Spain has got itself into a bit of a muddle, with three separate groups all claiming to represent the top tier of wine. Margaret Rand takes a look at a country wrestling with estate-sponsored terroirism
Gosh, the Spanish are clubbable. Must be all that warm sunshine; it gets them out and talking to each other. Or maybe it’s just Carlos Falcó who’s clubbable – Carlos Falcó of Dominio de Valdepusa and El Rincón, the first of which is a Vino de Pago and both of which, as Pagos Marqués de Griñón, are members of Grandes Pagos de España (GPE). They are also members of Círculo Fortuny, which is for luxury brands only, and not just wine. The Hotel Ritz in Madrid is a member of the latter, as is Loewe. (One wonders what their Secret Santa presents might be like.)
Grandes Pagos de España and Círculo Fortuny are private associations which Falcó was instrumental in founding; Vino de Pago is an official Spanish classification which Dominio de Valdepusa was the first to obtain – after, affirms the supremely well-connected Falcó, a lot of lobbying and hard work. But actually he says that one of the most difficult things to get the members of GPE to do was exchange information, so maybe they’re not as clubbable as that, after all.
The outsider would be forgiven for being utterly confused. To simplify things a little, let’s deal with, and then forget about, Círculo Fortuny. It has five wine members, the others being Abadía Retuerta (also a member of GPE), Numanthia (ditto), Vega Sicilia (not ditto) and Sierra Cantabria (also not).
That done, so let’s proceed to the two Pagos set-ups, and consider what they do and whether it matters – and whether or not they can be of any help to UK sommeliers trying to persuade customers to part with crisp tenners.
Vino de Pago is a classification enshrined in Spanish law, at the top of the quality pyramid. These are single-vineyard wines – essentially, estates that reckon they’re special enough to have their own DO, and have been able to persuade enough key people to agree with them.
To the Spanish market, Grandes Pagos de España has become the official classification
They have to demonstrate, among other things, that their terroir is sufficiently different to others in the area. There are 14 of them, and while some are outside DO areas and would otherwise be plain old Vino de la Tierra or Vino de Mesa, others, such as Chivite’s Pago de Arínzano, are within existing DOs.
They were a good idea, but only three Spanish regions took them up: Navarra, Castilla-La Mancha and Valencia. That obviously excludes a great many of Spain’s finest single estates. (There are also producers who trademarked brand names containing the word ‘pago’ before any of this started, but aren’t official Pagos at all. One can only applaud their foresight.)
All of this left a gap in the market, and GPE reckons not only to fill that gap but to overtake the official classification by providing a nationwide alternative.
GPE are also single estates, and they have to be invited to join. The top wine of an estate has to score at least 16/20 in a blind tasting (one might infer from many of the wines that the tasting panel is quite keen on oak and extraction), and they have to be voted in by 100% of the existing membership.
There are currently 30 of them, and there’s usually a queue of four or five waiting to be assessed, according to Falcó.
There is, of course, a long and honourable history of private associations coming together to compensate for the failings of the wine law. Germany is an obvious example, with the VDP, founded in 1910; think also of the Super Tuscan movement in Italy, which eventually managed to get the law changed.
Both were determined to separate the best wines from the general morass and to change consumer perceptions; both succeeded. Each was dealing with a different problem: the Germans were fighting a law that put sugar ripeness above terroir, and the Italians were battling legislation that enshrined the grape blends and winemaking of several generations before.
Falcó and his co-founders didn’t, as far as I can see, have any major beef with Spanish wine law (though see below), and their motivation clearly can’t have been the non-proliferation of Grandes Pagos de España, since GPE was originally just Grandes Pagos de Castilla, and thus very exclusive indeed. So perhaps it was more about marketing: if you start a club and control who joins it, you can then construct a profile, hold tastings around the world, and promote yourselves in the right sort of company.
‘Top wines have suffered enormously in restaurants here in the crisis,’ says Falcó. ‘Anything at €30 is difficult to sell.’
To be exclusive, of course, means that you exclude people. So while Falcó says that ‘the whole range [of a producer] should be exceptional’ to join GPE, anything that’s not a single estate is out.
That rules out many of the top wines of Rioja, where the traditional structure is of growers selling grapes to negociant houses. It also leaves out most great sherries. Valdespino is a member, and rightly so; but sherries of the stature of, say, González Byass’s Palmas range are outside the walls. I don’t suppose GB minds too much; I merely point it out.
Vega Sicilia, which used to be a member of GPE, left to join Círculo Fortuny. Recaredo used to belong but left to join a biodynamic organisation. Dominio de Pingus is not a member. Telmo Rodriguez has so far not joined. But hey, GPE only started in 2000 and it’s far better to evolve slowly and securely.
But if it really aspires to replace Vino de Pago in people’s minds – and Falcó reckons that it already has: ‘To the Spanish market, GPE has become the official classification’ – it might seem worrying, given the Spanish tradition of growers selling their fruit to negociants, that anything that is not a single vineyard is excluded.
I’d never heard of GPE. I should think nought percent of customers have heard of it
Co-founder of GPE, Victor de la Serna, is unrepentant: he believes that single vineyards are the way forward for the industry in Spain – ‘95% of the greatest wines of Spain are estate wines’. And, he remarks, it’s a private club that can do what it wants – it doesn’t have to give party bags to everybody.
He points to the flaws in the Vino de Pago system: not only did just three regions run with it, but sometimes people ‘funnelled money’ to the right people to get the DO they were after, so quality is far from equal. And, he says, some DO Pagos have gone bankrupt or are on the point of it: what happens to the DO then?
So far, Grandes Pagos de España has not made a huge impression on sommeliers in the UK. ‘I own three Spanish restaurants, and I’d never heard of it before,’ says Sam Hart, co-owner of Barrafina in London. ‘I should think nought per cent of customers have heard of it.’
So if it wants to replace the official classification in people’s minds, it still has a way to go over here – though you could argue that consumer understanding of the official Spanish classification is also fairly low. ‘Reserva and Gran Reserva do ring a bell with customers but are hugely misunderstood,’ says Hart. ‘If you’re a consumer you assume that Gran Reserva must be better than Reserva, which must be better than Crianza. You could argue that that used to be the case. If Gran Reserva is cheaper than Reserva they still buy Gran Reserva because they think it must be better.’
But what about being a member of an exclusive club? Does that impress customers? ‘People are swayed by that kind of patter,’ says Charles Blightman of Hawksmoor. ‘We work a lot with PIWOSA – the Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa collective. Customers like the idea of that.’
However, while Blightman thinks that people like the idea of a club better than being a single estate, Hart takes the opposite view.
‘People are more aware of provenance,’ he says, ‘the idea of small artisan producers for food, olive oil and wine. It’s both because of possible quality differences and the idea that someone has gone to the trouble to track down something which is not widely available. It gives you credibility.’
At L’Enclume in Cumbria, meanwhile, Neil Alexander finds that his customers’ focus is either on Rioja and Priorat, or on grape varieties. Would they be swayed by the information that a wine is either a Vino de Pago or a GPE? ‘Probably not.’
What about being a single estate? If they’re fairly knowledgeable, he reckons, they’ll go for a producer name. ‘They might think I was being a bit pompous if I mentioned that in a tasting note. Maybe in a more traditional place I might write about that,’ he says.
Who will win the wars of the Pagos? At the very least, if the parties involved can between them shift the consumer idea that Gran Reservas are the highest aspirations of Spanish wine, then they’ll have achieved something. Providing consumers don’t get even more hopelessly confused in the process…
Five top Grandes Pagos de España
Marqués de Griñón Emeritus 2008, Dominio de Valdepusa, Castilla-La Mancha
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot from Dominio de Valdepusa, near Toledo. (It’s worth mentioning that this has nothing to do with the Marqués de Griñón brand of inexpensive Rioja. Falcó developed that in the 1990s but has had no connection with it for several years.) This is violet-scented, grippy and precise, with a firm backbone and good freshness.
Contact the domain directly, +34 925 597 222
Salia de Finca Sandoval 2011, Manchuela, Castilla-La Mancha
Made up of Syrah, Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) and Garnacha, this aromatic wine has blackberry and hedgerow fruit, and is precise, concentrated and layered, with good acidity.
Flavours of Spain, flavoursofspain.co.uk
Arínzano La Casona 2010, Navarra
This is under the ownership of the Chivite family and is adjacent to the rest of the Chivite estate; La Casona is the second wine of the estate. A blend of Tempranillo and Merlot, this is characterful and elegant, concentrated but not dense, with lovely clarity and precision. Pure and restrained black fruits, and good acidity.
£17.50, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440
Aalto PS 2013, Ribera del Duero
The second wine of Aalto is 100% Tinto Fino, and it’s beautifully vivid, aromatic and classy. It’s very layered, with ripe black fruit, blackberry aromas, some oak notes and spice; very pure, very fresh.
£51.22, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7493 6174
Abadía Retuerta Pago Negralada 2009, Duero Valley
Tempranillo from just outside Ribera del Duero, and thus Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León. Tight with some cream, quite closed and complex, but rather seductive. It’s got roasted fennel and herb notes, with a very long and complex finish. An initially quiet wine which builds.
£46.78 (2012 vintage), Enotria, 020 8961 5161
DO Vino de Pago: the full list
Grandes Pagos de España: the full list