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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

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Each year, he gathers at one of the members, properties with the representatives of the 11 other wineries for an interchange of ideas and, not incidentally, wines. He drinks wines made by the Antinoris and the Drouhins, the Mondavis and the Rothschilds. He listens and he learns. Then he comes home to Vega Sicilia, and his own wine that tastes like no one else's.
On this afternoon, plate after plate of Valles de Esla beef—each a different cut, prepared in a different fashion—emerges from the Posada kitchen. Alvarez eats sparingly; he's on a health regimen. He even seems to be cutting down on his massive consumption of cigarettes, the product of a preternaturally nervous disposition. He eats forkfuls of beef, picks at a salad, and sips from 1999 and 2000 Alion, 1998 and 1999 Valbuena, and the 1981 and 1989 Unicos. His comments on the wines are less professional than personal. "I'm not a great technician of wines, but I like talking about them," he says.
The last of the wines that Alvarez has brought for this luncheon is the 1942 Unico. Only 12,150 bottles were produced. Of those, Alvarez estimates, perhaps a few hundred remain, most still at the winery. Alvarez pulls one out for special events, like the Desai tasting. He has drunk the 1942 dozens of times. Yet, oddly enough, he has never had a bottle of Unico that is any older. Only a few single bottles of the earliest vintages of Vega Sicilia remain at the winery, though Restaurant Rekondo in San Sebastian, Spain, is said to have a complete collection dating to 1915.
These rare bottles are artifacts of history, and their very existence helps to validate the reputation of Vega Sicilia. Alvarez says he wouldn't presume to open one. Hearing this from across the table, Ausas mentions that his father has a bottle of Vega Sicilia from the 1930s. He invites Alvarez to be there when it is opened. The act of this employee bestowing a favor on his employer makes Alvarez even more uncomfortable than usual. He bows his head shyly, but accepts.
That is for another time. Now he has a 1942 in front of him, and it is magical enough. The color is a translucent crimson, like a middle-aged Burgundy. It brims with life. Its flavors, a deep cherry at the core, unfold like a mystery novel. No two sips are precisely the same.
As soon as the luncheon ends, Alvarez is gone, out a side door with no warning. He is headed back to Madrid, where he lives with his family. The winemaker returns to the bodega, his guest drives off toward Valladolid. Only the memory of the wine, that elegant old gentleman, full of vigor, remains for each of them.
It wasn't a perfect wine. Leave that to the Californians, whose wines flow effortlessly through the palate but leave no footprint that they were ever there. Leave that to the classified châteaux of the Medoc, with a similar flavor profile that serves as a standard for the industry. Unico is Spanish for unique, and each Vega Sicilia Unico is decidedly that. The essence of this one, more than half a century old, lingers over the luncheon table, long after everyone has gone. v
Bruce Schoenfeld often writes about wine for Cigar Aficionado.
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