Growing grapes and making wine is quite a solitary business. It is the nature of vineyards to be tucked away in remote valleys, the location chosen for its soil, altitude and sunshine, not for its closeness to neighbours. For the first part of winemaking, this is ideal, but for the final part, actually selling the wine, sometimes it helps to join a club.
If you choose the right members for your club then there is the potential for an exchange of ideas, help with marketing and the knowledge that your wines will be shown alongside others of the same status and quality.
It is for these reasons that the Grandes Pagos de España was created. The name translates as Great Vineyards of Spain and there are now 30 members, spread across Spain from Galicia to Jerez and Penedès. The key to membership of this group is that each estate must have its own defined vineyard with characteristics that set it apart from its surroundings; this can be soil type, altitude, microclimate or preferably, a combination of all three. There must also be a winery on that same estate, so that the grapes do not have to travel far. The final hurdle is that the resulting wine must have a proven track record and been recognised as exceptional for at least five years by sommeliers and journalists. This is a club that is prepared to grow slowly and steadily.
I set off across Spain to take a look at some of these Grandes Pagos de España wines and find out what made them worthy of the accolade.
My first visit was to Madrid to meet Carlos Falcó, Marqués de Griñon, president of the club. This is the man who breathed fresh air into 1970s Spanish viticulture with new grape varieties, night harvesting and drip irrigation. He is still making waves in the Spanish wine world with Grandes Pagos de España, mainly because this club is not just a collection of the most famous wine companies. “Some top names buy in some of their grapes from across a region,” he said “but Grandes Pagos is like a Bordeaux cru or a Burgundy Domaine. It is the combination of a unique site and winemaking.”
I tasted through 23 wines selected from the 30 Grandes Pagos and because of the geographic diversity across Spain, there were wines of all types. There was a rich, creamy, elegant Gramona III Cava 2006; a crisp, concentrated Albariño 2014 from Fillaboa; and a zesty Rueda 2013 from Belondrade. Among the reds I picked out was Eméritus 2008, Pagos de Familia de Marqués de Griñon for its intensity of black fruit flavours, its smooth, elegant, balanced palate and oak expression. This wine is from Dominio de Valdepusa close to Toledo in central Spain and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah. In 1974, these vines were smuggled in, against EU rules of the time, under a cartload of apples. This was all part of the Marques way of shaking up Spanish viticulture.
Also showing well was 2008 Gran Vino de Arínzano from Chivite in Navarra and the stunning Aalto 2012 from Ribera del Duero.
So having tasted a range of wines that has already been accepted into this fairly exclusive club, I set off to explore some of the vineyards that produce them.
My first visit on a whistle-stop tour of Spain was to the land of sherry, Jerez, and the company Valdespino. They own vast areas of vineyard which gives them control over their supply, but one single estate, Macharnudo, is particularly special. Located at a blustery 140 metres altitude, on brilliant white chalky soil, the vines are low yielding and the grapes are kept separate, fermented in oak and aged in a 10-scale criadera system that builds in layers of complexity and flavour. The result is Innocente Fino (around £8 for 37.5cl, Halifax Wine Co and Martinez Wines) a fino with several layers of more salty, tangy flavour than most other styles.
From there it was a short drive to the small Finca Moncloa where once again I climbed hills to see the newly rescued old grape variety Tintilla de Rota which winemaker José Manuel Pinedo blends with classic and international varieties. Natural yeasts, top-notch oak and low yields gives these wines concentration and individuality. Try Finca Moncloa 2011 (Ocado, £13.99), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tintilla de Rota for dark, powerful savoury fruit that will go well with an autumn Sunday roast.
I stayed in the beautiful old town of Ronda, built across an incredibly steep gorge, and from there headed to Los Aguilares, in the Sierra de las Nieves, a property that pays as much attention to its vines as it does to its pata negra pigs that eat only acorns. I was travelling with two vegetarians, so was able to sample the jamón enthusiastically.
Los Aguilares is another property that has a distinct high altitude location, with cool nights and warm days, where the focus is on achieving the best that the land can produce. I expected to discover Graciano, Garnacha and Tempranillo but the bright, floral-edged Pinot Noir surprised me for its clarity and freshness. These wines are available at www.georgesbarbier.co.uk
My journey continued to the high plateau of La Mancha and then to Manchuela and Valencia and at each property I was bounced down bumpy roads and dusty tracks, to remote estates where enthusiasm is paramount.
At Bodega Mustiguillo (available at Berry Bros, London) there are 100 year-old Bobal vines, still producing deep-flavoured grapes for wines such as Finca Terrerazo (£21.95). This is a chunky but elegant wine with dark plums and chocolate that goes perfectly with beef. They have also introduced another unusual grape, Merseguera, which tastes something like a Chardonnay crossed with Viognier and Roussanne.
The name of this club, Grandes Pagos de España, perhaps gives the wrong impression. These are not the Great Estates of Spain; instead they are the small, dedicated estates that are laying the foundations for a new wine order in Spain. They are the places to find old vines, revived vineyards, careful winemaking and fabulous flavours. Look out for the small Grandes Pagos logo on the back of bottles.