Monday, 8 December 2014

The Great Challenge facing the Historic Vineyards

From an interesting article in today’s Diario de Jerez by A. Espejo.

A great deal of work needs to be done to develop the countryside as a tourism resource, and this is the principal aim of the provincial vineyard plan. The coordinator of the plan stresses that the first thing to be done is to stop the destruction of the patrimony and to deal with its state of abandon.

From the porch of the vineyard house of La Esperanza in the Pago Balbaína a sonnet on a beautiful tiled panel greets the passer-by. It is a vestige of the times of splendour which were experienced by the countryside and the wine trade in the mid XIX century when the house was built. It was later refurbished in 1935 by José de Soto Abad.

The caserio at La Esperanza in a rather dilapidated state (foto
Unfortunately the La Esperanza vineyard is also a clear example of the decadence and the state of abandon of the patrimony throughout the Jerez area. Its privileged position, separated from Jerez by a sea of vines is now a small island of vines, albeit still in production, is now spattered with wind turbines. What once resembled an earthly paradise has lost most of its charm.

Sonnet to the glory of Esperanza (foto
Among the distinct Pagos of Jerez, bald patches of uncultivated soil occupy a great part of the land which was once a sea of productive vines until the ravages of grubbing-up to reduce production during the crisis. But there are still a few spots which retain the flavour of those glorious times, places which make one think that there is room to extend the Ruta del Vino de Jerez - thus far only including bodegas - to the vineyards. Currently Rafael Martín, the coordinator of the provincial vineyard plan, is paying visits to many of these spots, some in better shape than others, some owned by growers, others by bodegas.

Wind farms are everywhere (foto
This is the first phase of the plan, which centres on understanding the terrain and getting to know proprietors and their concerns and ideas, is hoped to be complete by the end of this year. Starting in January, the man from the Junta will begin the second phase which will involve meetings with local councils to try and assess the necessary public measures to invigorate vineyard tourism.

It is a mammoth task. The historic vineyards add up to some 7,000 hectares but another thousand exist which are either Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz (VT Cádiz) or not connected to any Denominación de Origen.  Martín says that not only is there no vineyard tourism, but that it is a long way from being a reality. “It is not impossible, but we have to start from zero.”

You don’t have to go far in the countryside to see the deterioration of the landscape and the patrimony.  In the Pago Balbaína, approached by a gully from the road to Rota, the wind turbines completely spoil the aesthetic of any vineyards which still exist, while there are hardly any traces of the roadside vegetation and even the roads are in a poor state.

Much farther north the Pago Carrascal offers a very different picture, perhaps somewhat closer to the model for vineyard tourism. Here the vegetation still exists and the landscape is dotted with jacarandas along the roadsides making a bicycle route a possibility with various country roads which are passable if not in a great state of repair.

The regeneration of the countryside will take time and will need the cooperation of the various administrations as well as the wine trade.  Martín says that what is needed is awareness of the damage being done, putting a stop to the wind and solar energy farms which are not irreversible. What it will take is local authority ordinances and the Junta’s Plan de Ordenación Territorial (POT) de la Bahía de Cádiz to take things forward with the minimum obstruction.

The wind turbines are, of course, a source of income to small growers, who would need some other source of income to augment their meagre income from grapes. The big vineyard owning bodegas are the obvious ones to grab the reins and start attracting tourists to the vineyards, opening the growers’ eyes as to how it is done.

The wine tourist is demanding, quite different to the locals who might hire a vineyard house for a celebration but are not prepared to shell out 10 to 15 euros for a tutored tasting at the vineyard, or less still prepared to spend more on a whole day’s visit with lunch.

Unlike the traditional vineyards which are scattered and with distant bodegas, the VT Cádiz vineyards often have a bodega on site, making them ideal vineyard tourism venues where they can actively promote their wines, which are still not widely known.  They could be a good model for the Sherry vineyards, but the challenge for the Junta is to make it work. There is, needless to say, much competition with other wine regions both in Spain and abroad, as well as the inevitable shortage of investment.

Entrance to Vina El Caballo (foto
The El Caballo vineyard, also in the Pago Balbaina could be a good example of an outside investor who has confidence in the future of tourism and winemaking in the Jerez countryside. The vineyard, which has a vineyard house in a good state of repair was bought from Osborne by Vicente Taberner, a businessman from Valencia and owner of the Huerta de Albalá near Arcos de la Frontera, one of the first wineries in the VT Cádiz. So far he has not divulged his plans for El Caballo.

Some of the leading Sherry bodegas have perfectly serviceable facilities for vineyard tourism; Gonzalez Byass in Carrascal, for example, and Barbadillo in Gibalbín where the Santa Lucía vineyard impressed Martín. But these are isolated cases, and there is a massive amount of work to do.

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