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

Text: David Ing   Photo: BodegasOremus

BODEGAS VEGA SICILIA HAS MADE ITS NAME ASTHE ROLLS ROYCE OF SPANISH WINES, WITH A LIMITED OUTPUT OF A PRESTIGE PRODUCTTHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE ON THE MARKET. FOR ITS FIRST FOREIGN VENTURETHE COMPANY SELECTED ANOTHER "RARITY," TAKING THE MAJORITY STAKEIN OREMUS, ONE OF THE LEADING PRODUCERS OF TOKAY, THE HUNGARIAN DESSERTWINE WHICH WAS A FAVORITE OF 17TH/18TH CENTURY EUROPEAN MONARCHS.ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE
NOBLE ROT
FINAL DECISION
INVESTMENT FOR EXPANSION
WORD OF MOUTH

Apart from their indisputable quality and limitedproduction, there is a another similarity between what are otherwise twototally different wines. The smooth dry reds which Vega Sicilia producesalong the banks of the Duero River in central Spain and the sweet whiteTokay from the far-off hills of eastern Hungary both suffered periods ofneglect before their present owners took them over. In its homeland, VegaSicilia was a large estate where the wine produced was used for simplysupplying the nearby Rioia region until the Herrero brothers moved in atthe beginning of the century. They decided to produce their own wine andnamed it after the estate. The first bottles appeared in 1915 and, thanksto the patronage of the nobility, Vega Sicilia had already made its namein Spain when it won its first international recognition at the BarcelonaExpo in 1929. However, despite its early fame, lack of investment meantthat Vega Sicilia remained a rarity virtually unknown to foreign buyersuntil the Alvarez family stepped in in 1982. They modernized the bodegas,extended the vineyards and introduced new quality controls - giving thewine 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 formerCommunist bloc first crumbled and then fell apart. The Hungarian government,which under Cot-nmunism had run the vineyards as state farms, decided thebest way to revitalize them was by setting up joint ventures with foreigncompanies.

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 memberof the Argentaria banking group, as part of the European Union's aid programfor 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 thesingularity and quality of its wine. "Bodegas Vega Sicilia, beinga producer of red wine of superior quality, wanted to wager on the recoveryof the concept and configuration of the quality Tokay wines. "Theobjective is to preserve the traditions of Tokay while making full useof the advantages to be gained from technological development."

Tokay's history as a wine growing region datesback over 1,000 years. Until the phylloxera epidemic struck in 1875, nearlya 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 whichhave long been popular in eastern Europe. But the speciality of the vineyardsis without doubt the late, handpicked grapes, known as Aszu.

NOBLE ROT [TOP]

The long, sunny autumns in the Zemplen hills coupledwith morning mists from the rivers encourage the growth of the fungus botryitiscinerca which shrivels the grapes into a high sugar-content raisin in aprocess 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 givenby Polish merchants who commercialized the wine in the 19th century. Thesweetness of each Szamorodni wine is regulated by the quantity of Aszugrapes 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 pressingof 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 Tokaycollection are undoubtedly the dessert wines known simply as Aszu or Eszenzia.These have been likened to the Chateau d'Yquem of Sauternes and Germany'sTrockenbeerenauslese, although they outdate either of them by more thana century. To produce this type of wine, the Aszu grapes are put into largebarrels 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 sugarcontent before being stored in oak casks to ferment. To gauge the sugarcontent, the amount of Aszu used is measured in puttonyos, the name forthe 25 kilogram-capacity baskets, which the pickers carry on theirshoulders.Thus a six-puttonyo wine Will use twice as much Aszu grapes as a threeputtonyo and be considerably sweeter

FINAL DECISION [TOP]

The puttonyos also give a rough guide to how longthe wine has been allowed to mature, Although the final decision as towhen to bottle rests with the cellar master, the general rule is one yearfor each puttonyo plus two. When the vintages are of very high quality,an Aszu Eszenzia may be produced, which can exceed six puttonyos. Thesemust contain at least 180 grams per liter of residual sugar and 50 gramsper 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 yeastsis very slow. An Eszenzia takes at least 20 years to mature and even thenhas strength of no more than four degrees. This was the drink that theEmpress Maria Teresa of Austria took daily for its medicinal propertiesand which France's Sun King, Louis XIV, described as "the wine ofkings and the king of wines." Czar Peter the Great of Russia was soimpressed 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 guardthe 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 amajor part in the production process.

INVESTMENT FOR EXPANSION [TOP]

Casks are rarely filled right to the top, allowingoxygen in the air to take its effect, while the mold which grows on thecellar walls provides yeast's and bacteria which work on the wine and enhanceits flavor during maturation. With such a long history and tradition behindTokay, Vega Sicilia has decided not to change the basic product but toconcentrate on upgrading production techniques and re-launching it to awestern world that received little more than a trickle during the yearsof the Communist regime. "Until 1990, Russia took nearly 90% of allthe 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 awarenessin western countries." Since Vega Sicilia took over Oremus, productionhas risen steadily to nearly 400,000 liters a year of which about two thirdsnow goes for export. "That may sound a high figure when you considerwe started with virtually nothing. But we are not looking for a big production.Our interest is in producing quality wines," he said. Even so, thecompany has been pleased enough with its original US$4 million investmentto start looking at a US$6 million expansion program. Plans include doublingthe vineyard area, currently covering 51 hectares (126 acres), as wellas investing in replanting vines, further improving quality controls, andbuilding new warehouses.

While he believes a resurging Russian market willbe the main outlet for the table wines, which account for around half thetotal 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 writtenby visiting journalists to get the name better known," he said. Ifany 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 wineis around a quarter-of-a-million bottles a year, although no more thana quarter manages to reach the export market. Despite its seemingly exorbitantprice tag, Spanish connoisseurs have their names registered on waitinglists and snap it up so quickly that the wine is sold before it is evenbottled. The only consolation for many would-be buyers is to try and findthe wines from the Alvarez family's new winery, Bodegas y Vifiedos Alion.Also bordering the Duero and producing wines from the same grape varietiesas 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 growthBordeaux, perhaps not surprising when it has several grape varieties incommon which were brought over from France in the last century. Now thewheel may turn again as the company looks not to buying vines from Bordeauxbut 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." Whateverthe final decision may be, one thing is sure. "We will never be involvedin mass production of wine," he said.

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David Ing is a freelance journalist who reportson Spain for several leading international
                  tradepublications involved in the travel, food and beverage industries.
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