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unicoArriving at the 150th anniversary of a family-run enterprise is always a reason for celebration.  Bodegas Vega-Sicilia, the historic and iconic Spanish winery, recently reached that landmark.

My wife Victoria and I were invited by the Alvarez family, the bodega owners, to share with them and other selected invitees – the proprietors of European family-owned wineries founded 150 or more years ago, celebrities, Spanish government dignitaries, a representative from the Royal House in Madrid, in short, the Who’s Who in the European wine business – the happy landmark.

At a reception held in their impeccably manicured gardens, innovative and delicate apéritifs were served, followed by the gala dinner prepared by Arzak Restaurant and El Celler de Can Roca, the renowned Catalan restaurant voted as second best in Europe.  Some of the wines poured included the 2010 Valbuena 5°, magnums of Único from the 1994, 1981 and 1953 vintages, and a grand finale of Oremus Tokaj Eszencia 2005 and Tokaj Aszú 6 Puttonyos 1972.  A wine lover’s day in heaven!

unicohouseThe bodega was founded in 1864 in Valbuena, in the Ribera del Duero region, slightly over 100 miles northwest of Madrid.  Its flagship wine, Único, has been touted by many columnists and aficionados as Spain’s greatest wine – an opinion wholeheartedly shared by this writer.  This wine, made from the oldest vines in the property and only in special vintages, may also be Spain’s most expensive wine and one of the first to be called “vino de guarda” (“vin de garde”).  Unico, as they say, is “the patriarch of our line of exceptional wines, an icon of world prestige.”

The first written reference of a Vega-Sicilia “finca” appears in 1377, and later in 1525 it is referred to as Vega de Santa Cecilia.  But the history of the property seems to go back to 1143 when King Alfonso VII of Castile donated land to the Cistercian Monks to build the Abbey of Santa Maria in the village of Valbuena.  They probably planted a diversity of agricultural products and raised sheep as a source of income for the monastery.  Although there are no historical records of vineyards tendered by the Cistercians, vines were probably planted for sacramental purposes as well as enjoyment of the monks and village families.  The word Vega translates as “a fertile lowland or plateau” in Spanish and Sicilia probably derives from Santa Cecilia, a saint venerated in that area.

Throughout the centuries the property changed hands many times, often in controversy, until 1848 when the Lecanda family purchased the estate.  Twenty years later, Eloy Lecanda traveled to Bordeaux and acquired vitis vinifera cuttings to mix with his local varieties (mostly Tempranillo, called Tinto Fino in the Duero region).  The winery was eventually purchased by a Venezuelan businessman who had to sell it for financial reasons.

vegaIn 1982 – coincidentally an outstanding vintage in much of Europe – the Vega-Sicilia estate was purchased by David Alvarez, a successful Spanish businessman.  Three years later, Alvarez put it in the hands of his son Pablo Alvarez, who has successfully run and grown the business since then.  According to him, they now export over 50% of their production to more than 100 countries.  The property encompasses 975 hectares (2,463 acres) of which 210 (525 acres) are planted to vines with an average age of 35 years, all with Tempranillo except 5 ½ hectares (14 acres) with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  No vine under 10 years is used for any of their wines.  In addition to Unico, Vega-Sicilia also produces “Valbuena 5°,” made from the “younger” vines and usually released five years after harvest.  A fascinating Único Reserva Especial is made only in outstanding vintages and in such small quantity that it’s not exported.

The family also owns other wineries: Bodegas Alión, in Peñafiel, Ribera del Duero D.O.; Bodegas Pintia, in the neighboring Toro D.O.; and Oremus in Hungary.  This last one was a wine cooperative from the Soviet Communist times and, when the Hungarian government privatized it in 1993, Alvarez purchased the winery and vineyards.  They produce a line of Tokaj Aszú, considered by many to be among the best naturally sweet wines from that country and the world.  A decade ago the Alvarez family entered into a joint venture with Benjamin Rothschild, co-owner of Château Lafite-Rothschild, to produce “Macán” and “Macán Clásico”, both made from old Tempranillo vines in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, in the Rioja Alta region, which were recently introduced to the United States market.

Many aficionados consider Vega-Sicilia Único to be a mythical wine.  It is the crowning jewel of the Alvarez family wine business.  At dinners of the Board of Governors of the Americas (BGA) and many of our Branches, Unico or other wines from the Alvarez group have been served.  They grace our family dinner table during special occasions.  It’s easy to understand why they were selected as Official Purveyors to the Spanish Royal House.

This article was first printed in The International Wine & Food Society Magazine (IWFS)