Down South they sell cars with a special set of gears designed for slowly making your way out to the vineyards. You start in first before changing up to “dawdling”, then smoothly up through “chugging along “, “ambling” “moseying”, and finally “meandering”, reaching a top speed of around 15 miles per hour within fifteen minutes. It is not for the faint of heart … I am of course only kidding. The real reason for the slightly less than rapid progress is not the gearing of the horseless carriage but rather the consideration of the driver, as they navigate beaten up tracks between once great properties out to remote, rustic locations.
And therein lies the first of a number of learnings from a fantastic recent visit to the vineyards of one of my heroes. The drive out to Finca Matalian and Pozo Galvan, the vineyards of Primitivo Collantes (for it is he) takes you out through one of the lowliest neighbourhoods of Chiclana and out along a road (“el carril”) that once lead all the way to Jerez, and was once lined on both sides by famous vineyards, villas, and plantations. But not any more. Now the road has more holes than road, the vineyards are gone, the villas are no longer famous, and you are beseiged on every side by the dead heads of late season sunflowers (unless, of course, you go earlier in the season).
Where once there were 2,400 hectares of vineyards now there are only 137. Only two bodegas still harvest grapes in Chiclana itself: the cooperativo and our man Primitivo, the Asterix of Chiclana winemakers, who almost alone is resisting the sunflower invasion and now accounts for no less than 39 of the 137 hectares that are planted. (And our man Primitivo is doing more than just resist: 6 of his hectares were planted in the last half dozen years, and he is looking to see where he can plant next.)
And god bless him for resisting because his are beautiful little properties. From the top of the hill you can see over to the Bay of Cadiz but the vines are a picture too: Pozo Galvan, 19 hectares of albariza that cross a tongue of lustrillo; and Finca Matalian, a gentle downward sloping sea of albariza, palomino, moscatel, pedro ximenez and uva rey planted east to west, with a secret corner behind the canes called Isla el Topo (on the left of the third picture above, with the rest of Finca Matalian to the right).
Isla el Topo is particularly interesting, a tiny 1,5 hectare section of Finca Matalian at the bottom of the slope and protected from the levante winds by a natural barrier of cane. That protection (the origin of the name of “Socaire”, which literally means shelter from the wind) means that while the rest of the finca is planted east to west, Isla el Topo is planted north to south, bringing its vines side on to the sun. The vines get more sun and the first run of these grapes is distributed to stimulate the natural barrel fermentation of the rest.
And when I say Albariza you can see above – a cross section from a drainage ditch in Finca Matalian and a lump of the same give you an idea of what we are dealing with: the good stuff. The other picture is not in fact Pozo Galvan but is from a nearby vineyard with similar topography and shows how the lustrillo (foreground) gives way to albariza up the slope. Really striking color change and fascinating in terms of wine making possibilities.
Gets no less fascinating as you close in on the vines either. I was intrigued by the uva rey – you don’t see much of it around after all – and just look at the difference between the grapes on the vine (uva rey on the left, palomino on the right) and in my palm (confusingly the other way around). The uva rey has some coat on it I can tell you: real crunch on this grape and an acidity and pungency from the skin that lifts it apart from the palomino (and the moscatel, and the pedro ximenez). Or maybe I should say palominos: Primitivo has a few different clones, although mostly palomino de jerez, recognizable by its rough stem (also pictured – of course I didn’t picture the others …).
All of this is harvested by 32 hands (ok, 64 hands, but no machines anyway) in a single “pass” over fifteen days in September (generally the latest harvest in el marco). The grapes are sorted by hand, the wines are naturally fermented in the barrel and go on to become some favourites of this blog: the fresh and gluggable Viña Matalian, the superb, punchy, barrel aged Socaire, the searing Fino Arroyuelo en Rama and the joyous Amontillado Fossi, amongst others. (And there is more to come: the day before I pitched up Primitivo and Ramiro Ibañez had apparently been sketching out some zones of the vineyard in which they hope to produce even more expressive wines: sign me up for a box etc.)
Having seen the vineyards (and since we had forgotten to bring the picnic) we repaired to the bodega for some refreshment. Or rather one of the Bodegas: the Bodega in the “high part” of town, a regal old building home to an uncommon friendly population of bats and a lot of even friendlier looking butts of wine. Once there we headed to the “Sacristia” (above on the right, with the main man included) where we supped the uva rey and 2016 Socaire with chicharones and a cracking local cheese.
And it was at the bodega that I really began to appreciate quite how far Primitivo Collantes has come. I couldn’t believe how small the Fossi solera was: until recently only 500 bottles were filled a year. More importantly, I realized for the first time that this is a bodega with a long history (110 years in the same family) but which until recently was dedicated almost exclusively to the local, bulk market. Primitivo told me that only six years ago they only had distribution in Cadiz province, whereas now you can get their wines throughout Spain (and I frankly am disappointed at the outside world for not getting a piece of the action too).
It is fantastic news. This guy makes proper wines, wines that deserve to be enjoyed and recognized all over: in fact I think he is consistently the most underrated winemaker in el Marco de Jerez. But for me what makes it even better news is the way that it has been done. It has not been done by rediscovering lost barrels or marketing special numbered editions (although there have been a couple and they have been top class). On the contrary what has taken the bodega to the far corners of Spain and caused Primitivo to spend so much time planting is the quality of the unfortified white wines: Matalian and Socaire. Wines that have always expressed their time and place – I will never forget my first encounter with Pitijopo number 6 and the obsession with Finca Matalian that it brought about – and that nowadays have dates and places on the labels (it took a couple of years to convince the powers that be). They could not be better ambassadors for Chiclana or el Marco de Jerez, and in my view their success could not be better news for the region.
And what Primitivo has done has not been easy. I, and dare I say all the half dozen readers of this blog, are fortunate to live in a bubble in which it is obvious that terroir and vintage specific wines are the way forward. But that bubble only contains the entire world of wine outside el Marco de Jerez. I am always shocked on the few occasions that I go down there to hear of the frontal opposition to basic winemaking beliefs (shocked but not surprised, since so few of the big houses have their own vineyards) and it was disheartening to say the least to hear of the obstacles Primitivo has had to fight his way through.
Or rather it was disheartening at first but ultimately uplifting, because he fought his way through those obstacles and he is winning the argument. He is planting more hectares, making better wines, selling them all around Spain (come on the rest of the world, what are you waiting for?), and shows no sign of stopping.
I will never forget my visit to Finca Matalian and the Bodega this summer, I was inspired by what I saw there, and I would like to express my thanks and admiration for the great Primitivo Collantes. Primi, you are the man.