Amidst a mass of vinous mediocrity, Spain is promoting its highly prized, and not necessarily highly priced, quality wines.
Leading British wine critic Jancis Robinson MW has summed up the landscape of Spain as “an anarchic jumble of staggeringly raw scenery and heartbreakingly awful human constructions”. Her warning to the wine lover was to recognise the country’s wine-scape – a confusing melange of regions and areas with hugely varying climatic conditions between north, south and centre – according to a similar duality.
The introduction in 2003 of the Vino de Pago classification was met with something of a lukewarm reception. Its intention was to help improve the quality (and image) of Spanish wine and create more flagship wines: a process vitally important for any country’s overall reception and reputation. But would yet another labelling variant in fact confuse or frustrate the consumer still further?
Vino de Pago is perhaps best understood in the French context, where individual vineyards or wine estates are singled out: the classified growths of Bordeaux, for example, or the Crus of Burgundy. But comparisons end there, unfortunately, because a Vino de Pago can be produced from anywhere in Spain, even outside an existing DO. The overall quality has to be equivalent to Rioja DOCa and Priorat DOCa, but the classification occupies the very peak of the appellation pyramid.
Another term for Vino de Pago is DO Pago and perhaps this provides a more helpful explanation of the concept. Pago is an old word for wine estate or tract of land, and the first point about a Vino de Pago wine is that it must be made with grapes from a single estate. So this new DO can be seen, potentially, to include all the top wine estates or vineyards in the country. It means that renegade wine producers who refuse to adhere to their DO’s requirements regarding grape variety, say, or ageing requirements, could now have the quality of their wine indicated on the bottle, rather than being taken for a bog-standard vino de mesa. And the DO Pago has its own sets of rules and requirements which differ from those of each of the country’s individual DOs.
If the wine consumer has not even heard of a system that has been in place for more than a decade, should its success be questioned? There seem to be at least two answers to that question. One is that, as they point out at Utiel-Requena DO property Chozas Carrascal, entering the Pago classification is a very long process – and it does not necessarily result in higher prices. They now have four Pago wines from organic vineyards, including a wild-fermented Chardonnay (wines made from non-indigenous grapes can qualify).
Further, only 15 wineries produce Pago-status wines. When introduced, the new classification met with particular interest in Castilla-La Mancha, where the first Vinos de Pago were created: Finca Elez from Manuel Manzaneque and Dominiude Valdepusa from Marquis de Grinon. To date, all the Vinos de Pago are either located there, in Carinena, in Navarra and Valencia. It is not a huge spread, and it remains to be seen whether all parts of Spain will embrace the initiative.
Rodolfo Valiente Garcia of Bodegas Vegalfaro was responsible for developing the system in Valencia, which was ratified by the Valencian government in 2010. His own certified wine is crafted with the local Bobal grape, and named Pago de Los Balagueses. As with the El Terrazo from Bodega Mustiguillo, in Utiel-Requena, also made with Bobal, it would appear that wine estates with Pago status are good across the board.
Garcia is sure that the movement will grow but there’s one significant problem in his mind: “The Administration!” To be a Vino de Pago, single estates must demonstrate unique characteristics such as climate and soil. While they do not have to be organic, they must operate sustainable agriculture practices. Garcia says that while a wine may be tasted for quality, no one actually pays a visit to the vineyard to check on agricultural practices. He is also concerned that size is no object, meaning you could be a 200- or 300-hectare site and still qualify. (Sites currently seem to range from 16 – 137 hectares).
If we’re a little clearer on DO Pagos, do still read labels carefully because some wine estates historically have the word “Pago” in their name, in the same way that a Portuguese property might be called a Quinta, or a French property a Chateau.
There’s a further complication that goes by the name of Grandes Pagos de Espana. This organisation dates from the year 2000, and was founded in Castilla – where DO Pagos first took off. Critics refer to it as an exclusive members’ only club, for which annual fees must be paid. But, like the DO Pago, it seems foundationally interested in pushing quality at the highest level, and members like Marques de Grinon and Bodega Mustiguillo, both referred to here, enjoy dual status.