Hubert Burda Media

Keeper of the Grail

After 30 years of helming his country's most legendary wine export, Vega Sicilia's PABLO ALVAREZ worries about “losing perspective” and the popularity of…olive oil? By Lauren Tan

Keeper of the Grail

Vega sicilia may be widely acknowledged as the greatest wine estate in all of Spain, and its red elixir, a specimen of perfection. Sir Winston Churchill, the legendary statesman known for his love of fine champagne, even famously declared the wine an “excellent claret”. But rehash any one of these accolades when you meet Pablo Alvarez, the painfully modest steward of the century-and-a-half Vega, and all you're really giving him is a reminder of all the work still yet to be done.
“Nothing is ever perfect. We can only try to be better everyday,” he says in a contemplative baritone, when we meet at Caveau Wines and Bar, a snug little joint which features wine from Vega Sicilia-owned offshoots Alion and Pintia on its extensive menu.
A scion of Grupo Eulen, one of Europe's largest corporate service groups, Alvarez was fresh out of law school in 1982 when his father's purchase of Vega thrust the young Alvarez into the big leagues of winemaking. His arrival at the Ribera del Duero estate ushered in a modern era for Vega with no-expense-spared improvements made to both the winery and vineyards. Under his management, he also expanded the family portfolio by acquiring the neighbouring Alion Winery in 1991, Hungary's Tokaj Oremus Winery in 1993 and in 1997, the Pintia Winery in the Spanish region of Toro.
Even reports of an ongoing intergenerational dispute and legal tussle for control of Vega and its associated wineries hasn't put a damper on Alvarez's quest to make great wine. Having joined forces with Benjamin de Rothschild (of the Edmond de Rothschild branch of the banking-winemaking family that owns Chateau Clarke in Bordeaux), Alvarez is just months away from launching the first vintage of Macan, his inaugural wine venture in Spain's Rioja region.
But while the new wine has been put to rest until its debut, Alvarez has been labouring over a very different project — autographing by hand some 1,000 bottles direct from the cellars of Vega Sicilia, Alion, Tokaj and Pintia (among them, prized 1942 and 1947 vintages of Vega Sicilia), which go under the hammer at Sotheby's Hong Kong this April.
You got into winemaking by chance. Is it true the family was actually acting as intermediaries in the sale of Vega Sicilia back in 1982, but made an offer instead?
Yes. My father made the decision as he was drawn to Vega Sicilia's prestige. If it had been any other winery, we may never have gotten into the business. So from that day on, I went to work at Vega Sicilia, and when our general manager retired in 1985, I took over and have been responsible for all the family wineries since.
Julio Iglesias recently revealed that he had tried to buy Vega Sicilia as well. Were you aware of it then?
Not at the time, but I've heard about it since. In any case, Julio Iglesias is a good client of ours and admires the wine. I think we were very lucky to come by the company. If Vega Sicilia were on sale today and not 30 years ago, it might be impossible for us to purchase it, because there may be too many other offers now to compete with.
Out of all your siblings, how was it decided that you would be the one to run the winery?
I had just finished my studies in law and I loved wine and food. So my father thought I would be a good fit. I always say that I'm very lucky because I was in love with the work, and I still am. That's what is important.
Did you feel the pressure to prove yourself?
Yes. But the responsibility I felt was not just from a business standpoint, but to the Vega Sicilia name. Throughout its history, it has always commanded such respect, so the task we have is to uphold the legacy and produce better and better wines.
In fact, you opened a new fermentation facility not too long ago.
In 2010 actually. It's only the third in Vega Sicilia's 150-year history. The first fermentation building operated for 80 years until the 1960s and the second served us until 2009. The new facility is very sophisticated. We used to have 20 fermentation tanks, now we have 75, making the work more complex, but it was a necessary investment for the quality of our wines to rise. Vega Sicilia has more than 40 different parcels grown on 19 different types of soils, and being able to keep each lot separate until the final blend ensures that we have the choices to make the very best blends. At the end of the day, our investments are to improve quality because we will not increase quantity.
Well, a lot of people already describe Vega's Unico as perfect.
Nothing is ever perfect. Wine, like a person, is something that is alive, and nobody is perfect. We can only try to be better everyday. That's why I always say we will never produce the best wine ever. Some may think our Unico wine is perfect, but more often, what I hear is that we produce one of the most consistent wines in the world. Our great success comes not from changing our style to fit the trends of the wine business but from maintaining the personality of our wines.
How would you describe the “personality” of Vega Sicilia then?
Well, there was one journalist who said that Vega Sicilia has the power of Bordeaux and the complexity and elegance of a Burgundy. For me, I would describe the personality as being very complex and very elegant. It's a wine that ages very well in the bottle. These traits are perhaps more important than the actual history of the winery.
Talking about French wine, Winston Churchill supposedly mistook a Vega Sicilia for a claret and loved it!
There are many legends surrounding Vega Sicilia, but I think this one is true. He was served Vega Sicilia by the Spanish ambassador in London and he said to the ambassador: “Which Bordeaux wine is this? It is so good.”
In terms of popularity, do you think Spanish wine is now on par with the other wine-producing countries?
Not really. I always say we Spanish are the younger brothers in the market because French and Italian wines have a better image than us. French, obviously, because they created wine culture and Italy perhaps because they have many Italian restaurants worldwide. We Spanish are very bad sales people and it's a big problem. Just look at olive oil. People identify olive oil with Italy, but Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world, and we sell the bulk of it to Italy. Why aren't we able to market ourselves better? I don't know.
You'll be releasing your first Riojas, the Macan and Macan Clasico, co-produced with Benjamin de Rothschild soon. Are you excited?
I am. It's the first vintage after many years of work. It's been about 20 years since we [at Vega Sicilia] first thought about going into Rioja and 10 years of buying little by little the best vineyards that we could find. I remember one of the first times I spoke with Benjamin, I said to him: “Can you wait 10 years for our wine to be ready?” He said: “Of course.” And based on the 2009, our first vintage, we are really happy with the personality and quality of the wines.
Are they similar in style to Vega Sicilia?
They're absolutely different from the wines we are producing in Ribera del Duero [Vega Sicilia and Alion] or Toro [Pintia]. As I always say, we are not going to discover Rioja and we're not going to produce a Vega Sicilia in Rioja. We must produce a Rioja wine in Rioja. The climate in North Rioja is more Atlantic and so the wines are closer to French wines then Ribera del Duero wines. They are more delicate — elegant with minerality.
There are a few wineries in Rioja with jaw-dropping architecture. Will yours be like that?
It's good that there are wineries like Bodegas Marques de Riscal, designed by Frank Gehry, or Bodegas Ysios by Santiago Calatrava, because they attract people to the region. Although we see things differently, I respect their vision. We prefer to invest our money in the vineyards and what is inside the winery. But of course we still want a nice building. We haven't built it yet as we've been renting, but we're meeting with our architect in a few weeks who has a design ready. In 2014 we will have our own winery.
You just marked your 30th year in the wine business. Any reflections on your journey thus far?
It was good that I was trained as a lawyer and didn't know anything about winemaking when I started. That allowed me to look at the business from the outside in. Because if you're always on the inside, you lose perspective eventually. For this reason, I think it may have been good that we bought Vega Sicilia and continued to grow the name because even famous businesses can benefit under new owners, or an injection of new blood. Now, after so many years in the business, one of my worries is of losing perspective.
Have you started planning Vega Sicilia's 150th anniversary in 2014?
A special book about Vega Sicilia is already being prepared, and we are planning to host special dinners and tastings next year in June or July when the climate is better. We're thinking of inviting some of the best wineries in the world that are more than 150 years old to celebrate with us.
Vega Sicilia is exclusively distributed by Vinum Fine Wines, vinum.com.sg.