Vega Sicilia: Spanish Wine of Grand Distinction

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

In case you did not know, Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a Spanish wine. It is true that wine connoisseurs rarely speak about Spanish wines in the same breath as French or even Italian wines.  However, Vega Sicilia is the Spanish wine game changer – and unlike new world cult wines or even French Garagiste and quasi-Garagiste Pomerol upstarts – has been such for many, many years.  Vega Sicilia has been produced in the Ribera del Duero region of Northern Spain for over 150 years.  It is made primarily from tempranillo grapes, which are typically blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec. Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape that ripens early (the word temprano means “early”) and has power and concentration with alcohol levels between 13.5 and 14 percent. The Vega Sicilia wine ages extremely well, and is not readily available due to high demand and small production.

Many wine authorities consider Vega Sicilia to be one of the most glorious wines that hails from Europe or the “Old World” as it is often referred to in among wine enthusiasts to contrast wine that are made in US or Australia – the “New World wines”.  Prominent wine critics believe that, at its best, Vega Sicilia transcends the paradigm of Spanish wines, and rivals the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy wine.  This is not to say that the First Growth wines of the Bordeaux or the Nuevo Reich Petrus or the Garagiste leader, Le Pin don’t represent the venerated old world wine-making skills .  They do.   It is simply that arguably few can match the historical prestige of Vega Sicilia.

Even if you are not a fan of Spanish wine, you may have heard of Vega Sicilia, and if you tasted it, you may have fallen in love with this truly noble wine.  Its comparables may be the great vintages of the famous First Growths of Bordeaux.   It should be no surprise that behind many great wines lies a clever marketing story.  This is particularly true of some well regarded California wines.  This is not the case with Vega Sicilia.  Its winery is located in Valbuena de Duero. Its important history was not planned by high-paid wine or business consultants; it was not engineered by celebrity winemakers or erected by Wall Street egos.  It was made by history itself, with help from tradition and dedication.  It was made from ultra low yields and wine making that pays much attention to details.

Many believe its name refers to Saint Cecilia, venerated throughout Spain, explains John Mariani , who writes about wine for Bloomberg’s arts and culture section[I]. Although the exact origin of the name is not known, the word Vega refers to the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero, and Saint Sicilia, is the patron Saint of musicians.  However, how the name came about remains a mystery.

The winery was founded by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves in 1864.  He brought French varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to Spain’s wine region that became home to Vega Sicilia.  The story of this wine dates to the early to mid 1800s.  In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal.  At some point early on, the name was reduced to Vega Sicilia. For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Toribio’s son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864.  From Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.

In due course Don Eloy went bust and the estate passed to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn’t a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of Vega Sicilia’s Unico – the rarest and grandest rendition of the wine.

According to Julian Jeffs in Classic Wines of Spain, the winery changed hands in 1952, and again in 1966.  The next major change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a “simple” table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernize and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.  Ultimately, from about 1915 through 1980s was the sole beacon of consistent high quality in Ribera del Duero, and arguably in Spain.

The wine takes time to mature, and that is why it is often not released for at least 10 years after production.  “The rare wines of the Vegas Sicilia winery reach their peak after decades – if you can get them,” writes Stan Sesser for the Wall Street Journal, in his piece, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”[II].   Herrero family’s wine-maker, Dominigo Garramoila Txomin’s “faith is inspiring. He held an unknown wine back for over 10 years confident that it would eventually change the world. It did. That heritage continues; the 1970 vintage spent over 16 years in barrel before release,” explains Paul Coker, Sommelier at St Regis in Monarch Beach, California.

Vega Sicilia is one of the most highly regarded and unusual wines, claim its quasi-fanatical followers world over. Of its two top labels, called Unico and Unico Especial, the first is released only after aging for at least a decade in barrels and bottles, compared with three years for the best wines from Bordeaux. The second, Especial, is a blend of grapes harvested in three different years, a rarity in the world of red wine, so the bottle doesn’t have a vintage date on it. And if Vega Sicilia’s winemaker is dissatisfied with the quality of the harvest in any year, the winery will refuse to produce a single bottle of Unico. This has happened four times in the last two decades: 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001, points out Sesser.  Less than 7,000 cases of Unico are produced each year, and only about 10 percent of the production enters the U.S.  Paul Coker further distinguishes, Vega Sicilia by pointing out that, “unlike most top estates, Vega Sicilia will never sell off its wine to lesser estates. If the wine doesn’t go into Vega Sicilia, maybe it goes into their Valbuena (one of the greatest Reservas of the Ribera.) If it isn’t great enough for Valbuena, it is completely distilled into neutral grape spirit and made into brandy.”

Ultimately, Vega Sicilia is a true connoisseur’s wine.  Its commercial success is an externality of the implementation of the winery’s creed to patiently produce a special wine in the grandest of European traditions.  “There is no sign at the Vega Sicilia winery and no tasting room, and anyone uninvited who knocks at the door will be turned away. Waving a wad of money to buy a bottle of wine will do you no good; nothing at the winery is for sale,” points out Sesser, underscoring that it is no simply a commercial venture, but an artisan’s creation.  “The story of Vega Sicilia is the story of Spanish wines: a beautiful dichotomy of respect for heritage and a belief in greatness obtainable through innovation,” posits Coker, summing up the essence of this great European wine.   The faith in the future continues today with an oak forest that has been planted on the estate. When ready, this will allow Vega Sicilia to produce their own corks to prevent any outside influence that could compromise quality.

(Yuri Vanetik is a wine collector who lives in Southern California.)

[I] Mariani, John, “Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its Own Against Bordeaux Wines,” May 3, 2013, Bloomberg. www.vega-sicilia.com

[II] Sesser, Stan, “Spanish Greatness, With a Long Wait”, February 20, 2010, Wall Street Journal