Of his trip to Jerez in 1955, British writer Rupert Croft-Cooke wrote: “The Spanish mind is brilliant and imaginative but not orderly. The Spaniard sees no need for classification, especially in such a matter as wine. He has not our cautious desire to know exactly what we are talking about.”
Today, after the reckless disorder brought upon the isles by Brexit, the author of Sherry would surely have chosen another word to describe the desire of his compatriots. It is also likely that Croft-Cooke would have tone down his opinions about the classification of wines if he had known the new generation of young producers in the Sherry Triangle like Primitivo "Primi" Collantes, who owns 39 hectares of vines out of the 139 left in Chiclana de la Frontera (in 1892 there were 3,725).
"It is the cornerstone of our work both in the vineyard and in the winery", claims Primi, 37 years old and the fourth generation of a family that settled in this southern town from Santander. "I'm always going on about classification but I think it's what makes the difference. We classify vines, soils, qualities and wines. We don't buy grapes or finished wine from anyone or sell must to other producers. What we produce is 100% Chiclana and 100% Collantes. For me that is very important".
This desire to classify and own vineyards is a small feat in the case of Collantes. If in the ageing areas —Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto de Santa María— the number of wineries and land under vine has gradually declined, in Chiclana, classified by the Sherry Regulatory Board as "production area" and therefore without the right to display the words Xeres-Jerez-Sherry on its labels, the challenge of surviving the successive crises in the sector has been nothing short of Herculean.
Traditional suppliers to the big Sherry houses, nowadays only two of the half a dozen producers in Chiclana own their vineyards (Primitivo Collantes and the cooperative). Most of them sell their must to wineries in the three ageing towns and in the thriving tourist sector of Chiclana, whose population rises to 300,000 residents in the summer months. And although agriculture is still an activity —older men still grow vines on small patches of land to make their own wine— the young have not inherited this hobby nor do they see any future in the vineyard. And why would they, when the price of one kilo of grapes stands at 53 cents.
The Matalian vineyard is the first thing visitors to Collantes are shown. A spectacular landscape on the outskirts of Chiclana, the first thing one notices is the bright whiteness of the albariza and the green mantle of the vineyards under the intense blue sky and the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon. Here, at the gates of the Bay of Cadiz and as a result of the altitude, the climate is a little cooler than in other parts of the Sherry Triangle. Ripening occurs a little later due to the Levante and Poniente winds. "In Chiclana the harvest begins at the beginning of September; by that date, the rest of the Marco has more or less finished picking grapes", explains Primi. "That's why coastal wines are different in character from those inland in the region".
In these 20 hectares, including six that have recently been planted, Palomino, Moscatel and Uva Rey are cultivated. The latter was a common variety in Chiclana —Collantes produced a wine made entirely with Uva Rey right until 1974— and Primi is proud to be recovering it. "Uva Rey was doomed to disappear in Chiclana. These vines are young so they haven't yet entered full production but the important thing is that four years ago, we did a good selection of canes to graft on the buds and now we have vigour, bright green leaves and resistant trunks", he explains.
Why did Uva Rey stop being planted? “Phylloxera was the perfect excuse to replace everything that wasn't very productive with the Palomino California clone. These days the price of grapes is based on the amount of kg picked and Uva Rey yields no more than 6,000 or 7,000kg/Ha. In addition, it is harvested in October or close to November so the press must be in operation for two extra months, with all the costs that this entails,” adds Primi. “The same thing happened in other parts of the Sherry Triangle with varieties such as Beba, Vijiriega, Cañocazo, Perruno or Pelusón. They have practically disappeared but they were the ones that brought diversity, not only in the bodega but also in the vineyard.”
According to Primi, the Uva Rey variety is "robust and wild, with a citrus character and a pleasant palate." He knows that he can achieve differentiation with it, which is why he has been working with it experimentally for five years. "With the 50 litres we obtained in 2014, we made a white wine fermented in demijohn and it surprised me positively. The second year, alcohol was added in order to get a veil of flower, but the result wasn't too convincing,” explains Primi, who has the help of consultant Ramiro Ibáñez. On the 2018 vintage, it was fermented in a butt filled to the rim with no added alcohol before being transferred to stainless steel tanks to round it off. "It is a wine that pushes towards oxidation, with aromas of tar, gravel and petrol.” He is planning to leave it a couple more years in stainless steel before releasing around 1,000 bottles on the market.
In addition to Uva Rey, Palomino and Moscatel vines are planted in Pago Matalian. Grapes for the house's flagship wines are sourced from this vineyard, such as Fino Arroyuelo, Amontillado Fino Fossi -at €11 in the online store of the bodega, it is one of the top-value Amontillados of the Sherry Triangle- and Moscatel Viejo Los Cuartillos.
These white albariza soils are also the origin of Matalian, two young Palomino whites —one dry and one semi-sweet— and Socaire, a white wine with lovely salinity and character that is highly appreciated by wine lovers —in fact, it even has its own trend (Socairismo) coined by the ingenious Colectivo Decantado. Fermented in cask, in the traditional way, and aged for 24 months without veil of flor, it is bottled as Vino de la Tierra de Cadiz after the 2016 vintage. For some weeks now, 900 bottles of Socaire Oxidativo 2014 are in the market. This new release comes from four butts of the first Socaire that were set aside to allow the oxidative character of the wine to emerge very slowly.
Isla El Topo is one of the six sectors in which Pago Matalian is divided. This little corner of 1.5ha, planted in a north-south aspect (the rest of Matalian is east-west) and sheltered from the east winds, is a special place for Primi. "It looks like you're in another vineyard. Flowering is always more advanced because the canes on the perimeter protect the vines from the wind.” For the near future, he plans to make a white wine from this plot, which was named after a retired employee. For the time being, Primi has created a special bottling for Aponiente, Ángel León's fine dining restaurant in El Puerto de Santa María.
Classification at Primitivo Collantes also extends to the vines. In general, the house does not buy plots of vineyards that are already in production, instead the best plant material from its vineyards is selected and grafted from scratch on uncultivated land. "If I buy a vineyard that is already cultivated, I don't know whether the vines will be the best. In this way, I know. We tend to be short-sighted but the vineyard is totally the opposite,” adds Primi.
Although both the Palomino Jerez clone and the California clone, the most prevalent in the Sherry Triangle, are present in the Matalian vineyard, Primi goes for the local type when it comes to planting. "It's true that Jerez's yields are not as high as California's (14,000kg/ha), but with a larger leaf area, Jerez has a higher grade. In fact, it possesses a survival quality and a rebelliousness that the California clone doesn't have. And since Chiclana is cooler, grapes have enviable health so we tend to have good quality fruit", affirms Primi, who picks an average of around 11,000kg/ha. "I'm not looking for quantity; those extra 3,000 wouldn't add any finesse or aromas. I try to get the vine to produce what it has to produce and that's why we also desucker."
Another battle in which Primi Collantes is immersed is the survival of Moscatel de Grano Menudo (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). He owns two hectares and wants to plant two and a half more to meet the demand. "Although it is a seasonal demand, Moscatel is our second best-selling wine after Fino Arroyuelo,” reveals Primi. "Moscatel de Alejandría produces many kilos but what else does it offer? We are committed to the Grano Menudo variety —we have always worked with it. To say that Chiclana makes Moscatel is increasingly difficult. People either plant Pedro Ximénez or they directly rip it out.”
Across the Camino del Fontanal from Matalian you get to Pozo Galván, Primitivo Collantes's other vineyard in Chiclana. Its 19 hectares combine albariza soils with streaks of lustrillo, a reddish soil with the retention capacity of albariza but with a higher iron component. "We always harvest Matalian and then Pozo Galván. Although it may seem that ripening is more advanced in Pozo Galván in spring, by July there is a vegetative halt. It's like asking Usain Bolt to take part in a 3km race. Growth is evident on the first month but then Matalian is more constant", explains Primi.
Wines that are under three years of age come from the Palomino vines in Pozo Galván. They are mostly finos with just a short biological ageing that are meant for daily consumption in the winery’s store and in neighbouring towns. "Clients immediately notice that fino Arroyuelo is different from the younger wine, and not only because of the ageing but also because of the soil and the classification that goes into the wines. For me it's not only fun, it's fundamental," Primi adds.
Both in Pozo Galván as in Finca Matalian, harvesting and vineyard chores are done manually. “Machines are becoming widespread across the Sherry region and we are losing the old tradition of doing your first selection in the vineyard, by your pickers, rather than on the selection table,” regrets Primi. “We have a group of 30-35 people who have been working with us for many years and know the vineyards like the palm of their hands. They know the sort of grapes we like in our press. No doubt they are the best selection table,” says Primi.
As well as being proud of employing a group of pickers for the 15-20 days of the harvest, Primi confesses that he would feel uneasy about using machinery in the vineyard. “Don’t you think it’s a little surprising to see that the number of old vines is decreasing by the day? Vine grubbing occurs, but there’s more. Machines prevent sorting, bend the vines and shorten their life. It's impossible for them to reach 100 years of age," says Primi. "Everything is cheaper with machines but only in the short term. In the long term you have to plant vines and graft them. The future needs to be factored in when you do the numbers but there’s little hope if the industry keeps paying for quantity rather than quality…”
Quality is what Primitivo Collantes is focused on —he is convinced that it must prevail in the region so that its wines are valued for what they really are. "Right now Jerez is like a surfer on the crest of the wave", compares Primi. "It's about being on that crest for as long as possible and that's why the Sherry Triangle must offer differentiation, classification and yields that lead to quality. Luckily, the ground is being laid but you have to work on it every day. If we don't, we will make the same mistakes that led the region to the Sherry crisis.”
This quality that he demands of himself, Collantes would like it to be acknowledged by the Regulatory Council of Jerez. "For me the Sherry Triangle is not just the three towns in the ageing area but also the production area. I am required to pass the same audits and comply with the same specifications as the wineries in the ageing area. Why are we treated differently? It's as if you pass an ISO quality certification and then you are not allowed to display the seal. In the end Jerez wins because it buys a lot of grapes in production areas such as Chiclana or Trebujena".
In any case, he is not hindered by bureaucracy or other administrative hurdles and has pledged to open up new ways of consumption with his Palomino whites —a category which, albeit in negotiations, is still not accepted in the DO Jerez. "I believe it is essential that white wines occupy the base of the pyramid. I cannot give an amontillado to a young man in his twenties who visits my winery because he doesn’t understand it. What’s more, he would be probably be put off sherry for life. However, if I serve him a young white like Matalian, he overcomes that stage. Next is an aged white like Socaire, which I'm sure he will accept it. The third can be a young fino and from there, he could try a Manzanilla Madura or Pasada.” For Primi, that’s the way to go.
While recovering old styles of wine like Socaire or historical varieties such as Uva Rey, Collantes has preserved both the original bodega on Calle Ancha, where the offices, the press and the production area are located, as well as the ageing bodega, in a lower part of the village next to the river. In the latter lay the soleras and criaderas of its Fino Arroyuelo, next to a small cooperage where an employee manually fixes the barrels, in the same way it has always been done here.
"In our cellar, the 13 employees are here because their father, grandfather or uncle worked for the company before," explains Primi. "The history of this house does not only belong to the Collantes's but also to the families who have been part of the business, cultivating the vineyard and working in the winery.”
On the wall adjacent to the butts of Arroyuelo, the Collantes family also owns a tavern where the house's wine is served to locals and tourists. El Chirimono (nickname of a retired Collantes distributor) is just an unpretentious bar, with its paper tablecloths and traditional tapas, but it is one of the great ambassadors of Primitivo Collantes. "40% of our sales stay in Chiclana", explains Primi. Now, with the new bottling plant —a small revolution in the house since they now fill 1,200 bottles in an hour against the previous 300— and the renewed labels, the prospects for growth in the national and international markets are promising. "It's something my grandfather wouldn't have imagined. I'm very proud," concludes Primi.<