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Grandes Pagos de España pressures the Rioja DO to adapt

Published:  24 May, 2016

With the terroir debate raging in Spain, the tasting and master classes in London last week by the association Grandes Pagos de España (GPE) could hardly have come at a better time.

GPE, the private club of single estate producers of Spain, laid emphasis on the shift required - in terms of the pursuit of a premium strategy for the country - away from the time of ageing and oak selection as benchmarks for quality to that of terroir and a greater focus on viticulture.

GPE now wants the Spanish authorities to modify wine regulations to reflect their position, which runs along the same lines as that of Artadi in Rioja - the producer, widely seen as one of the best in Spain, who left the Rioja DO (Denomination of Origin) appellation in December 2015.

"It would be best if the Rioja DO made changes to the regulations to reflect the demand of producers rather than having more producers leave the denomination," said Enrique Valero Quintana, general manager of Abadia Retuerta and one of the executive directors of GPE. "Personally, I think an update of regulations showing the evolution of the [classification] system will benefit our terroir-led producers," he said.

"For GPE, the focus is not on the volumes of wine, but on quality and singularity of the vineyard," Valero said. Likewise, Valero says the GPE association, which has 29 fee-paying members, is not seeking to have a large number of members; it all about the quality, Valero says. GPE has strict entry requirements and it has turned down several requests from producers seeking to be part of its club. Applicants need to demonstrate five years of quality and be recognised both in Spain and internationally; they also have to pass a tasting of their ranges of wines. GPE producers have to have their wineries next to or close to their vineyards.

"Growing in terms of numbers is not our obsession," Valero said.

Valero made his case alongside Victor de la Serna, journalist and producer at Finca Sandoval in London's Westbury Hotel in Mayfair. "Rather than soil and the vineyard, the time of ageing - (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) has been the system used to distinguish quality; this is ridiculous," De La Serna said.

De La Serna has long been a critic of the Spanish government's regulations, a position he voiced earlier this years in a column for El Mundo newspaper, when he wrote. "In Spain, history, tradition and the knowledge of terroir would allow qualitative classifications, but the interests created by large industrial groups stops this from happening. The great trick in Spain is the ability to mix grapes from any parts of a Denomination, which allows these groups to make great savings in their creation of brands of wines made in large volumes; talk of wine from a village, let alone a Pago, does not interest them in the slightest."

At the GPE event organised by Bespoke Drinks Media, in London, Valero and De La Serna accompanied Sarah Jane Evans MW who delivered two masterclasses. Among wines tasted were Cavas and red wines produced in a diverse areas of Spain.

A focus by Cava producers Gramona and Can Rafols Dels Caus on using local variety Xarello has proved a success with this grape variety showing the role it plays in the ageing of cava. Can Rafols Del Caus, uses a traditional technique of ageing wine in Chestnut barrels, rather than oak barrels.

And among the top reds was Palacio Quemado La Zarcita 2014, from Palacio Quemado, a new GPE member in Extremadura, southwest Spain that has turned to using local Portuguese varieties. The producer had previously been less successful when it made wine from Tempranillo and Syrah.

Likewise, GPE member Mustiguillo has shown high quality wines can be made from local Spanish variety Bobal. De La Serna, pointed out that currently, 95% of Bobal ends up in bulk wine sold at the low price of €0.40 the litre.

The use of international varieties by some GPE members has previously drawn criticism of the association. Valero says Abadia Retuerta's best wine is Pago Valdebellon made from Cabernet Sauvignon, but he dismissed criticism of the use of international varieties: he says is about how they adapt to the terroir of the single estate vineyards of GPE.

Created in 2000, Valero says GPE has met its two key objectives: the sharing of techniques and information between members. GPE members now meet regularly to discuss issues of viticulture and winemaking. Second is the business of communication.

"We are making a big noise now; thanks to improved communication the message is getting through to the market. We are improving every year," said Valero. He claims that any confusion about GPE and the Denomination de Origen (DO) Pagos de España of single estates, has dissipated. Under DO rules, no association or group can use the word Pago in its title, however GPE was created prior to the DO Pagos de España, a DO, placed at the top of the pyramid of classification system in Spain, above the DOCa and DOQs of Rioja and Priorat, but one which has had limited success: very few regions of Spain have implemented the DO in their areas. So Valero reckons, that rather than just a paid-up members club, GPE provides a credible alternative in terms of promoting premium wines of Spain.

Valero says it is not only about holding tasting internationally, but also about involving local speakers and specialists and adapting to each country. GPE has promoted its wines in Switzerland, Norway, Germany and the US; it adapts its promotional strategy to each country. Its next trip is to Mexico, where it has decided to team up promotional efforts with local producer Casa Madero. In Spain, GPE is providing funding to the sommelier association of Madrid and its next visit is to the new Basque Culinary Centre.