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Vino de Pago: When is a Pago not a Pago?

Spain’s top-tier appellation of Vino de Pago and the private association Grandes Pagos de España both promote single-estate wines. There the similarity ends and the confusion begins. Mark O’Halleron reports.

Europe’s myriad wine laws and classifications have probably left most of us, at least once, scratching our heads in confusion. And it’s quite probable that one more furrow was added to the brow when, in 2003, the DO Vino de Pago was introduced as a new official category in Spanish wine, parachuted in to sit at the very peak of the appellation pyramid, above the DOCa/DOQs of Rioja and Priorat.

One consequence of the law was that it forbade any new winery from thereafter using the word ‘pago’ as part of its name – something many deemed a touch draconian as the word is an old, traditional Spanish term used to describe an estate or tract of land.

To be a Vino de Pago, single estates must demonstrate unique characteristics, such as climate and soil, and that all grapes are estate grown and all wine bottled on the property. However, there are legally defined exceptions, which complicate matters. Furthermore, some voices argue that the regulations attached to this classification are not strictly adhered to by all members.

There have long been grumblings that this new stratum is largely self-serving, driven by companies who wield significant power behind the scenes and who don’t particularly want to be associated with the DO where they are based. An additional bone of contention has been that many, although not all, of these estates produce wines using international grape varieties, or grapes not native to their region, which somewhat flies in the face of the notion of locality or terroir.

Outside the classification

Further muddying the waters is a private association called Grandes Pagos de España (GPdE), which has gained traction in recent years. GPdE is a select group of wineries located throughout Spain which began life in 2000 as Grandes Pagos de Castilla. The intent of the eight original members was to pool resources and promote the wines of Castilla y Léon and Castilla-La Mancha (its two founding fathers are Carlos Falcó, owner of Marqués de Griñon/Dominio de Valdepusa, and prominent Spanish journalist Victor de la Serna, proprietor of Finca Sandoval). However, in due course, producers from other regions also wanted to come on board, hence the name change and subsequent expansion.

There have been accusations that GPdE is little more than a paid-up members’ club. There is indeed a fee to sign up, in addition to further annual charges; however, Falcó says this income is used to offset the cost of events and marketing, and that the group is run on a not-for-profit basis. Regardless, it can rightly claim to have some fine producers on its books, such as Mas Doix in Priorat, Vallegarcia in Castilla and Bodega Mustiguillo in Valencia (whose El Terrerazo estate picked up an International Trophy at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards).

Written by Mark O’Halleron

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