The Real Story Behind Spain’s Finest Wine

Gerard Basset, co-founder of the Hotel du Vin Group and a former world champion sommelier, on Spain’s top wine.

For most of the 20th century Vega Sicilia has been regarded as the true great wine of Spain and while there are now many outstanding wines in the country, Vega Sicilia still has a unique place. There is uncertainty on the exact origin of the

name Vega Sicilia, but the most widely accepted explanation is that it is based on the name of the estate, Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal – upon which the winery was founded – which contracted over time to Vega Sicilia. Wines have been made on the estate since at least the 12th century and, over the years, it has been through various owners, including several churches.

Officially, Vega Sicilia was created in 1864, the same year Eloy Lecanda, son of the owner, went to Bordeaux where he bought vine cuttings of several grape varieties. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot, which he planted in the existing vineyard alongside the local Garnacha and Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) grape varieties. It is an important event as some of these grapes play a part in the special character of the wines of Vega Sicilia. Nevertheless it was the Herrero family, who had purchased the estate by the end of the 19th century, who are credited as having been instrumental in the birth of the myth. Some family members were well connected with the top echelons of Spanish

society and thus able to have their wines served in high places, ensuring the wines were noticed.

In the first part of the 20th Century, thanks to the talented winemaker, Txomin Garramiola, the wine won numerous prestigious awards for quality. But it was not all plain sailing and, as history tells us, all European economies experienced tough times during different periods of the 20th century. Vega Sicilia was not immune to these economic hardships. The estate changed hands in 1952 and again in 1966, meaning it did not always get the full attention of its owners, but fortunately, great wines were still produced by estate manager Jesús Anadón.

In 1982, Vega Sicilia was finally bought by the Alvarez family and money was plowed back into the business, with the sole focus of producing sensational wines worthy of the estate’s historic reputation, which is still very much the case today. Vega Sicilia is situated in the Ribera del Duero wine region of northern Spain, which has a continental climate. With the vineyards at an altitude of a little more than 2,300 feet, the summer nights are cool, resulting in red wines with excellent levels of acidity and superb concentration. The Vega Sicilia estate comprises 500 acres of vines that are used for Vega Sicilia, as well as for a sister winery, Alión. The Tinto Fino grape variety, or Tempranillo, accounts for 85% of the planting and 15% is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as a little Malbec. Vega Sicilia produces three wines: Valbuena No.5 aged for five years in a combination of casks; Vega Sicilia Unico, the “star of the stable”, aged for a minimum of seven years (sometimes more) in a combination of casks; and Reserva Especial, a blend of different vintages of Unico, usually some of the best ones. The results can be quite astonishing.