Just as almacenistas have all but ceased to exist, independent growers in the Sherry zone are in danger of extinction. Apathy and discontent are rife among the growers who are not cooperative members. They number around 60 and control some 2,000 hectares, nearly a third of the total under vine, vineyards which the trade cannot allow to be lost. But these vines are ageing quickly because of the impoverished state of their owners, who are unable to make the slightest investment. Asevi-Asaja, the association of independent growers, estimates that at least half are less than 10 years old, and the vines have a commercial life of up to 30 years. Francisco Guerrero, the association president, says the problem is that the vineyards have been unprofitable for years because the price of grapes is too low. There is no spare cash to repair machinery, tractors are literally falling to bits and in small vineyards it doesn’t pay to contract outside help.
After a long period of distance between the growers and the bodegas association, Fedejerez, Asevi has spent the last year trying to renew contact and succeeded in arranging a day of talks between the two parties just before last week’s Feria. According to Guerrero another meeting is expected at the end of June or the start of July to improve the exchange of ideas and seek solutions, the main one being that the grape price has to be fair and reasonable.
|One way to earn more from vineyards (foto:Pascual/diariodejerez)|
After a small and not particularly good harvest which endured heavy rain in May followed by mildew, the growers are facing another year of uncertainty because of more Levante wind than usual. Last year they suffered its drying and crop-reducing effects for more than a month in July and August, and they fear it will return this year.
After the massive uprooting of excess vineyard subsidised by Brussels which reduced the area of vineyard from 1,050 hectares to the current 6,500, the area managed to reach a balance between supply and demand. But if this year also produces a small crop there will be a supply problem. Naturally the bodegas need to replace their stocks but, as there is currently no overstock, the grape price will shoot up, and nobody wants that. Guerrero explains that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the price shot up from 82 pesetas to 100 (from 50 to 60 céntimos) and that was bad for the trade.
“We want a reasonable price, ideally 40-45 céntimos instead of the current 34-36 céntimos”, says Guerrero, who insists that “after achieving a balance of supply and demand, the trade cannot allow the loss of a further 2,000 hectares. Fedejerez understands the situation and has raised the price for the coming harvest, but it is still not enough”. Meanwhile the bodegas argue that they can’t offer more as the wine itself is not profitable either.
Although Sherry and Manzanilla are enjoying better times, in which little by little prices and sales values are recovering, BOB (buyer’s own brand) is still selling in large volumes and at very low margins, which is chipping away at profitability. The recent growth of Sherry corresponds to the leading brands and the VOS and VORS wines, but the turning point has not yet been reached because of the scale of the BOB trade. It seems that Bodegas and growers alike are condemned to put up with it.
“This year there has been a bit more movement in purchasing by the big bodegas, but only four of them are buying grapes”, says Guerrero, adding that “although the bodegas own some vineyard, it is the minimum possible as they are not interested in large tracts of it either. As they say here “La viña y el potro, que los críe otro” (vineyards and colts – let someone else raise them).
The situation in the vineyards has been bad for years. Six or seven years ago the grape price was the lowest in Spain – a mere 15 céntimos. The current situation is different; along with the Sherry “boom” the growers see other possibilities such as cask seasoning for whisky which is in great demand, or Jerez Vinegar, demand for which seems unstoppable.
Asevi believes there is a lack of motivation to seek other markets for their production, such as concentrated must or alcohol for Solera Gran Reserva brandies, the superior category, made from Palomino grapes. “We need to apply more pressure because to produce concentrated must and alcohol for brandy we would need at least 15,000 hectares more vineyard, a considerable figure when one takes into account that not a single hectare of vines has been planted for four years.
Guerrero says that now is the time to really back the vineyards. The average age of the growers is over 50 years, and they will not be replaced by their children, as the few who do choose to work vineyards do so through the more profitable Vinos de la Tierra de Cádiz rather than Sherry.
OLIVES AND ALMONDS ARE TAKING OVER FROM VINES
Of the alternatives to unprofitable vines available to the growers, the olive is currently the most attractive, partly for the rising price of olive oil and partly because they grow well in the area. Francisco Guerrero recalls that the olive was the natural substitute for the vine after Phylloxera at the end of the XIX century. Cultivation of the olive is undergoing considerable expansion in the Jerez countryside, and vine growers are looking at it seriously, since there are certain similarities with the vine in terms of cultivation. Guerrero cites the case of a 25 hectare vineyard on the Trebujena road which was converted to olives and is now about to double in size due to the high profitability of olives. And that is not the only alternative; almonds now proliferate in the Trebujena area in soils which bore vines until recently.
This interview by Á Espejo was published in today’s Diario de Jerez