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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.

Vino de Pago: Rules and regulations

Both Vino de Pago and GPdE have a raft of regulations that must be met by producers to secure membership. They are not mutually exclusive, though crossover is limited – there are 14 Vinos de Pago and 30 GPdE, and only six estates are members of both.

In addition to these, Vinos de Pago also have to show that they have produced ‘exceptional’ wines for at least 10 years, which is rather subjective. Rules of entry for GPdE are blurred in a comparable manner: like Vino de Pago, successful applicants need to submit exhaustive studies of their vineyards, practices and philosophy – plus have their wines tasted by a committee to approve their quality. They also have to display a history of commercial success and critical approval, which you could argue is similarly subjective.

The sheer reach of GPdE undeniably surpasses that of the government-stamped classification; for while the former can showcase wineries from Cava, Bierzo, Somontano, Rioja, Toro and more, the Vinos de Pago are located in just a handful of regions, Castilla-La Mancha being the dominant force. This is by virtue of the fact that although Vino de Pago has been given the go-ahead by the national government, it still needs to be ratified at regional level, and only a few areas have done so thus far.

The reason for this, according to Decanter’s Spanish wine expert Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW, is a lack of confidence or comfort in their home region: ‘I would say Vino de Pago only exists in those regions where producers are not proud of their classic appellations, such as Navarra, La Mancha and Valencia,’ he says. ‘Instead of fighting to raise the quality of their natural regions, producers and politicians preferred to invent a new legislative animal, unrelated to either terroir or tradition.’ Clearly both share common ground in the promotion of single-estate wines, but GPdE – unhindered by the shackles of governance – can offer a more inclusive and wider approach.

Shared vision

The implication is that GPdE is home to Spain’s most superlative producers, and yet there are some glaring absences, including Vega Sicilia, Pingus and L’Ermita. Such is their reputation that membership is hardly necessary and, in fairness, GPdE does not claim to be a one-stop shop for Spain’s finest. It does, however, regularly and proudly talk of its collective vision, which does have merit.

Vino de Pago is trickier. While it is also dedicated to wineries which can demonstrate unique characters and whose wines are estate grown, the fact that they are held up as being superior to appellations with centuries of heritage is jarring and bemusing – even more so when they are isolated to only a few areas of Spain.

Yet Toni Sarrion of Bodega Mustiguillo, who is amember of both groups through his estates El Terrerazo (a Vino de Pago as well as GPdE) and Finca Calvestra (GPdE), says they each have their advantages: ‘Vino de Pago means we are not restricted by the rigid rules of the DO, while GPdE helps promote the concept of Vino de Pago.’

Adolfo Hornos, general manager and winemaker at Vallegarcia (a GPdE member), also feels that while confusing, being part of both can be advantageous: ‘Being a Vino de Pago is positive as you are different and unique, but the downside is that you are on your own and nobody helps you. That’s where being with GPdE is beneficial – we are a strong, exclusive group of producers with a greater capacity to communicate externally. We’re also able to co-operate and share ideas and knowledge with fellow members.’

To an extent these systems chime with other European wine organisations or classifications such as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione in Italy, or VDP in Germany; however, neither are mirror images. While Gran Selezione wines are indeed estate wines, the scope with varieties is much more limited and there are other rules such as length of ageing; while the VDP has additional strictures in place such as minimum must weight, reduced yields and, significantly, the vineyards must contain a minimum of 80% traditional varieties.

Spain’s best wines?

The modern concept of the Pago is, on balance, an honourable one, particularly in terms of demanding (in theory) top-notch procedures in both vineyard and cellar. But confusion over the whole issue stems from the creation of the Vino de Pago classification and arbitrarily putting it at the apex of Spain’s wine rankings. This, compounded by its still limited geographical reach, suggests there is more than a whiff of politics in the air.

Where both groups have value is that there are a number of quality-based hurdles that prospective members must negotiate before being accepted. Therefore, in theory, you should be buying a bottle that demonstrates an impressive level of class at the very least. Yet, a bottle emblazoned with either DO Vino de Pago or Grandes Pagos de España will not unequivocally guarantee that the wine is representative of the very best that Spanish winemaking has to offer.

Consider this: Pingus is a single-estate wine, as is Vega Sicilia’s Unico, and one would assume that Peter Sisseck and Pablo Alvarez respectively are also stringent when it comes to their viticultural and winemaking methods. They belong to neither grouping and would no doubt have a few words to say about Vino de Pago apparently representing the very pinnacle of Spain’s winemaking excellence.

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