Wine Quality Ladder

While the traditional Spanish wine classification was very different from France’s, since 2003 the new Spanish wine quality ladder of is evolving toward something closer to French wine law:

Vino de Mesa (table wine)

This category is the lowest rung on Spain’s wine quality ladder.

Vino de la Tierra, VT or VdT (“wine of the country”)

The quality level just above Vino de Mesa, this designation emulates France’s Vins de Pays and offers a wine of a particular place, but with few requirements of grape varieties, yields, site, or, especially, aging. As of 2012, there are 41 VTs. You can find the latest VdT wines map here.

Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG or VC)

In 2003, the revised Spanish wine laws sanctioned new categories that may perplex some observers. But these rules should be applauded for their intent, if not for their execution. This category was created to serve as a way station between those areas that were stuck at the Vino de la Tierra level and underneath the DO status. After five years as a VCIG, the region can apply to be promoted to a DO. This category is still being birthed, but soon may be strangled in the cradle. Hatched as a mirror to France’s VDQS (AOCs in waiting) or Italy’s IGT (again, a holding place for aspiring DOCs), there are fewer than a half–dozen VCIGs. New European Union (EU) rules may wipe out the notion of French VDQSs, and the rest of the EU may be expected to follow suit and “simplify” their classifications. Watch this space for updates. As of 2012, Cangas, Valles de Benavente, Valtiendas, Sierra Salamanca, Granada and Legrija have obtained the VCIG appellation.

Denominación de Origen, or DO

This was the top rung on Spain’s very short ladder until 1988. The term is comparable to France’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), and all DOs have regulatory bodies, Consejos Reguladores, that are responsible for creating the definition of each DO. You can find the current 70 DOs on this map.

Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOC

This category was created in 1988, following Spain’s entry into the EEC. The national committee determines which DOs are deserving of DOC status. For the first 15 years, only Rioja earned that title. In 2003, Priorat was awarded its DOC, fulfilling all requirements, including that its wines cost at least double that of the national average for DO wines. With this and other DOC rules in place, it may be some time before the other DOC potentials, such as Ribera del Duero, Jerez, Bierzo, and Toro, can gain this premium designation as well, should they choose to pursue it.

Vino de Pago, or VP

The most important change in 2003, however, was the creation of DO Pago. The Pago concept represents not just a new rung on the ladder, but also an entirely different method of classifying quality. Pago means vineyard, so the simple explanation of what constitutes a DO Pago is that it is a single estate wine. The more significant judgment rendered by DO Pago status is that the estate is perceived to be one of the great estates in Spain and that it can exist outside of an established DO. The wine from a DO Pago must be wholly created and bottled within that domain.

There are 14 DO Pagos at the momento (represented by yellow numeric circles on this map):

Only some of these DO Pagos have been situated within a traditional DO region, yet each has been allowed, based upon its excellence and history, to leapfrog the entire system to become a DO Pago. Each DO Pago is allowed to set its own rules, the grapes used, and the methods of viticulture, vinification, and aging, providing a flexibility not previously seen in Spanish wine law.

And the number of DO Pagos grows quickly as well, not only from regions such as Navarra or Vinos de Madrid seeking attention and acclaim, but perhaps from more established DOs or even DOCs. Should a DO Pago be designated within a DOC area, the label will read “Vino de Pago Calificado.” Rioja may decide to play along, but there seems to be little interest in the concept in Priorat.
By creating the DO Pago, Spain has come up with a way to deal with renegade wine producers, many of whom will often make great wines outside of established DOs or without adherence to a DO’s aging requirements. While it remains to be seen how well these new categories will perform, building flexibility into the system only can help Spain’s wine industry grow in the international marketplace.

The fashion today is wine of great color, extraction, and intensity. Those wines tend to come from certain well-placed vineyards, and the new wine laws offer to those vineyards prominent placement at the pinnacle of Spanish wine law. While the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva still have the greatest domestic cachet, the style of wine that they represent, a wine that is properly aged to provide immediate and delicious drinking, seems to be heading toward twilight. At a minimum, international markets are less likely to value these wines at a level commensurate with their quality and rarity. For those raised on these wines, it’s a tragedy in the making; but the marketplace can be as cruel in its rejection of the world’s traditional styles as it is passionate in its embrace of so much of Spanish wine.

Whether one speaks of wine, gastronomy or culture, Spain sits atop every hot list...and for good reason.

Michael Schachner

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