Vinos de Pago, often shortened to VP, is a relatively new category of wine classification in Spain. It was introduced in 2003, to cover individual wine-producing estates whose wines fell outside existing DO system (geographically or stylistically) but were nonetheless of consistently high quality. In 2013, there were more than a dozen VPs, all of them notable exceptions in regions not typically associated with top-quality wine. More than half are in Castilla-La Mancha, and the remainder in Navarra and Utiel-Requena.
Vino de Pago estates must be small; the law which governs the category states that the area covered by a VP title must not be 'equal to or larger than any parish in its region'. Pago is a Latin word denoting the smallest administrative area within a province. They must also be special; the same law that a Pago has "unique characteristics, in both its soil and micro-climate, distinguishing and differentiating it from surrounding sites and whose vineyards produce wines with distinctive and singular qualities".
The aim of the new category was to bring administrative order to various pioneering producers who were making high-quality wines entirely outside the established Vino de la Tierra (VT) and DO systems. Previously, some of these wines were left with the lowly Vino de la Mesa (table wine) label, hardly a reflection of their true quality, and a perceived marketing obstacle. A similar situation was seen in Italy with the emergence of the 'Super Tuscan' wineries, which ultimately led to the creation of the Italian IGT category (see Toscana IGT).
Estates with Vino de Pago status are almost entirely unrestricted in terms of which grape varieties they may use, and which wine styles they produce. DO and DOCa laws, by contrast, impose a wide range of production conditions in order to maintain consistent style for their wines. The few constraints that do exist for VP estates stipulate that the wines must be grown, vinified, aged and bottled on the estate. There are various parallels with the official terms 'estate-grown' and 'estate-bottled' as used in the United States.
In the past few years, the VP classification has become the subject of increasing controversy. Although the basic concept and drive behind the category had widespread support, the reality has not reliably lived up to the ideal. Fewer than half of Spain's regions have ratified the VP legislation (perhaps for fear of detracting from the existing DOs) and there has been much debate as to the VP category's true meaning and its status within Spain's hierarchy of wine classifications. Some view it as sitting above DO and DOCa because the titles cover high-quality wines from extremely specific locations, whereas others view it as on-par with DO/DOCa. The category's critics point out that, while some Vino de Pago wines have remained consistently outstanding, several have not. El Mundo Vino (the wine-specific section of Spain's El Mundo newspaper) ran an article in April voicing precisely these concerns, just after Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate published his view of the category as 'a little vague and confusing'.
Consumer reaction to 'Vino de Pago' as a category has been equally unconvincing, presumably because the term is unfamiliar, and its significance unclear. Neither is it a legally restricted; any winery can have the word 'Pago' in their name, and many do, making it even harder for consumers to establish the quality of the wine they are considering.
The emergence of the VP category has much in common with that of Italy's IGT category, in that it was a way of recognizing high-quality wines which would otherwise be marketed under the country's most basic wine category.