Paradoxically, 2014 was a bittersweet year for Vega Sicilia. Despite its unquestionable status as one of Spain’s greatest wine brands, news broke that excessive sediment was found in two wines made by the group. The winery offered to replace Pintia 2009 (from Toro, the appellation specialised in red wines located by the Duero river, northwest of Ribera del Duero) if thorough decanting failed to satisfy customers. It also announced that Ribera del Duero’s Alión 2010 (an excellent vintage in the area) wouldn’t be released due to the same problems.
"We had a cosmetic error, if you can call it this way, ” explains Pablo Álvarez. “The quality of the wine was superb, but there was a problem with clarification. The sediment failed to decant and the wine was cloudy. That’s why we also decided not to release Alión 2010 ".
This is not the first time Vega Sicilia has withdrawn wines since the Álvarez family purchased the winery in 1982. It happened before with Valbuena 1994, Vega Sicilia’s second brand due to TCA taint. Although the problem was not present in all the bottles, the winery made a public statement and recalled the entire vintage. Back then, as now, they considered that failing to tell the truth would considerably damage their prestige.
This is also about Pablo Álvarez’s management style. He is still surprised by Vega Sicilia’s brand awareness across the world. "We are much more than a Spanish wine; we are Vega Sicilia and it’s impressive how highly appreciated we are. It also proves that we have not done too badly for the last 30 years and that we are on the right track “, states Álvarez.
One of the healthiest and more profitable Spanish wine groups nowadays. Vega Sicilia includes the original winery -located in Valbuena de Duero and founded by Eloy Lecanda in 1864; Alión, a second venture also located in Ribera del Duero (1991); Pintia in Toro (2001); Oremus in Tokaji (Hungary); and 50% of Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia in Rioja —the result of a joint venture between both families and whose two wines (Macán and Macán Classical) made their début in the 2009 vintage.
Macán Clásico (€32.50 at Vinissimus or via Wine Searcher) and Pintia (€33.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) are the most affordable brands. The rarest is Vega Sicilia Único Reserva Especial (€299 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher)), a blend from three different vintages; and the legendary Vega Sicilia Único (€259 at Bodeboca or via Wine Searcher, old vintages and large format bottles at Lavinia), which is traditionally released as a 10-year old red boasts a remarkable aging potential than enables it to stand face-to-face to some revered French crus. In between there is Valbuena (€97.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) and Alión (€52.90 at Bodeboca or via Wine Searcher).
Remarkably, almost all Vega Sicilia wines are widely availble —except the Único Reserva Especial (15,000 bottles). Around 250,000 bottles of Alión and Pintia are produced annually, whereas Valbuena exceeds 175,000 bottles and Vega Sicilia Único can reach 100,000 bottles in a good vintage. Pablo Álvarez proudly states that the group has the potential to reach 900,000 bottles a year with an average price of €40 per bottle.
Few Spanish wineries have changed so much and so dramatically in the last 20 years to continue making old-style wines. The Vega Sicilia I knew in the mid-nineties has been totally renovated in terms of facilities, aging barrels and technology.
A couple of years ago, new winemaking premises were inaugurated. Fermentation tanks (wooden vats for Único and stainless steel for Valbuena) increased from 20 to 81 in order to reflect different plots in the estate based on a comprehensive soil study. According to winemaker Xavier Ausàs, this move has allowed wines to "gain precision".
There are cold chambers now, sophisticated sorting tables, a system designed to use gravity and pour out the grapes directly in each vat and even a “wine lift”, used to carry fermented wines to a lower level where they are put into casks. The truth is that the current Vega Sicilia isn’t very different from the most renowned Bordeaux first-growths.
Brand new wood casks are the norm —none of them over six years old. American oak barrels are still made in the winery but there’s also a new cooperage that leaves little room for romance: large, mechanized and highly effective.
The Álvarez family has faced many challenges such as updating facilities, expanding the surface under vine to produce single estate wines; implementing high quality standards and making all the necessary changes to keep the winery’s reputation intact in an increasingly crowed and competitive wine world.
“The wines are not what they used to be 50 years ago –points out Pablo Álvarez–, but they still retain their distinctive character. The style has changed towards fresher wines that spend less time in oak and longer time in bottle”.
Único first vintage was 1915 although the winery was officially established in 1864 when owner Eloy Lecanda traveled to France and brought cuttings of well known Bordeaux grape varieties. They grew in the Valbuena de Duero estate (Valladolid) next to the local Aragonés variety (as Tempranillo or Tinto Fino was called at the time).
The style of the wine, as we currently know it, was established by the Herrero family, owners since 1890. They hired Basque winemaker Txomin Garramiola, who had previously been working for Cosme Palacio, founder of Bodegas Palacio in Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa). This négociant had leased the facilities at Vega Sicilia in the early 20th century after phylloxera had devastated the vineyards of Rioja. Garramiola remained at Vega Sicilia and applied the Bordelais techniques he learned in Rioja to craft a long-lived red from the vineyard planted by Eloy Lecanda. The wine was more vigorous and full-bodied than reds from Rioja and the alcohol content was also higher. The social connections of the Herrero family helped to have the new wine on the best tables of Castilla; it was initially seen as a valuable item that could only be obtained as a present —Vega Sicilia could not be purchased.
Oddly, for the most part of its history, Vega Sicilia was an unknown and unique wine in Spain. Very few wine lovers could locate it on a map and it was not part of any appellation —the DO Ribera del Duero was established in 1982, the same year the Álvarez family purchased the winery. But the wine maintained its unique and distinctive character throughout the years, even despite successive owners, who were not always interested in wine. Garramiola’s legacy was transmitted within the winery’s walls to figures like Martiniano Renedo and especially Jesús Anadón, who managed the estate for a long time and kept the winemaking tradition alive. Mariano García, winemaker between 1968 and 1998, was the son of one of the farm workers.
Most likely, its ability to age is the main reason why Vega Sicilia has become a legendary wine. The winery has generously stressed this fact with vertical tastings held in various cities around the world to mark its 150th anniversary. Old vintages of Único are traded at auction and are increasingly sought after by collectors.
In order to meet this demand, the winery has significantly increased its bottle reserves since 1994 while continuing to repurchase old vintages primarily from private collectors. "The idea is to cellar them, so that we are able to offer small collections of Único, such as verticals to restaurants”, says Pablo Álvarez.
In Spain current vintages are released by allocation and despite the financial downturn there’s still a waiting list for the wines. Pablo Álvarez estimates that the number of customers has doubled as Vega Sicilia aims to increase the wines’ geographical reach.
Changes have been far more important in foreign markets as very little Vega Sicilia was exported in the past. Currently, it is sold in 115 countries. “We have come to work with two or three importers in each country. Wine distribution has changed dramatically and today we deal with importers that specialize in private customers or in restaurants”, says Pablo Álvarez. "In the end, we try to distribute the same eggs in more baskets. Definitely, what has changed most is the way the wine is sold”, he concludes.
Vega Sicilia’s fans should also pay attention to upcoming Único vintages. 2004 is the current release but there are some exceptions over the coming years. Único 2007 will be released next March; vintage 2008 in March 2016, while 2005 and 2006 will be launched later as the winery considers they have further aging potential. This means they will age somewhat longer than 10 years before release; and also that 2007 and 2008 will reach costumers’ tables slightly younger than usual.