A favorite of Winston Churchill's, Spain's Vega Sicilia wine is still as coveted and collectible as it was 60 years ago
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.
Each wine is held back from release until it is deemed suitable to drink, a practice that has been abandoned most everywhere else in the world. Unicos are released with no regard to chronology, just readiness. The 1970 Unico hit the market in 1995; the current Unico release is the 1989.
More to the point, the latest releases still taste much like Vega Sicilia's wines did half a century ago. No accommodation has been made for stylistic shifts, numerical wine ratings, or the evolution of the industry in Spain and beyond. To change, Alvarez believes, is to undermine the winery's greatest asset. "Vega Sicilia is a special phenomenon, because the personality of both the wine and the winery is so great," Alvarez says. "It is what sets us apart."
The emergence of the cult wine phenomenon in Spain has meant that lately Vega Sicilia has been forced to share, and often even cede, the spotlight. In some years, the emergence of a new micro-cuvée or a Vino de Autor—a wine that purports to represent an artistic vision, like the films of a Coppola, Scorsese or Polanski—seems to render the latest release of an Unico all but irrelevant.
To many, Vega Sicilia is a vestige of a Spain gone by. Like bullfighting, it belongs in a sepia-toned era, not the fast-moving dot.com world of today. Yet bullfighting happens to be more popular than ever in today's Spain, and once the annual hype for the various new releases has dissipated, a bottle of Unico still offers more excitement at the table than any of the new wines, the exalted Pingus included.
It might not score as well in the blind tastings, but that isn't what Unicos are made for. "The difference between Vega Sicilia and some of the other great wines of the world is not a qualitative difference, but a stylistic difference," says R. Michael Mondavi, the president and chief executive officer of the Robert Mondavi empire. "It's 'Do you like Renoir, or Picasso?,"
These are not wines for Master Sommelier candidates to sniff and swirl, identifying component tastes with each sip. You can find notes of cherry and blackberry, cigar box and perhaps a little tar, but each Vega Sicilia transcends its component parts. "The greatness of it is elegance, longevity and complexity," says California wine collector Bipin Desai, who periodically gathers consumers, wine professionals and other collectors for tastings of the world's best wines. "In every sense, it needs time to be appreciated."
In January 2000, Alvarez, winemaker Xavier Ausas and export manager Rafael Alonso flew to Los Angeles for Desai's three-day tasting of every significant Unico since the 1940s. Desai, who has "about ten" different vintages of Unico in his personal cellar, had drunk comparatively few in his life. He came away amazed at the depth and complexity of the wines. "Many collectors have never had a chance to taste these wines, so they remain somewhat underappreciated," he says.
They also don't have the raw power of many of today's favored wines. A bottle like the stately 1981 Unico that has been poured into a decanter and sits before Alvarez now is not to be tasted and quantified or described in notes. "It is a wine meant to live for a while with you," Alvarez says. "It is not meant to be tried, but to be enjoyed. The tasting is a moment, but a wine like this is another plate in the meal, to be drunk throughout the meal."
As he sips from the 1981 Unico, he seems less the CEO of an important business than the steward of a Spanish heirloom. He agrees with the assessment. It is a weighty responsibility, he says, and he feels it every day of his working life.
The estate originally called Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal has been producing wine under various names since 1864. The first bottles of Vega Sicilia came from the 1915 harvest, even as most of the fermented juice was still being sold off in bulk to wineries in the Rioja region. By then, the winery was owned by Ignacio Herrero Velazquez and his brothers, Luis and Felix. Bottles of this new wine were used as gifts for friends of the Herrero family. Anyone showing up at the winery looking to buy a bottle was quoted an exorbitant price, to make sure the gifts didn't lose their cachet. Many paid it. The price has remained exorbitant, and the cachet has endured.
Vega Sicilia began winning medals in national and international competitions soon after. (Several honors from the 1920s are still advertised on the print-heavy label today.) Only a few thousand bottles of Unicos were produced in any year, and demand far exceeded supply.
In 1952, just as the winery was gaining prominence in the world, the Herreros sold it to Prodes, a seed company. Businessman Miguel Neumann Swaton purchased the winery in 1966 and held it until 1982.
David Alvarez, who is now 76, had founded Eulen as a janitorial service in 1962. He was the sole proprietor and the only employee. He grew it into a complete business services company that does everything from landscaping to security for its clients in Spain and South America. Today it employs more than 50,000 people across two hemispheres.
Like most Spaniards of his generation, David Alvarez was a wine drinker, but his interest in wine didn't extend much beyond what he found in a glass in front of him. He didn't buy Vega Sicilia because he wanted to own a winery, but for its position at the forefront of Spanish consumer goods. "It represented not merely a business, but something more," Pablo Alvarez says now. "It was the prestige and the quality that attracted him."
Pablo Alvarez was charged with maintaining that prestige, and he has made it his life's work. That he didn't grow up in the industry may be something of an advantage. He has been able to learn about wine without preconceived notions. "Because of the way he got involved in the business, Pablo didn't have the anchor of the tradition weighing him down in the way some of the French and Italians did," says Mondavi. "When you ask him or his winemaker, 'Why are you doing this?, you will not get the answer, 'Because this is the way we've done it for five generations.'"
Unico is made only in better vintages, perhaps four to six times a decade. Alvarez guards the equity so zealously that the selection of which years are worthy of the wine is even stricter than before he ran the estate. The production varies from 48,000 to 70,000 bottles, less than a fifth of that produced by each first-growth Bordeaux. A percentage is shipped to England, the European continent and the United States; individual clients—including Spain's royal family— buy up much of the rest.
That means most consumers, even in Spain, never have the chance to taste one of Vega Sicilia's premier wines. It remains a luxury for the elite, which further explains its allure for radical nationalist groups that seek to disturb the existing order. Beyond that, too, the winery maintains little contact with the outside world. Its employees exchange greetings with those of the other properties that have proliferated along the highway, perhaps over a strong coffee and a slice of Spanish tortilla at the Hostal Sardón a few miles to the west, but their special status in the community creates a distance with the others that is difficult to bridge.
Alvarez wants it that way. Veteran winemaker Mariano Garcia Fernandez, who had started with Vega Sicilia in 1968, was found five years ago to be aiding his family property, Mauro, in the production of its wines. He was summarily fired. Such moonlighting is a common practice in Spain, but not, Alvarez believes, for the winemaker of Vega Sicilia. Such exalted duty should be occupation enough.
For years, Vega Sicilia was the only winery of note between Valladolid and Aranda de Duero. Now it sits in the midst of the Ribera del Duero appellation, along what has been officially designated a wine route. Nevertheless, it continues to exist as it did three decades ago, when only the occasional car would rumble past on the rudimentary highway. If a visitor arrives without an appointment, or during October when the grapes are being harvested, he will not be welcome.
But if he has taken the time to write ahead and inform the winery of his sincere interest in its wines, and he arrives punctually at the appointed time on the appointed date and shows his passport at the guard house, he will be treated to a tasting and a tour. His host will either be Alvarez, the owner, or Ausas, the winemaker. There is no reception staff.
When Alvarez was given control of Vega Sicilia in 1982, he had never tasted most of the world's great wines. Given the chance to travel in the most rarified circles of the wine world, he completed an informal post-graduate education.
He had his first Latour, his first Lafite, his first Romanee-Conti. He journeyed to America for tasting events and sampled the best of the emerging wines of California. He didn't say much, just sipped and
listened. "Visualize a duck swimming across a pond," Mondavi says. "On the surface, it doesn't look like the duck is moving, but underneath, those feet are churning real fast. Pablo's wheels are moving very fast."
Alvarez brought home an understanding of what the most
forward-thinking wineries in the world were doing. Then he set about implementing many of those innovations at his own winery. In 1993, he helped form an international group called the Primum Familiae Vini, or First Families of Wine. These were wineries of extremely high quality that were owned by families, not corporations, which faced similar challenges in the modern world.
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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