Vega Sicilia is undoubtably Spain’s most famous winery; a true icon in fine wine with a history dating back to 1864. Its success in retaining such a reputation, and in almost complete isolation in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain, is testament to the quality and consistency of its production, although its history has not been without its challenges. Vega Sicilia claims to be one of the longest aged and longest-lived red wines in the world, with their flagship Unico capable of maturing in bottle for well over sixty years under the right cellar conditions.
Developing its style in such solitary conditions has created a wine distinct from any other and whilst the Ribera region has flourished with the establishment of wineries such as Pasquera in the 1970s and more recently the cult wine of Pingus, Vega Sicilia today remains at the apex of the appellation.
The estate that would become known as Vega Sicilia was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda Y Chaves, a Spanish vigneron who inherited the property in 1859. After visiting Bordeaux he brought cuttings of the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Carmenere as well as Pinot Noir and planted 18,000 vines at the estate in Ribera del Duero alongside the native varietal of Tinto Fino (Tempranillo). By 1882 he had planted 500,000 vines on the estate (at the time known as Bodegas Lecanda).
The introduction of Bordeaux varieties was perhaps not that unusual at the time, since the Bordelais were becoming more and more influential in Spain (most notably in Rioja) having disbanded their operations in Bordeaux following the phylloxera outbreak and were actively looking for alternative regions to grow their grapes. However, in Rioja, the Bordeaux varieties were soon replaced by the native Tempranillo which proved a much more reliable and profitable choice. Whilst Don Eloy Lecanda Y Chaves initiated a winery that was to change the history of fine wine, he was initially using the grapes to make brandy rather than still wine. Although the brandy was well received amongst the aristocratic families (no doubt piquing the interest of the Herrero brothers), the estate struggled financially to make ends meet and he died in 1894 never to witness the success of his venture.
The property was bought by the Herrero brothers in the early 1900s who renamed it Vega Sicilia. As phylloxera eventually reached Rioja, the négociant Cosme Palacio was looking further afield to maintain supply for his customers. On discovering Vega Sicilia, he immediately rented the property from the Herrero brothers. He brought with him winemaker Domingo Garramiola Txomin who introduced the Bordeaux techniques of ageing wine in
barrique as well as extending the élevage. He also initiated bottling the wine on the estate (Cosme Palacio was previously shipping the wines in bulk to Rioja).
The Herrero Brothers were a well-connected upper-class family who were galvanised to produce a wine of exceptional quality no matter the cost, to sell to their aristocratic friends. This quest for quality combined with the skills of Domingo Garramiola Txomin, as well as the unique combination of Bordeaux varieties and Tinto Fino (thanks to Don Eloy Lacanda Y Chaves), was the perfect recipe for producing Spain’s first iconic wine – Vega Sicilia Unico. The first vintage of Unico was produced in 1915.
Thanks to the connections of the Herrero brothers, within two decades Vega Sicilia had become the most revered winery in Spain. Even at this time the wine had built up a reputation for its extraordinary ageing capacity. At Vega Sicilia the Bordeaux varieties became a key component to their flagship wine of Unico and have remained in the blend right through to the present day.
Throughout this time, the property became almost a self-contained village, with a school and chapel on site and many of the families working at the winery and living on the estate. Despite the winery changing hands a number of times over the last century, Garramiola’s legacy has lived on through the winemakers that followed in his footsteps; figures like Martiniano Renedo, who was initially Garramiolo’s assistant, and especially Jesús Anadón, who was instrumental in maintaining the quality and reputation of the wine through the middle of the 20th century. Amazingly there are workers on the estate today whose families have worked at the winery for generations. Today the master cooper at Vega Sicilia, along with his brother Jesus Yanez, is the fourth generation of his family to work at the property. The winemaker between 1968 and 1998, Mariano Garcia, was the son of one of the farm workers on the property.
Despite its global reputation, its exclusive allocation list and long history, the winery and vineyards went through bouts of dilapidation during the 1950s, through to the late '70s, whilst at the same time producing some of the most legendary vintages. On purchasing the property in 1982 the Álvarez family began to make huge investments into the estate, renovating the winery and carrying out an extensive replanting program in the vineyards. 1982 was also the year Ribera del Duero was awarded its DO appellation status and no doubt helped further promote Vega Sicilia as the historical icon of the region. The winery and the appellation has never looked back since.