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Spanish Royalty

A favorite of Winston Churchill's, Spain's Vega Sicilia wine is still as coveted and collectible as it was 60 years ago
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: June 1, 2004

It is early in the lunch hour at the Hotel Posada Fuente de la Acena, a modern inn with traditional trappings set beside the Duero River in north-central Spain. The restaurant is nearly empty. Waiters talk in muffled tones, but their whispers still pierce the silence. A winemaker and his guest pad up the stairs and settle into seats at a corner table, where a cluster of decanters and open bottles awaits. At that moment, almost as though it were choreographed, the door to the kitchen swings open. The owner of the most important winery in Spain walks through and joins them at the table.

Vega Sicilia's Pablo Alvarez is all too familiar with side entrances and hidden exits. The son of David Alvarez Diez, who founded and still owns the $600 million Grupo Eulen business services company and ranks as one of Spain's wealthiest men, Pablo has long been earmarked for assassination by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the violent Basque separatists. These days, he occasionally travels with two bodyguards and spends weeknights at a secure location in the city of Valladolid, not at the plushly appointed apartment he keeps at the winery. It helps explain why he chooses his public appearances carefully, and why his default expression is a grimace of worry.

Since 1982, when his father bought Vega Sicilia from a Venezuelan businessman, the understated Alvarez has served as its public face. (His exact title is general director.) It is the winery—so symbolic of traditional Spain, and a stark reminder of the Franco era—that makes him a target, not his family's vast wealth. None of his five siblings, equal inheritors of the family estate but uninvolved with Vega Sicilia, have received death threats.

In both style and substance, Vega Sicilia is a throwback to another era. Despite the winery's modern accoutrements, the temperature-controlled barrel rooms and the new fermentation tanks, it bears little relation to the time and place in which it exists. It has no neighbors to compare itself with, no classifications to rank its stature. Lafite has Mouton, Antinori has Gaja, Opus has Dominus and Dom Perignon has Krug, but Vega Sicilia stands alone.

For decades beginning with the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Vega Sicilia was the most renowned wine producer in Spain. While the country was barely exporting table wines, Vega Sicilia's top releases were favorites of discerning consumers such as Winston Churchill. In the 1960s, when Spain's image became tied to package tourism, cheap vacations on the Costa del Sol and Iberia Airline's television ads with castanets clicking, Vega Sicilia carried the Spanish flag as just about its lone brand of distinction in the international marketplace. It was the country's Lalique, Cartier, Givenchy, Rolls-Royce and Dunhill, all in one.

Nearly every aspect of Spanish life has changed dramatically since Francisco Franco's death in 1975, and its wine industry has changed more than most. Formerly known for rustic value wines and oaky Riojas, Spain now entices connoisseurs and collectors with dozens of noteworthy bottlings. Wines such as Dominio de Pingus, which is made in a small garage around the corner from the Posada Fuente de la Acena, command several hundred dollars a bottle upon release. Wine lists from Los Angeles to London are filled with compelling Spanish wines at more accessible prices. In Spain today, half a dozen magazines are devoted to wine, and a new one seems to start up every few months. In Alvarez's words, "The place of wine in Spain has ascended from being merely a product to that of an entire culture."

Concurrent with the change, the business of Vega Sicilia has evolved. A second wine, called Alion and made independently from Vega Sicilia, was created beginning with the 1991 vintage to compete with some of the internationally styled releases being made by wineries in the Duero valley and beyond. A Hungarian Tokay producer, Oremus, was founded the same year and folded into the Vega Sicilia portfolio. A new winery in the nearby appellation of Toro is currently under construction. Bottles of Al Quiriz will hit the marketplace later this year.

Vega Sicilia's existing winery—just off the Valladolid-Aranda highway, a short drive from the Posada—has been completely modernized. Each visitor's passport is still checked at the guard stand, just as during Franco's time, but the entire production and storage facility behind the stately facade is commensurate with the current state of the winemaker's art. Every six months, a complete aromatic profile of the winery is made to insure the absence of bacteria. Several times each year, too, corks are hand-delivered to a laboratory in Bordeaux, six hours away, for a detailed analysis unavailable anywhere in Spain. Harvest dates used to be determined by the feel of a grape between juice-stained fingers, a sweetness on the tongue, a whiff of something in the air. Now it is all meter readings, charts and graphs, as calculated by computer.

With all that, however, Vega Sicilia's essential product —its line of Valbuena, Unico and Reserva Especial wines—has remained virtually unchanged. The technology is there to help the grape-growing and wine-making teams more easily maintain, not alter or update, the character of the wines. "Though we continue to evolve," Alvarez says, "we want that very defined personality to remain."

Vega Sicilias taste like no other wines because no wines are made in quite the same way. The blend of Tinto Fino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and occasionally some white Albillo grapes is unique. The vines are old; the original Merlot and Malbec plantings were Iberia's first. The Vega Sicilia cooper still constructs some of the winery's barrels from oak that has been air-dried on premises for as long as three years.

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