The difference between wine-growers, vines guardians and vigneron in the marco de Jerez

The French word “vigneron” has no translation in Spanish; and it has no translation because that figure has barely existed.

Vigneron is a person who cultivates the vine, produces his wine by hand with grapes from his vines, and markets it under his brand (which is usually his name). He or she is an artisan of wine and especially of the vineyard. He spends at least 80% of his working time there, aware that “great wines are made in the vineyard”. The person who makes the wine is the same person who prunes, tills, treats, grafts, repairs, plants.

In most cases, he does not have a university academic background in Chemistry or Oenology. He usually has received professional training in viticulture, being the son of winegrowers, and above all, he is usually a curious and self-taught person.

To be a vigneron, you have to be restless, have a critical spirit, and at the same time have self-confidence to undertake and take risks in a business following an intuition and a desire to create.

There are very few vignerons in Spain, and even less so in the Jerez area, inserted in the structure of the Andalusian latifundium. The causes are difficult to establish and complex, but I would point out that unlike Spain, in France the rural environment has historically been valued and trades linked to gastronomy are valued: not only the figure of cookers turned into Chefs, but that of the “master” cheese makers, bakers, butchers, etc.

In Spain, perhaps due to its particular history of the 20th century, always in tow and forced marches from Europe, in its urbanization, industrialization and Europeanization, following others, it undervalued the primary sector.

The reflection of this in the Marco de Jerez was clear: the absolute separation between the vineyard and the cellars, between the viticulturist and the gentleman « señorito »; which was even more accentuated when in the crisis of the 70s and 80s, most of the wineries sold their vineyards and began to feed on the cooperatives and the wineries. Another consequence of the phenomenon was the disappearance of small and medium-sized warehouses and warehousemen « almacenistas ».

As a consequence, in this territory there were very few examples of vigneron, of people who worked the vineyard and made their own wine and marketed it. The only cases I know of are that of Ignacio Partida and La Callejuela. Ignacio Partida was foreman of the Armijo in Pago Miraflores de Sanlúcar, who also worked 5 hectares of his own with which he made his own wine. He was one of the few who tried to sell his own product, but unfortunately he was ahead of the game: it was impossible for him to sell at a better price in the local market, and communication was still not as agile as it is today, to have sold it in the international market.

On the other hand, La Callejuela was the winery that Pepe and Paco Blanco’s father started, and which they have continued, always working in their own vineyards and producing their own wines. Pepe and Paco have fortunately been able to find marketing mechanisms, both in bulk and bottled wine, and are currently one of the benchmarks in the area.

What has always existed are the « Mostos », which are like “ephemeral vignerons“: people who had vineyards and who, during the period from November to March, sold their own wine in bulk in a small temporary restaurant, either in the middle of the vineyards or in a place in the village. The culture of “mosto” (dry white wine of the year), similar to Nouveau Beaujolais, is undoubtedly the prelude to the practice of vigneron.

Thus, what we can find in the Marco de Jerez are vinegrowers and « vine guardians » (I would better call them “negociants”, which would be its translation in French and which seems more honest to me).

In the Marco de Jerez there are not only great winegrowers, but we are also lucky that the last “sons of the blade” are still alive and active: people born in the vineyard, who were already working in them when they were six years old; children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of viticulturists and foremen. These people spend 100% of their time in the vineyard. They know by heart pruning, grafting, planting; everything related to the vineyard and the complex local system of Vara y Pulgar. It is necessary to note that practices such as grafting have already been lost in almost all regions of France. There the vignerons don’t know how to graft. Which creates a dangerous dependence on nurseries.

Among winegrowers, we find two work situations: those who work for others, within a crew or as foreman (chief) of the same; or those who work for themselves and own vineyards. Among them, in turn, there are very small ones, who work from one to five hectares (and who have or had another job), and those who have larger extensions and who have their own crews.

Neither one nor the other usually makes wine, with some exceptions, which have their own solera or make a bottle of «mosto », but in no case does it sell it. Both sell their grapes to the cooperative, and it is the cooperative that vinifies the wines, and sells them to the large wineries (most cooperatives do not bottle the wines under their own brands, or if they do, it represents a very small percentage of their production).

On the other hand we have in recent times a new figure that has appeared, which is that of the “vine growers” who define themselves as “guardians of a vineyard” but it seems more honest to me to call them as they do in France: “negociants”, negotiators, people who buy grapes directly from winegrowers to make their own wines. Most of them are oenologists or have academic training, and undertake the creation of a winery, and a brand, for the marketing of wines. In some cases, they buy the musts from the cooperatives or the wineries, and they take care of the final process, as do the larger wineries.

These “wine growers” try to reach agreements with the wine growers to try to produce changes in their viticulture, although in most cases, the wine growers – who are usually very old people – only conceive of one way of working their vineyard.

The way winegrowers work in the Jerez region has been transformed in recent decades towards quantity. The introduction of machinery, chemical fertilizers and herbicides completely changed viticultural practice and, consequently, the quality of wine. From working all the land solely by hand, they began to use the rotavator (a machine that rotates the land) many times, which has allowed them to increase production by 4 or 5 times. This, in the context of the cooperatives, where the grape was paid for quantity and not for quality, and where the grape has had and still has a very poor price, caused the resulting raw material: the palomino grape, to change completely.

It is easy for the reader to understand that there is a big difference between raising grapes to sell by the kilogram, and raising grapes to make the best possible wine. The result has been a devaluation of the quality and perception of the palomino grape. In this production organization system, most of the wines produced by winegrowers and wineries are made with raw material that has not been taken care of, with an “inflated” palomino grape (there is a situation where the palomino grape, if If you want, it can be very productive, reaching 20,000 kilograms per hectare; when in a Grand Cru, the production, if you want a quality wine, should be around 5,000 kilograms per hectare).

Luckily, in recent times several projects have emerged that have -more or less- the vigneron model as a reference, that is, they work 100% of their wines with grapes from their own vineyards, and that the person who makes the wines , is the one who works, or at least decides, how to work their vines. For me there are two completely different qualities: the one that makes the wine from its own vineyards, compared to the one that buys grapes.

Those who work exclusively with their own vineyards not only assume all the risk of the vintage (droughts, diseases, hail), but carry out innumerable details in search of quality: not rotating the land, using good quality compost and in small quantity, do not use herbicides or pesticides, or systemic or penetrating treatments; doing low pruning, etc. When you take care of your own vineyard in search of making the best wine, the viticultural practice is transformed, and the result is completely different. In comparison, the one who buys grapes to make a wine, is buying a grape cultivated with a strong soil rotation, fed with chemical fertilizers, with soils that contain herbicides and pesticides, with grapes that include conventional treatments of systemic and penetrating products, with intensive production vineyards, etc.

Undoubtedly, the future of the region lies in the proliferation of vignerons in the area, and in the recovery of ownership of the vineyards by all wine producers.