Gambling on Vega

After years of wondering what Vega Sicilia wines taste like, our columnist Lettie Teague finally found out. Of course, she had to go to Spain to do it.

Some wines are great, others simply famous. Then there are those that acquire mythical status. One of these wines is Vega Sicilia. As a fan who's long known the name, but never tasted the wine, I've often wondered why. Was it because Vega Sicilia had been the only great wine in Spain for nearly a century? (Imagine the prestige of Latour, the mystique of La Tâche and the hype of Le Pin all in one wine.) Is it because Vega Sicilia ages its wines in barrel longer (for one renowned vintage, over 15 years) than most wines last in bottle? Or maybe it has to do with Vega Sicilia's passport control policy—the few visitors that the winery does allow in are required to show their passports to a uniformed guard.

Even my old friend The Collector couldn't supply me with an answer; although he will drink Pétrus and Pingus at the drop of a cork, he's never found an occasion worthy enough to justify opening a bottle of Vega (at least when I'm around). It seemed like the only way I'd find an answer was by going to Spain. I made a few calls and arranged a date. Vega Sicilia's export director, Rafael Alonso, would show me around.

Vega Sicilia is located in Ribera del Duero—a hot, dry region in the middle of Spain that looks a lot like west Texas and seems, in some ways, just as remote. (It's actually about 100 miles north of Madrid.) Ironically, Ribera del Duero was only officially recognized as a wine-growing region about 20 years ago, although Vega Sicilia dates back to the mid-1800s. For a very long time, Rioja, not Ribera, was regarded as the source of Spain's greatest reds. Ribera (Vega Sicilia excepted) was thought to produce rough, mostly second-class stuff.

Much has changed in the ensuing two decades. Some of the world's most sought-after wines now come from Ribera, including such single-name stars as Pingus and Pesquera. Similar improvements have taken place in other once-reviled regions like Toro and Priorat, where serious reds with serious price tags—Clos Erasmus, L'Ermita—are increasingly the norm. In short, Spain is a very different wine country than it was when Vega Sicilia first rose to fame.

Ribera del Duero is home to one town of consequence, Peñafiel, notable for its bullring (used primarily as parking for cars), fourteenth-century castle and proximity to great wineries. Mr. Alonso, a small, dapper man in his mid-fifties driving a French-made sedan, picked me up in a Peñafiel parking lot (alas, not the bullring). On our way out of town, we briefly stopped by Alion, an impressive operation owned by Vega Sicilia. Established in 1992, Alion is famous for a big, rich, international-style (i.e., aged in French barrique) wine that some say was created to counter Ribera's more modern wines, notably Pesquera. I was surprised to learn that Alion's winemaker, Javier Ausas, is also the winemaker for Vega Sicilia.

When Mr. Alonso announced we were nearing Vega Sicilia, I scrambled for my passport. I assumed the checking of passports was meant to keep out the tourists, the Vega Sicilia fans who drove up from Madrid, or even from France, in the hope of buying a bottle. Even though, as Mr. Alonso dramatically pronounced, with evident satisfaction, "There is nothing to buy. We have a waiting list of more than two thousand in Spain alone."

I didn't see how any tourist could manage to find Vega Sicilia in the first place—if I had been driving, I'd have passed right by it. There's a sign, but it's very discreet. The guardhouse, on the other hand, is unmistakably large. When we pulled up to it, the guard waved us through. I was taken aback. "He didn't ask to see my passport!" Mr. Alonso gave me an enigmatic smile. It seemed the company of Mr. Alonso was sufficient to guarantee entrance, although I had been hoping to have my documents stamped.

"Have all the new hotshot winemakers and wineries in Ribera del Duero changed the way wine is made at Vega Sicilia?" I asked Mr. Alonso as we got out of the car. I was thinking of Javier Ausas, entrusted with both the 10-year-old Alion and 150-ish Vega Sicilia. Mr. Alonso produced another enigmatic smile: "At Vega Sicilia, we do not change the way we make wine; we say renew."

The current owners of Vega Sicilia are the very wealthy Alvarez family, who made a serious commitment to rebuild when they bought the estate in 1982. At that time the winery had been somewhat neglected, although its wines, by all accounts, were still glorious. The Alvarez family spent enormous sums of money restoring and expanding the winery facilities. This much was evident as Mr. Alonso led me from the front—a restored nineteenth-century Castillian chapel—to the back, where a small village of state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment gleamed.

The only exception I saw, in fact, to the blazingly modern operation was its cooperage, where workers in blue shirts (jobs at Vega Sicilia come color-coded) were shaping and shaving barrels using tools that might have been employed a century ago. The air was filled with the sweet vanilla scent of American oak. I wanted to linger, inhaling it, but Mr. Alonso had his itinerary in mind. He moved me along to the bottling line, easily the most boring part of any winery tour, though most winemakers inexplicably insist on including it. I imagine that because the equipment costs so much money, they must think it deserves to be shown off.

From the bottling line, we moved to the barrel room, a dark but dramatically lit space, where cellar workers spoke quietly, as if fearful of waking the wine from its long slumber. As we stood before rows of beautifully wrought barrels, Mr. Alonso described maintenance procedures. Apparently, at Vega Sicilia, barrels aren't simply washed on premise but taken apart piece by piece and shipped to France. The story made me think of all the French dry cleaners in New York that trumpet their nationality in giant letters—as if their heritage alone was a synonym for the highest standard of quality.

So far this was all quite impressive, though not quite mythical. Still, I'd yet to taste the wines. As if reading my thoughts, Mr. Alonso announced he'd arranged a tasting at the winery's main house, which he called a "château." This turned out to be a pleasant, though scarcely imposing, house next to the winery.

Three wines (all red) are produced under the Vega Sicilia label, including, in order of complexity and importance, Valbuena, Unico and Reserva Especial. All are blends of French and Spanish grape varieties from vineyards that are some of the oldest in Spain. The Valbuena, a mixture of Tempranillo, Malbec and Merlot (and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon), is the simplest, produced only in very good years. Made from the grapes of much younger vines than the Unico, it's aged in barrel and in bottle for a minimum of five years. Produced in much larger quantities than the Unico, the Valbuena has a correspondingly lower release price—about $85. This is the wine, Mr. Alonso said, that most Americans think is Vega Sicilia, although it's really a sort of second label (not that anyone at Vega Sicilia would ever call it that). It's the only wine they make that you can actually find in a few stores.

The flagship wine is Unico. Once the most expensive wine produced in Spain, with an opening price of $250 a bottle, it's now second to $300-plus Pingus. Unico is made in very small quantities in only the very best years. A blend of predominantly Tempranillo and Cabernet, it's aged for a minimum of six years in barrel and four in bottle—a length of time unmatched by any other great modern wine. Even the great Château Latour, by comparison, ages for just over a year in barrel. "How can Unico last so long in wood?" I asked Mr. Alonso. "We pick the grapes when they are very, very ripe," came his reply. This was hardly an explanation; many wines that are merely good are made from very ripe grapes. But Mr. Alonso would say no more.

The third wine, Reserva Especial, is a blend of several great vintages, a throwback to an earlier time, when many wineries sold both a vintage-dated wine and an undated blend. Reserva Especial is produced intermittently in very small quantities. The most recent blend was introduced to market at $225 a bottle. Magnums of Reserva Especial and Unico, some dating back to the 1920s, were arrayed around the room Mr. Alonso had set up for our tasting. My anticipation mounted; I was sure that even The Collector had never tasted such vintages.

Mr. Alonso excused himself to fetch the wines, leaving me to leaf through the winery's autograph book. Mr. Alonso had mentioned that the King of Spain was one of the winery's biggest fans, and though I searched for his signature, the best I could come up with was the insignia of Japan's sommelier society.

"The first wine we will drink is from our new winery in Hungary," Mr. Alonso announced. He carried six bottles; three appeared to be Hungarian. Mr. Alonso was very excited about the Hungarian project, Oremus. The first wine was a fairly rich, full-bodied white made from the Furmint grape. It cost only $7 a bottle, Mr. Alonso announced, fairly chortling at the figure (unexpected enthusiasm from a man representing one of the world's costliest wines).

The second wine was from a winery called Bodega Alquiriz in Toro, the region just west of Ribera del Duero. It represented the latest project for Vega Sicilia, said Mr. Alonso. Deep purple, nearly opaque, the young wine was 100 percent Tempranillo, aged in French and American oak. Though the fruit was soft and lush, the finish was mouth-shatteringly tannic. The winemaker for the Toro project was the ubiquitous Javier Ausas, who, I was beginning to believe, had either the world's greatest winemaking confidence or the world's worst contract.

Our third wine was, at last, Vega Sicilia, specifically the 1997 Valbuena, scheduled to be released in 2002. The nose was exotic—almost Syrah-like—and in the mouth, it was rich and concentrated, with fine tannins. Surprisingly easy to drink, it was unquestionably delicious yet hardly earth-shattering. Or, for that matter, mythmaking.

Next, however, came the Unico. I got to taste the highly regarded 1987 vintage, also scheduled for 2002 release. The wine immediately put me in mind of a great Bordeaux; its structure and elegance marked it as a wine of extraordinary finesse. It was almost impossible to imagine that such a vibrant, youthful wine had just emerged from so many years in a barrel. There was no doubt this wine was remarkable—in league almost certainly with a First Growth Bordeaux. But was it mythical? I'd had other Bordeaux that were just as good, though no one had ever thought to call them mythical.

The final two wines were...Hungarian dessert wines, one a late-harvest version of Mr. Alonso's beloved Furmint.

And that was it. Our tasting concluded, Mr. Alonso ushered me from the château. As we said our farewells, a giant tour bus pulled up. A tour bus! I shot Mr. Alonso a look. "They must be very special tourists," he said hurriedly and peered at the license plate. Ah, he sighed in relief. They were French. He called to the bus driver and smiled at his reply. They weren't only French, they were from the famed Bordeaux estate, Château Lynch-Bages.

Mr. Alonso waved as he hurried away. I wished I could have stuck around for the French tour; I would like to have seen their faces when Mr. Alonso served up the Furmint.

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