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Pago system key to Spain’s premium push?

Spain’s expanding “Vino de Pago” single vineyard classification offers an important tool for the country to show off top end wines with distinct personality, believes one producer that is stepping up its export ambitions.

Enrique Valero of Abadia Retuerta

“Our members are often mavericks in their regions,” remarked Enrique Valero, who sits on the executive committee of the Grandes Pagos de España in addition to his role as general manager of Abadia Retuerta, which sits just outside the borders of DO Ribera del Duero.

Although the 12th century monastery on this 700-hectare estate indicates a longstanding history of viticulture, Abadia Retuerta’s modern incarnation began 25 years ago when it was bought by pharmaceutical firm Novartis.

Working in consultation with former Château Ausone winemaker Pascal Delbeck among others, the owners planted 180ha not just with local variety Tempranillo, but also grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc. Merlot was also trialled, but proved unsuccessful.

Although Abadia Retuerta is situated at the end of the “Golden Mile” on the banks of the river Duero, which is home to prestigious names such as Vega Sicilia and Pesquera, when the DO boundaries were set in 1982 they stopped just short of its village of Sardón de Duero.

In addition to this geographical exclusion, the estate’s use of international varieties further set it apart from the requirements of DO Ribera del Duero. At the moment Abadia Retuerta’s labels bear simply the wider Vino de la Tierra classification of Castilla y Léon.

For Valero, the Vino de Pago system is about setting Abadia Retuerta apart from the crowd. “It’s not because I have anything against Ribera,” he maintained, noting that many of the estate’s vineyards do in fact lie within the DO boundary.

Nevertheless, Valero confirmed that by 2015, when Castilla y Léon is due to receive official approval from Brussels to join the Vino de Pago classification, 95% of production will be classified under the estate’s own Pago denomination.

While noting that the Ribera del Duero DO is “a great asset for the wineries in that region” and “is building a good reputation for the top end of Spanish wine,” Valero explained why, even if it did meet the legal requirements to join this DO, the Vino de Pago system represented a better fit for Abadia Retuerta.

“Our route is more on the personality, terroir-oriented wines,” he told the drinks business. “That is why I decided to join Grandes Pagos de España – it is built on top quality wines from different parts of Spain.”

Having officially launched in 2003 with around seven wineries, today Grandes Pagos de España boasts 26 producers from across the country. Members include fellow Ribera producer Aalto, Fillaboa in Rías Baixas, Numanthia in Toro, Cava producer Gramona, Sherry bodega Valdespino and Finca Valpiedra in Rioja.

Abadia Retuerta

Although the word “pago”, meaning “single vineyard” is a common and unregulated feature on Spanish wine labels, Vino de Pago represents a legally recognised and defined classification. The move was originally driven largely by producers in the large region of Castilla-La Mancha who were keen to distinguish vineyards of particular character and quality.

In order to qualify for membership of the Grandes Pagos de España, producers must own their vineyards, which should be located close to the winery, in order to demonstrate a meaningful link with their terroir.

They must also be able to show what Valero described as “international recognition” for their wines, and be approved by an independent panel of professionals who meet twice a year to blind taste at least two wines from each producer, including the vintage that is about to be released onto the market.

Following the classification’s extension to his own region next year, Valero indicated that it could prove attractive to a number of other local wineries. “There is a lot of support for Pago in Ribera del Duero,” he remarked. “A lot of producers have their own vineyards.”

As for the suitability of Vino de Pago for expressing what he aims to achieve at his own estate, Valero asserted: “For me it’s key as a tool to transmit how we work and the vision of Abadia Retuerta.”

After previous roles with Diageo, United Wineries and González Byass, Valero joined Abadia Retuerta as general manager just over five years ago. Among his first moves was to consolidate the wine range to its current level of five reds and a white, although a further top end addition is likely to arrive in about 2017.

Valero also shifted the producer’s position to focus on its higher end offerings, with retail prices now starting at around £25, “where we believe Abadia Retuerta can plan an important role.”

Outlining an aim to build production up to “35,000 to 50,000 cases”, Valero explained: “We don’t want to be the biggest, fastest growing company. We want to be something unique in the wine world that can only be from our region.”

For the last two years, the producer has been focusing on its export business, which now accounts for around half of production. Although Abadia Retuerta currently has no UK distribution, Valero points to a strong customer base in Switzerland, the US, Germany and Sweden.

Despite pointing to Spain’s strong association with “cheap wine, bulk wine”, Valero insisted: “We very much believe in Spain’s potential in the top segment” as he outlined the work by Grandes Pagos de España to push the country in this upmarket direction.

While acknowledging that this organisation remains relatively small scale, Valero confirmed a move to increase the resources allocated to communicating its values to the wider world. “I think all these Spanish wines should go together to build ‘brand Spain’,” he observed.

To date the Grandes Pagos de España has sent its producers to markets including China, Switzerland, the US and Canada. Now Valero confirmed that it is working to bring journalists and sommeliers on three-day trips to Spain in order to visit the various regions included in this Vino de Pago classification.

Members of this organisation also carry out internal activities, meeting twice a year “to share knowledge about what is helping to create the top end of Spain,” explained Valero.

As for the prospect of the Vino de Pago collective expanding further, Valero noted: “If it is very strict then it will be good – but not if people just want it to be a marketing tool.”

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