Grand Cru style vineyards in Spain

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  • Friday 6 June 2008

Pago - not the capital of an exotic south-Pacific island, but a new category of ‘grand cru’ single-vineyard estates in Spain. Many are called but few are chosen, as JOHN RADFORD explains

It all started with the breaking of the rules. It was 1973, Franco was still in charge,

French vine varieties were banned, planting in the province of Toledo was outlawed, and nobody in their right mind would consider the financial risk of trying to make wine in the hot highlands of the Toledo Mountains. Except for Carlos Falcó. Falcó, the Marqués de Griñón, is, by popular consent, the man who made Pagos popular. But first a word about the word.

Pago in this context means a single-estate vineyard. It’s been used extensively in Jerez for hundreds of years, and forms part of a confusingly large number of registered trademarks and producer names. Since the 2003 wine law came into play, however, the official description ‘Denominación de Origen Pago’ has been reserved for individual single estates that have fulfilled certain criteria: wines labelled DO Pago must, fairly obviously, be made from grapes from a single estate, turned into wine and bottled in a bodega on that same estate. The estates must have achieved an international reputation for quality, command a premium price and comply with the internationally recognised ISO 9001 quality assurance. Producers who want to be considered for the category apply through their own DO, though the final decision is made by the region’s Ministry of Agriculture. In the case of Chivite, in Navarra, so disappointed was the producer that the DO refused to countenance the Pago classification, that it went direct to the Ministry of Agriculture to ratify its Señorío de Arínzano estate. More of which later…

What all this means is that estates that have earned a reputation over a number of years can apply to extract themselves from the DO system and become appellations in their own right. Spain, thus, has a moreor- less direct equivalent to a grand cru or château appellation actually written into its wine law, which makes it unique in the European Union. It is, in short, the breaking of the mould. Alas, thus far, only two regions have signed up to the system. Navarra is the latest. In spite of years of refusal to countenance anyappellationother than the region-wide DO Navarra, a new law of 2005 opened the way for diversification. This being Spain, nothing happened immediately. Under the old law, if grapes were deemed surplus to requirements for DO Navarra they were declassified, and could only be sold off for vino de mesa (table wine) or distillation, at paltry prices. Matters came to a head when growers in the south, on the border of the Rioja DOCa zone, applied to join Rioja in the hope of getting a better price for their grapes. But it still took a change of leadership at the Consejo Regulador for the new law to be applied. Pilar García Granero, a Bordeauxtrained winemaker, immediately put the wheels in motion to create a new vino de la tierra zone within Navarra (provisionally named Tres Riberas) which will allow bodegas to make wine from declassified grapes as well as giving winemakers more flexibility. Then, at the end of last year, DO Pago Señorío de Arínzano emerged from its shell, becoming one of five DO Pagos.

They are:

DO Dominio de Valdepusa (2003)

This was the starter – Carlos Falcó’s hunting-lodge estate, where the smuggled 1973 vines bore fruit. The estate is 6km from the nearest village and 2km from the nearest road, so there were no witnesses. The resulting wines were marketed without any appellation, and achieved prices of more than £12 in the UK. It became apparent that, since they were fetching four times the price of wines from the DO La Mancha to theeast and 10 times the price of wines from the DO Méntrida to the north, they merited some sort of official recognition. It didn’t happen quickly but, then, this is Spain. (Declaration of interest: I have dined at Carlos Falcó’s table, swum in his pool, drunk his wines and stayed at the hunting lodge on his estate on more than one occasion. While he was courting the lovely Fátima, he left us to go to a formal event at her mother’s estate one night, and returned the following morning in a hot-air balloon. Only in Malpica.)

The details: Established in 1974 in Malpica de Tajo, Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha, 120km south-west of Madrid; 42ha (hectares) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot.

Best wine: Emeritus (about £30 depending on vintage; A&A, Mor, ScC).

DO Finca Elez (2003)

This was a joint first with Valdepusa in 2003. In the run-up to the millennium, I bumped into José Peñín, one of Spain’s leading wine writers. I asked him which areas of Spain were the ones to watch and he said that high-altitude vineyards in the south were full of potential, ‘particularly the Sierra de Alcaraz’ in the province of Albacete. At that time, Finca Elez had already been established in El Bonillo for seven years, a project by actor, film and theatre director Manuel Manzaneque and his sister Sofia.

They had planted vineyards at 1,080m in the Sierra de Alcaraz, among the highest in Spain. The project was planned extremely carefully, and Manzaneque believes ‘wine, much like drama or comedy, represents man’s highest cultural aspirations, and is equally capable of giving pleasure.’ Promotion to Pago status was not easySofia Manzaneque recalls: ‘As we were the first, the main difficulty was bureaucracy. The administration knew what it wanted but hadn’t defined the document to register it. It was a long job.’

The details: Established 1993 at El Bonillo, Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha, 250km south of Madrid; 38ha of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Best wine: Manuel Manzaneque Escena (£26; Fah).

DO Pago Guijoso (2004)

There must be something in the soil in El Bonillo: just down the road from Finca Elez is Bodegas Sánchez- Muliterno, whose premium vineyard, Pago Guijoso, became a Pago DO in 2004 after more than six years of work from initial application to appearing in the pages of the official registers – another ‘long job’.

Approval from the regional government took four years, with a further two spent waiting for ratification from Madrid and Brussels. ‘Because it was a new Muliterno, ‘everything was scrutinised through a magnifying glass, especially quality-control systems. We stuck at it, however, because we believed in our wines, and that the Pago accolade recognises their status as the finest in Spain.’ The vineyard is about 1,000m in altitude and, as with neighbouring Finca Elez, has a unique microclimate: hot days during the ripening season followed by cold nights, and little worry about insectpests or fungal diseases.

The details: Established 1996 at El Bonillo, Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha, 250km south of Madrid; 98ha of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tempranillo.

Best wine: Magnificus (N/A UK; +34 967 193 222).

DO Dehesa del Carrizal (2006)

There was a lot of activity on this company’s stand at the 2006 Spanish Wine Fair, with staff hastily attaching stickers to the back of the bottles as the fair opened. When I asked what was happening, they said that the estate had been awarded DO Pago status ‘two days ’. The labels, of course, had been printed long before and the stickers were to let potential customers know about the promotion. Their motivation is shared by all the other DO Pagos: ‘We think that being a Pago is the highest recognition a winery can obtain,’ says export manager Beatriz Hernández. ‘It shows that the wines produced here are so special that they’re worthy of national and international recognition.’ Dehesa del Carrizal, whose oenologist is Ignacio de Miguel, was relatively fast-tracked, with only 18 months from the first application, plus another year for its ISO 9001. Perhapsthe authorities were getting used to the process by now.

The details: Established 1974 at Retuerta del Bullaque, Ciudad Real, 160km south of Madrid; 22ha of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Syrah.

Best wine: Colección Privada (£20; Fah).

DO Señorío de Arínzano (2007)

This is the one which has broken the mould: the first candidate from outside Castilla-La Mancha. Although the DO Pago is enshrined in national law, regional governments have to ratify it locally before bodegas can apply, and Navarra had always steadfastly refused to countenance anything smaller than the region-wide DO Navarra until 2005. The Chivite family, which had lobbied for some kind of separate status 10 years ago for its single-estate Señorío de Arínzano, immediately applied for Pago status, which was granted towards the end of 2007. The estate was planted in 1988 and, since the early 1990s, has provided grapes for Chivite Colección 125. From the 2000 vintage, however, the company has been separately bottling wine made from the oldest vines in the hope that it would eventually get the coveted accolade. I have poignant memories of my first visit to the estate in 1992, when the vineswere young and the lovely old buildings still desperately in need of restoration (long since achieved). I was shownaround by Mercedes Chivite, then a vivacious 30 year old, bubbling over with ambition for the Señorío. Sadly, she didn’t live to see it achieve its full potential as she died in January 2005 after a long battle with cancer. But the wine lives on and the first bottles will be released this month, while Colección 125 will become the second wine of the estate, still under the DO Navarra and made from younger vines.

The details: Established in 1988 at Aberin, Navarra, 160km south-east of Bilbao; the Pago wine) of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

With a paltry two regions currently signed up for the classification, DO Pagos is far from establishing itself as a castiron guarantor of the finest wine estates in Spain. So just how likely are other DOs to sign up, and which estates will benefit? Now that Navarra has capitulated, Guelbenzu has to be a front-runner for promotion to Pago status, and, after that, Castilian pride will probably see the regional government of Castilla y León pass the appropriate legislation, so watch out for the (Mariano)García family (Aalto, Mauro, Maurodós) and long-standing Luna Beberide. I suspect that the last to go, if ever, will be La Rioja. There are so many fabulous single estates in Rioja that Pago status could fracture the DOCa completely. But, as Victor Hugo said in 1852: ‘An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.’

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