At a recent meeting of winemakers from Grandes Pagos de España, Víctor de la Serna, the veteran wine and food writer who founded Finca Sandoval, pointed out that he was the sole remaining member among the producers from Castilla-La Mancha who created this association.
Producer and theatre entrepreneur Manuel Manzaneque of Finca Élez passed away in 2016, four years before Carlos Falcó (Dominio de Valdepusa), the driving force behind the group and its leading figure for almost two decades, and businessman Alfonso Cortina (Vallegracía) died a few days later of Covid. In 2021, Francisco Uribes of Pago de Calzadilla also died. Before that, in 2010, Marcial Gómez Sequeira sold Dehesa del Carrizal to the Villar Mir family, although the winery remained in the association. Víctor de la Serna himself sold his property in 2019 but maintains links with both his former winery and Grandes Pagos.
The association was officially launched in September 2000 under the name Grandes Pagos de Castilla bringing together eight producers from Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León. The latter was represented by the two wineries owned by the García family at that moment: Mauro (VT Castilla) and San Román (Toro); and Aalto in Ribera del Duero, in which Mariano García is also a partner. The group's philosophy was expressed by Carlos Falcó at the time: "It's not enough to make a good wine; you have to make a different wine, with its own personality, and that's what a pago [a Spanish term for a cru] probably does better than any other". It was a time when international varieties were flourishing in certain Spanish regions, and Richard Smart was successfully spreading his sunlight approach to winegrowing.
Today, Grandes Pagos has 36 members in 20 wine regions. The presentations at the association's meeting, with the presence of their technical teams in Mallorca, revealed a paradigm shift and new paths towards the terroir. Francesca Fort Marçal, a researcher at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, spoke about local varieties and their greater ability to cope with climate change.
The other focus was on the measurement of viticultural variables. This was the subject of presentations by Gonzaga Santesteban, Professor of Viticulture at the University of Navarra, and Martín di Stefano, head of viticulture at Zuccardi-Valle de Uco. Di Stefano explained Zuccardi's very detailed zoning experience and how they moved from explaining wine in terms of time in barrel to exploring the many factors (flora, elevation, microclimate, geology, topography...) behind terroir. Their new approach is also reflected in the language they use, as they now speak of "natural environments" and the need to adapt grapegrowing to each of them.
During the meeting in Mallorca, the Grandes Pagos board approved a new presidency after eight years under Toni Sarrión (Mustiguillo, Valencia). During Sarrión's tenure, particular attention was paid to technical and quality issues. "One of the first steps was to set up an external tasting committee to evaluate the wines in blind tastings. Under the 20-point system, all wines must score 14 points and we also ask members to have at least one wine with a score of 16," explains the outgoing president.
Moving away from big PR events to a series of small actions (Sarrión calls them "thin rain") to reach out to wine schools, sommeliers and prescribers is another major change. "When I arrived, I found an association in transition, with a really strong presidency led by Carlos Falcó. Sometimes it seemed that we were a group of producers gathered around him," recalls Sarrión.
So while Falcó was a great ambassador for Grandes Pagos in the world and the man who put the association on the map, Sarrión focused on promoting quality at a time when stagnation was synonymous with regression. The Valencian producer also promoted ongoing training, experience exchanges and frequent updates through the "Network of Knowledge", which consists of two annual meetings for winemakers. The one hosted by Bodega Ribas in Mallorca earlier this month included a tasting with local producers of recovered grapes and another of Mediterranean wines, from Lebanon and Greece to Italy and the French coast. These are the kind of experiences wine lovers dream of.
María del Yerro, owner of Bodegas Alonso del Yerro in Ribera del Duero and a member since 2009, is the third president to hold the post. She believes that the greatest asset of Grandes Pagos nowadays is its diversity.
Communication and the recruitment of new members will be her main goals. "We have not yet reached the point where a winery is better known because it belongs to Grandes Pagos. We want to spread the word both in Spain and abroad," she explains. In terms of the international market, the group has just launched The Terroir Workshop in the United States and Mexico. This is an educational wine course that provides general content on different wine regions and focuses on the distinctive terroirs of its members to explain Spain through its wines. They are working with brand ambassadors in both countries to bring the course to wine schools offering WSET courses and other wine qualifications.
The diverse origins of its members allow the group to represent the most important Spanish DOs (Rías Baixas, Rueda, Rioja, Ribera, Priorat, Jerez), as well as many other interesting areas: Montilla, Ronda, Extremadura, Toro, Txakoli, Navarra, Somontano, Penedès, fine sparkling wines thanks to Gramona, Valencia or the Balearic Islands. With the two Castillas and other Catalan areas covered, it would be great to see more producers from Aragón and Galicia. Bierzo is missing (although Mencía is present thanks to Fuentes del Silencio, a winery in the Jamuz valley, south of Bierzo), as are the Canary Islands. In total, 60 different varieties are represented: 28 reds and 32 whites.
Another of María del Yerro's goals is to recruit "small artisanal producers" who produce less than 40,000 bottles. "But whoever joins must share the group's philosophy and have a strong focus on terroir. The new membership policy is very important to us," she explains. "First, the executive committee examines the applications, then the winery and vineyard are visited - soil studies are of great importance to us - and the tasting committee evaluates the wines. Finally, the application has to be approved unanimously. In addition, members from the applicant's region can have their say beforehand," explains the new president. Membership fees are based on the size of the winery and the number of bottles produced.
Under Del Yerro's presidency, women will have more representation on the board. Things have definitely changed since the days when María was the only woman at the meetings.
The name of the association remains the same, despite being considered pompous and confusing by some -it uses the same term (pago) as the growing number of DO Vino de Pago in Spain.
The issue dates back to past lobbying efforts by Carlos Falcó and other producers from Castilla-La Mancha to find a figure that would unite quality-driven projects in an area whose DOs were synonymous with volume and cheap wines. In the end, the Regional Council of Agriculture created the DO Vino de Pago de Castilla-La Mancha with Decree 127/2000. The legal basis was provided by the Spanish Wine Law of 1970, which established that an individual estate could become a DO in its own right.
Just one month after the decree was approved, the Grandes Pagos de Castilla Association was formally established and in 2002 Dominio de Valdepusa became the first property to be awarded the DO Vino de Pago. Eventually, all the founders of Grandes Pagos from Castilla-La Mancha, with the exception of Finca Sandoval, would obtain their own DO Vino de Pago.
With this initiative in place, the Spanish Wine Law of 2003 authorised and developed the DO Vino de Pago for the whole country, leaving it to each autonomous community to determine the minimum size of the "pago". Since then, the use of the term "pago" has been restricted to the DOs of the same name. However, existing brands such as Pago de Carraovejas or Pago de los Capellanes were allowed to keep the word in their names. The same applied to the association, which in 2004 extended its membership to non-Castilian regions and changed its name to Grandes Pagos de España.
The coexistence of all these "pagos" (existing brands that include the term as part of their name, the DOs Vino de Pago and the producers' association, which places great emphasis on the term) can be confusing. In fact Grandes Pagos points out that its members include producers who are a DO Vino de Pago (in addition to those already mentioned, Abadía Retuerta in Castilla y León, Arínzano in Navarra and El Terrerazo in Valencia) and others with DOs, PGIs or even without any geographical designation. Most of the articles written about Grandes Pagos in specialist wine magazines contain some sort of clarification in this regard.
Grandes Pagos defines pago as "a vineyard whose characteristics set it apart from the surrounding vineyards" (because of its soil structure, exposure, plant material...) and which produces "an exceptional quality of fruit".
María del Yerro believes that the next presidency, which will be elected in for four years, should take account of the generational change in the member wineries. Perhaps the younger ones will be able to address this issue.