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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
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

(continued from page 1)

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.


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