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Ve g a     Si c i l i a
Turns Tokay Towards the West

Text: David Ing  
 Photo: Bodegas Oremus

 

BODEGAS VEGA SICILIA HAS MADE ITS NAME AS THE ROLLS ROYCE OF SPANISH WINES, WITH A LIMITED OUTPUT OF A PRESTIGE PRODUCT THAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE ON THE MARKET. FOR ITS FIRST FOREIGN VENTURE THE COMPANY SELECTED ANOTHER "RARITY," TAKING THE MAJORITY STAKE IN OREMUS, ONE OF THE LEADING PRODUCERS OF TOKAY, THE HUNGARIAN DESSERT WINE WHICH WAS A FAVORITE OF 17TH/18TH CENTURY EUROPEAN MONARCHS.

Apart from their indisputable quality and limited production, there is a another similarity between what are otherwise two totally different wines. The smooth dry reds which Vega Sicilia produces along the banks of the Duero River in central Spain and the sweet white okay from the far-off hills of eastern Hungary both suffered periods of neglect before their present owners took them over. In its homeland, Vega Sicilia was a large estate where the wine produced was used for simply supplying the nearby Rioia region until the Herrero brothers moved in at the beginning of the century. They decided to produce their own wine and named it after the estate. The first bottles appeared in 1915 and, thanks to the patronage of the nobility, Vega Sicilia had already made its name in Spain when it won its first international recognition at the Barcelona Expo in 1929. However, despite its early fame, lack of investment mean tthat Vega Sicilia remained a rarity virtually unknown to foreign buyers until the Alvarez family stepped in in 1982. They modernized the bodegas, extended the vineyards and introduced new quality controls - giving the wine a more sound commercial base while making sure it lost nothing ofits character. Eleven years later the family saw another, similar opening.  Like Vega Sicilia, the Tokay region had suffered from neglect as the former Communist bloc first crumbled and then fell apart. The Hungarian government, which under Communism had run the vineyards as state farms, decided the best way to revitalize them was by setting up joint ventures with foreign companies.

ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE [TOP]

Vega Sicilia was one of six west European companiesto accept the challenge, taking a 75% stake in the Oremus vineyards. Sincethen, the company has increased its share to more than 87% while another11% has been taken LIP by Spanish investment company Cofides, a member of the Argentaria banking group, as part of the European Union's aid program for eastern Europe. According to Vega Sicilia's export manager Rafael Alonso,  "The decision to invest in the Tokay area was quite simple: becauseof the importance of its tradition and its historical value, and also the singularity and quality of its wine. "Bodegas Vega Sicilia, being a producer of red wine of superior quality, wanted to wager on the recovery of the concept and configuration of the quality Tokay wines. "The objective is to preserve the traditions of Tokay while making full use of the advantages to be gained from technological development."

Tokay's history as a wine growing region dates back over 1,000 years. Until the phylloxera epidemic struck in 1875, nearly a dozen different varieties of grapes were grown for making white wine, but they have since been reduced to three: Furmint, Harsievelfj and MuscatLunel. Much of the production goes to producing fruity table wines which have long been popular in eastern Europe. But the specialty of the vineyards is without doubt the late, handpicked grapes, known as Aszu.

NOBLE ROT [TOP]

The long, sunny autumns in the Zemplen hills coupled with morning mists from the rivers encourage the growth of the fungus botryitiscinerca which shrivels the grapes into a high sugar-content raisin in a process known as noble rot. When a little is mixed with normal grapes, the Aszu can be used to produce a blend known as Szamorodni, the name given by Polish merchants who commercialized the wine in the 19th century. The sweetness of each Szamorodni wine is regulated by the quantity of Aszu grapes used in the vinification, enabling them to vary from dry to sweet.  If it has been a good growing year, the marc left from the first pressing of the Aszu grapes can also be used again to produce a Fordittis (turnover) wine which is similar to a sweet Szamorodni. But the stars of the Tokay collection are undoubtedly the dessert wines known simply as Aszu or Eszenzia.These have been likened to the Chateau d'Yquem of Sauternes and Germany's Trocken beerenauslese, although they outdate either of them by more than a century. To produce this type of wine, the Aszu grapes are put into large barrels where the juice is allowed to squeeze naturally from the grapes.  The nectar, which is collected, is known as eszenzia. The remaining pulpis then macerated with fresh wine of the year to bring out the high sugar content before being stored in oak casks to ferment. To gauge the sugar content, the amount of Aszu used is measured in puttonyos, the name for the 25 kilogram-capacity baskets, which the pickers carry on their shoulders. Thus a six-puttonyo wine Will use twice as much Aszu grapes as a three puttonyo and be considerably sweeter

FINAL DECISION [TOP]

The puttonyos also give a rough guide to how long the wine has been allowed to mature, Although the final decision as to when to bottle rests with the cellar master, the general rule is one year for each puttonyo plus two. When the vintages are of very high quality, an Aszu Eszenzia may be produced, which can exceed six puttonyos. These must contain at least 180 grams per liter of residual sugar and 50 grams per liter of sugar-free extracts and can need 15 years or more to mature. But the highest of the high is the wine that uses solely the eszenzia.  Because the must is so concentrated, the fermentation produced by the yeasts is very slow. An Eszenzia takes at least 20 years to mature and even then has strength of no more than four degrees. This was the drink that the Empress Maria Teresa of Austria took daily for its medicinal properties and which France's Sun King, Louis XIV, described as "the wine ofkings and the king of wines." Czar Peter the Great of Russia was so impressed on receiving a bottle that he wrote: "The Eszenzia itself, which flows in the Aszu grapes, cannot be bought with money; it can onlybe obtained through friendship, from aristocrats and rich people. "To make sure of his supplies, he later sent crack Cossack troops to guard the Tokay wine cellars and the road from they're to his palace at St. Petersburg. These cellars, some of which date back to the 13th century, also play a major part in the production process.

INVESTMENT FOR EXPANSION [TOP]

Casks are rarely filled right to the top, allowing oxygen in the air to take its effect, while the mold which grows on the cellar walls provides yeast's and bacteria which work on the wine and enhanceits flavor during maturation. With such a long history and tradition behind okay, Vega Sicilia has decided not to change the basic product but to concentrate on upgrading production techniques and re-launching it to a western world that received little more than a trickle during the years of the Communist regime. "Until 1990, Russia took nearly 90% of all the region's wines, yet even those sales virtually dried up in the early'90s,"says Rafael Alonso. "Our aim now is to increase promotion and awareness in western countries." Since Vega Sicilia took over Oremus, production has risen steadily to nearly 400,000 liters a year of which about two thirds now goes for export. "That may sound a high figure when you consider we started with virtually nothing. But we are not looking for a big production.  Our interest is in producing quality wines," he said. Even so, the company has been pleased enough with its original US$4 million investment to start looking at a US$6 million expansion program. Plans include doubling the vineyard area, currently covering 51 hectares (126 acres), as well as investing in replanting vines, further improving quality controls, and building new warehouses.

While he believes a resurging Russian market will be the main outlet for the table wines, which account for around half the total production, Sefior Alonso sees Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, and the United Kingdom as the most important for the Aszuvarieties.

WORD OF MOUTH [TOP]

But that will not mean mammoth advertising campaigns." We are concentrating on tastings at wine fairs and articles written by visiting journalists to get the name better known," he said. If any company can rely on word of mouth and the pen to get its products recognized, then Vega Sicilia has to be it. Production of its namesake Spanish wine is around a quarter-of-a-million bottles a year, although no more thana quarter manages to reach the export market. Despite its seemingly exorbitant price tag, Spanish connoisseurs have their names registered on waiting lists and snap it up so quickly that the wine is sold before it is even bottled. The only consolation for many would-be buyers is to try and find the wines from the Alvarez family's new winery, Bodegas y Vifiedos Alion.  Also bordering the Duero and producing wines from the same grape varieties as Vega Sicilia - Tinto Fino, Albillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot- its production is set to grow from 50,000 bottles a year to 350,000 by2002, Many wine experts like to compare Vega Sicilia with first growth Bordeaux, perhaps not surprising when it has several grape varieties in common which were brought over from France in the last century. Now the wheel may turn again as the company looks not to buying vines from Bordeaux but of possibly investing in that or another of France's leading wine regions." When we moved into Tokay, we saw it as an opportunity to expand," said Sefior Alonso. "Vega Sicilia had never left its own region before, but the investment in Oremus has given us added experience." Whatever the final decision may be, one thing is sure. "We will never be involved in mass production of wine," he said.

David Ing is a freelance journalist who report son Spain for several leading international trade publications involved in the travel, food and beverage industries.

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