Deep roots in Spanish soil

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 1998, 12:00am

Vega-Sicilia is the most expensive wine produced in Spain. But is it the best? I asked the fellow sitting next to me at lunch the other day. 'Si, si, si,' he assured me. Then I found out he was Pablo Alvarez, whose family owns Spain's most renowned vineyards. What was he supposed to say? There are many people who will agree with Mr Alvarez. In France, Bordeaux is the unquestioned monarch of wine regions. But you can get into endless arguments about which is the most prestigious district in Bordeaux.

In Spain, there are no such disputes. Vega-Sicilia stands supreme. The price of Vega Sicilia Unico '95 is $1,098 from wine merchants Fine Vintage (fax: 2558-0154). So there is little chance of me whacking this back with a pork sausage at a barbecue. For true connoisseurs, however, the noble wine is worth every cent, its glory comparable to the best Bordeaux can offer.

Links with France are long and close. In 1864, Don Eloy Lecanda went to Bordeaux and bought 18,000 vines from the most famed viticulturist of the time. These cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, malbec, merlot and pinot noir grapes formed the basis of the family's newly acquired vineyard.

The legend of Vega Sicilia, named for the river valley in Castile where the vineyards are situated, began early this century. The vile bug phylloxera had wiped out most Spanish vines. There was economic panic in the great Basque city of Bilboa which largely lived on wine exports.

A young Basque named Domingo Garrimiola Txomin, who had studied wine at the thriving wine college at Haro in Rioja, was dispatched to Vega Sicilia in 1905 to preside over the estate.

The fashion of the time in Spain was for grapes to be crushed in autumn, then kept in vats or huge casks. When people wanted to buy, the wine was poured into bottles. This was handy and made commercial sense, but it hardly meant top quality.

The canny Txomin began bottling the best of the wines after they had matured in oak. The distinctive black-and-white-labels started to gain a reputation when the playboy owner of the estate began giving them to his friends at such trendy events as clay shootings attended by royalty, or African safaris.

It made no commercial sense. But it made the wine renowned. The owners were fabulously rich and the wine was a valued gift. If an ordinary person wanted to buy a bottle, they were usually huffily refused, which only went to make the wine more valued.

By the 1920s, the Vega Sicilia label was famed. It had won awards, such as the Universal Prize in Barcelona in 1929.

It was not until 1982 that the wealthy Alvarez family, also Basques from Bilboa, bought the firm. They introduced systems similar to those in any modern winery, but managed to retain the feeling of the wine.

Vega Sicilia is made from a blend of the five grapes first planted in the 18th century. It is aged in wood for seven years and then stands in bottles in the cellars under the monastery-like facade of the winery.

When it reaches a wine store, it is refined and as aristocratic as a Castilian grandee. It may seem a trifle thin, but it has got a mighty 14 per cent alcoholic content.

Those five vine species have acclimatised and adapted, says Mr Alvarez. Their long history and deep roots in Spanish soil have made them different from their French ancestors.

'It's like a secret ingredient,' he explains.