariza soils and the price”.
Their commitment to the vineyard is exemplary and unusual in the Sherry Triangle, where a majority of producers buy grapes or base wines from other suppliers. All of Callejuela’s Palomino wines come from their own vines planted on albariza soils and they are laying the foundations to have 100% of the wines sourced from their own pagos.
They started to plant Pedro Ximénez in 2015 “so that everything is home-made; until now, we brought it from Montilla”. They are thinking to use some of these grapes to make manzanilla, late-harvest wines and sunning them leaving the grapes unpicked until October. “Once the vines are there, a whole lot of things can be done”, they explain.
They are leaving more space to Tintilla (Graciano in Andalusia) to make the region’s traditional sweet wines with arrope (a syrup used for sweetening). They are going to plant more of it on a low valley in the estate, where the soil is brown; it is rich in calcium carbonate, which is suitable to plant vidueño, which in Sanlúcar refers to any varieties other than Palomino.
The great majority of their vineyards are planted to the region’s star grape, producing around 200,000 litres. They bottle half of that quantity, but they still sell base wine to other producers like Piñero, which uses it to feed the solera of manzanilla Maruja. “We would rather not have to sell any and use that base wine to make our own whites; high-rotation, entry-level wines”, they confess. The Blanco brothers already make one in that style —the flavorful and refreshing Blanco de Hornillos. “Manzanilla requires a lot of work. A great deal of wine has to be moved every time we withdraw some from the solera. And you also have to take into account the years it is immobile”.
Up until the year 2005, their manzanilla was sold in bulk, as it had been always done at the Blancos. That’s changed now and they bottle three different manzanillas under the brand Callejuela: young, madura (with more ageing) and en rama as well as the full range of wines traditionally made in the region. “When the local cooperatives could not take in more members because of the region’s decline and excess of grapes, our father purchased a small bodega on Caño Dorado street, in Sanlúcar’s Barrio Alto”, the brothers remember. “Dad used to sell the base wine to other wineries and kept a little bit for his own consumption”.
Paco and Pepe did their first harvest in the Barrio Alto when they were still teenagers. Slowly, the family purchased casks for the winery and gradually arranged the solera. “We bought 20 casks when Rumasa was expropriated and we put them at 15% vol”, remembers Pepe. “I must have done something wrong because two years later, total acidity in half of the casks had increased, so I put them at 18% vol. Those casks are the source of Oloroso El Cerro and Amontillado La Casilla; our manzanilla madura comes from the rest of the casks. We have gradually opened the solera , but we’ve done it carefully”.
The arrival of winemaker Ramiro Ibáñez as consultant pushed them to make new wines that they might not have dared to launch otherwise. Manzanilla de añada Callejuela 1/11 2012 was the first result of this partnership. “He said to us 'this wine is really good, don’t mix it in the solera. Let’s wait and see what happens'“, the brothers recall. “We followed his advice separating 11 casks that remained untouched and that’s how the vintage manzanilla series started”.
Every spring one cask is bottled (700 bottles of 50cl) to see its evolution over the years. This year is the turn of 4/11 with is sold, like previous sacas, at €20 in Spain, well above most manzanillas but still an object of desire for wine geeks, for whom the series has turned into a collector’s item. Spurred by this success, the Blanco brothers have decided to separate several casks containing wine from the 2014 vintage and from each of the pagos. Of the 2015 vintage, three casks per pago have been kept apart so the brothers and Ibáñez can see their evolution.
In autumn 2015, the same year that manzanilla 1/11 was born, Callejuela launched their old range of wines —concentrated, intense and made in very small quantities. The new 50cl bottle was transparent, as if to let the colour speak for itself. Manzanilla Pasada Blanquito, Amontillado La Casilla and Oloroso El Cerro are sourced from the house’s solera, the same one as the “bota de cañón”, a special cask which was placed on the corridor of the bodega at the request of their father once he retired. “He asked to keep it there, apart from the other casks, to avoid any problems with the rest of the solera. He used to drop by when we finished for the day and the three of us stayed there, chatting around the cask until we lost the notion of time”, say Pepe and Paco with a hint of nostalgia. “When he passed away, we decided to let it stay unrefreshed. We only add a little bit of wine is the level is very low”.
Their last project are three unfortified single-vineyard whites, whose altitudes appear on the labels: Hacienda de Doña Francisca from pago Callejuela (62m), La Choza de Macharnudo (74m) and Las Mercedes, from pago Añina (83m). All of them have been aged in casks under a layer of flor to highlight the character of the terroir against the influence of the bodega or the winemaking process. “We would like to hear more talk about the origin, about the vineyard. It was our father’s obsession too. No matter how good you are as a winery owner or cellar master; if the vineyard is not good, the wine will not be good”, insist the brothers.
For the time being, these wines’ impeccable origin and undeniable character is not enough for the appellation to accept them under its seal. “It’s sad to know that wine from Montilla is accepted but ours isn’t, but we are hopeful that this will move forward”, they say.
The harvest is an important moment. Grapes are picked with a harvester at night ever since the year Paco, Pepe and a worker found themselves alone to pick their 28 hectares. “This change helped us to weather the crisis. There’s no generational replacement in the vineyards; we are among the oldest in town and there aren’t many youngsters who are ready to work and sacrifice so much to live off this”, they muse.
They are helped by three workers in the vineyard but the brothers are on their own in the bodega. “We share all the tasks but Pepe takes care of the paperwork”, says Paco. The only exception is in the winter, when two staff from the Callejuela store in town work in the bodega. The shop, located in the former family home, close to the beach in Sanlúcar, was their first point of sale 10 years ago. Nowadays, it still is an important source of income for the Blanco brothers.
“Around 40-50% of or manzanilla is sold in bulk at the local store. It’s lighter and less complex than our bottled manzanilla”, explains Pepe. “As the saying goes, it’s very hard to be a prophet in your own land and the business works in no small part to this shop. We have clients from Seville and other towns in the region who come to Sanlúcar for the weekend and buy our bulk manzanilla to take home”.
This is the harsh day-to-day reality, but as their bottled wines travel and gain prestige, the Blanco brothers have noticed an increase in the number of people wanting to visit their property, something that the find rather bemusing. “There’s not much to show around here other than the vineyard and this”, says Pepe pointing around him. “We make our living as growers and winemakers, not with tourism”.