A Guide to Spain’s Vino de Pago
Confused? So is everyone
Illustrations: Adrian Borque
Wednesday 27 April 2022
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It’s the highest category on the quality scale of Spanish wines. Or at least it would be if Spain’s top wine regions bothered using the classification, which they don’t. One region which does use the Vino de Pago system, though, is Castilla-La Mancha, and it does so with gusto.
Castilla-La Mancha was once known for bulk-production and vast monocultures on its arid plains, but times (and vines) are a-changin’.
Since the Vino de Pago (VP) classification was introduced in 2003 to improve the quality of Spanish wine, Castilla La Mancha has led the race to the top; boasting a dozen Pagos out of a Spanish total of 20. In a country of 4,300 wineries, that’s quite a hit rate.
It’s also home to Spain’s first-ever Pago, Dominio de Valdepusa, where Carlos Falcó Fernandez introduced modern drip irrigation and the planting of French grapes. Most of the Pago Domaines have followed Valdepusa, working with international varieties to make big, age-worthy, barrel matured reds and the occasional oak-aged white.
At Pago estates, expect high alcohol, full bodied expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah and Petit Verdot, as well as local varieties Tempranillo (known here as Cencibel) and Garnacha Tinto to a lesser degree. Among whites, native Airén sometimes pops up (learn more about Airén in Maureen Little’s introduction to the grape elsewhere in this issue), but international varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and even Viognier are more widely planted.
Spain’s remaining VPs are located in Aragon, Navarra, Valencia and Castilla y León; regions, along with Castilla-La Mancha, not readily associated with quality wine production. The system, therefore, helps producers garner a reputation for quality in regions better known for lower quality, often large quantity wine.
From Quantity to Quality
Joaquin Parra, author of the Wine Up! Guide, says the Pago system has improved the overall image of wine in the region. Joaquin believes that despite there being a dozen Pagos in Castilla-La Mancha, many more unclassified wineries are at the same or even higher level of quality than these.
“Though intended to provide a quality image, what the consumer wants is to enjoy a quality wine and maybe he or she doesn’t care so much about the denomination,” says Joaquin.
So what does a humble wine have to do to become an esteemed Vino de Pago? You might think it’s as simple as making wine with a proven track record of consistent quality, but that isn’t enough on its own. The rules governing the Pago classification are a bit complicated, so try to stay with me here...
Unlike a Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) or Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), which are designations applied to an entire wine region, a Pago is applied to an individual vineyard or estate. Although a VP must be within a registered Denominación de Origen (DO), it functions independently of them.
A Pago must use only grapes grown on the estate, and these must be processed and aged in a winery located on site. The bodega must also demonstrate unique characteristics to qualify as a VP.
If you’re failing to follow all of this, don’t worry; herein lies one of the central criticisms of the system – it’s confusing. Rather than elucidate, Pago detractors say the system obfuscates and leaves consumers scratching their heads.
Pago enthusiasts, meanwhile, point out that akin to France’s Grand Cru system, a Pago refers simply to the quality of a particular vineyard and the terroir in which the grapes grow. A sceptic might riposte that French wine classification itself is notorious for its complex bureaucracy and bewildering set of rules and regulations.
Amaya Cervera, a wine journalist and founder of Spanish Wine Lover, says there was a simple idea at the heart of the Pago classification when it was introduced:
“Wineries committed to quality could have a label that would draw attention to a specific terroir and distinguish them in an area very focused on volume and bulk.”
However, she believes a big mistake was made by detaching a Pago from the appellation of origin (DO or DOP) of which it is part of, breaking with the logic of the French model.
“The next problem is how complicated it is to explain to the consumer,” Amaya adds.
“If we think of a New York or London fan, for example, it will seem very strange to them that Vega Sicilia is not a Pago Wine DO, when other wineries that they don’t know are.”
But for Francisco Fernandez, technical director of Pago de la Jaraba, the classification has been nothing but a boon for the region. A family-owned winery and farm, La Jaraba also produces a cheese, a DO Queso Manchego made from the raw unpasteurised milk of their Manchega sheep, as well as an extra virgin olive oil. In addition to 80 hectares of vineyards, there are almond and pistachio trees, and – as if that isn’t enough to be getting on with – sunflowers, wheat and barley plantings too.
Since 2019, the estate has been proudly waving the Pago flag, although it took the winery some 17 years of grit (and piles of paperwork) for official recognition to come through.
“For us it’s a pleasure to explain our wine to people who would like to know about Pago wines,” Francisco says, but admits that for people who don’t know the system, it does appear quite complicated, until you explain that it’s similar to Bordeaux.
“The consumer would prefer to know it’s been grown by a family team, they’d like to know the place where it comes from,” he says.
“It’s a way of separating wines within the region – for Castilla-La Mancha it’s very good that La Jaraba is a Pago because our philosophy is one of growth and management through quality.”
Wines Unique to Soil and Climate
Promoting Castilla-La Mancha’s wine at a national and international level is an important part of the region’s transformation and falls to Fundación Tierra De Viñedos, a non-profit organisation that forms part of the regional government.
Its director Diana Granados says that having 12 Pagos has been important in giving the region recognition for producing quality wines. This is especially important, she says, given they are home to DO La Mancha, the largest wine region in the world by surface area, an area once better known for bulk production than top shelf bottles.
“Pago wines have their own characteristics and must comply with specific regulations which make them wines made under different conditions, but it does not always mean that they are better than other wines with different quality metrics,” she adds.
Like Francisco Fernandez, Diana believes the Pago classification has helped to bring recognition to the region’s quality-focused approach, not only to wine lovers in Castilla La Mancha but also across the world.
The foundation organises tastings at La Cultura del Vino wine fair each year, where Diana meets attendees who are always very open to learning about the region’s viticulture and its array of Pago wines (as well as enjoying a glass or two of Castilla La Mancha’s best wares).
For Diana, the classification shines a spotlight on the wines from the region that stand out from the crowd:
“Pago wine is one that is produced in a very specific area of the terroir, with very specific characteristics of soil, climate and varieties that make these wines unique and differentiated.”
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