SO WHAT EXACTLY IS A PAGO?
First, the word itself. Pago is the first person singular of the verb pagar ('to pay') and so means 'I pay': pago la cuenta - I pay the bill. By extension, this becomes a noun, simply meaning 'payment': he recibido su pago - I have received your payment. So how did the word also come to represent a vineyard?
In mediæval times payments, especially between the nobility and the monasteries which they helped support, were often in land rather than cash, and so pago came to represent a piece of land, usually farmland and often vineyard. In later years, individual parcels of vineyard land were labelled pagos to distinguish them from large-scale plantations, theoretically offering a more individual terroir. A good example is Jerez, which has around 125 pagos, the most famous of which are probably Macharnudo and Miraflores.
Inevitably, wine producers who wanted to emphasise the fact that they were making wines from grapes grown on their own individual estates registered trademarks using the term pago: examples include Pago de los Capellanes in Ribera del Duero and Pago de Tharsys in Utiel-Requena. These are simply brand-names and, whilst they may very well denote a single-vineyard estate, they have no meaning in law apart from the name of the DOP region to which they belong.
The waters were further muddied in 2000 when the Marqués de Griñón, Carlos Falcó, established a voluntary association called Grandes Pagos de Castilla. This was open to independent, family-owned estates in Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León which made wine solely from the grapes of their own estates. With the new Spanish wine law of 2003, the organisation changed its name to Grandes Pagos de España, thereby opening up membership to any single-estate wine in the entire country, but these were still legally only classified according to their DO, Vino de la Tierra or, in some cases just Vino de Mesa from unclassified areas.
What the 2003 wine law also did was to create a new, official echelon of wines called Vinos de Pago (VP): single estates of international reputation which were lifted out of the DO system to stand on their own feet as individual, prestigious vineyards, independent of the regional system. A parallel equivalent in France, for example, would be to allow such as Château Lafite-Rothschild to have its own Appellation, and no longer be subject to the controls of the AOC Pauillac.
Because each individual regional government has to ratify this legislation locally, takeup has been slow. Castilla-La Mancha was an enthusiastic first in 2003 (now with six VPs), Navarra followed suit in 2007 with three, and Valencia in 2011 with its first. The other 14 regional governments have not ratified the legislation and, it seems, many of the Consejos Reguladores won't want to lose control over their most prestigious wines: imagine a VP Vega Sicilia or a VP Marqués de Murrieta for instance. What would that do to the reputation of their respective regions? And how many other single estates would secede from their DO and become independent? And what would that leave behind?
The VP is frequently touted as the highest appellation for wines in Spain, but this is not true. VP wines are, undoubtedly, amongst the very best of their individual regions, but until every region of Spain allows its finest estates to become independent it will be impossible to generalise, and this is most unlikely to happen.
In the meantime, look for the label which says 'Vino de Pago' and nothing else (i.e no DO/DOP or VdlT/IGP name) in terms of the wine's origin. The ten pioneers are these (name, province, region, date):
VP Dominio de Valdepusa (Marqués de Griñón), Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha - 2003
VP Finca Élez (Manuel Manzaneque), Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha - 2003
VP Pago Guijoso, Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha - 2004
VP Dehesa del Carrizal, Ciudad Real, Castilla-La Mancha - 2006
VP Señorío de Arínzano, Navarra, Navarra - 2007
VP Prado Irache, Navarra, Navarra - 2008
VP Otazu, Navarra, Navarra - 2008
VP Campo de La Guardia, Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha - 2009
VP Pago Florentino, Ciudad Real, Castilla-La Mancha - 2009
VP Casa del Blanco, Ciudad Real, Castilla-La Mancha - 2010
VP Finca Terrerazo, Valencia, Valencia - 2011
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