Vega Sicilia, the winery considered to be Spain's sole undisputed first-growth, is being inundated with requests for its new wine from Toro -- even though the region is little known internationally, the wine's name has yet to be confirmed and its release date is not until March 2004.
Already, 500 Vega aficionados, desperate not to miss out on an allocation of the new red, have put their name on a list of private customers. The world-famous wine producer admits it could sell the entire production, about 6,600 cases from the inaugural 2001 vintage, without looking for new clients. Earlier this month, talk was going around Spain that demand has been so great that the winery was about to close the door on further applications for its traditional quota system.
"Yes and no," replied Pablo Álvarez, manager of the family-owned bodega, when asked to confirm this rumor. "Yes, we have had enough demand from our clients to sell all the wine, but no, we haven't closed the quota yet. If people [in Spain] are interested, they can still put in a request by letter."
Toro is an obscure but promising wine region west of Ribera del Duero, and the Álvarez family has set up their new Alquiriz winery there, in San Román de Hornija. The new yet-to-be-named red is made from 100 percent Tempranillo, or Tinto de Toro as it is called locally. A barrel sample of the 2002 vintage, tasted nonblind by Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, the magazine's lead taster of Spanish wines, indicated that it is potentially outstanding. Álvarez said the 2001 wine will be released at 12 euros ($14) a bottle to clients in Spain and to the foreign trade.
The Toro wine will become the fourth label in the Vega Sicilia stable. The winery currently produces between 4,000 and 8,300 cases of Unico, its flagship wine made only in the best vintages; nearly 17,000 cases of its second wine, Valbuena; and about 25,000 cases of a relatively new brand called Alión. A majority of each of the wines is sold directly to the public via a quota system almost as legendary as the wines themselves.
Although the 40 percent of Vega Sicilia's production that is exported is channeled through traditional importers in 60 countries, sales in Spain are distributed directly to clients whose names are on the quota lists. Eighty percent of the 3,500 clients on the list for Unico and Valbuena are private, rather than corporate, customers -- a bias Álvarez is keen to maintain. "Private customers are the most faithful customers you can have," he said.
It is a shrewd marketing ploy. By dividing up and spreading out the supply of Vega Sicilia wines into tiny parcels, Álvarez guarantees that the wine maintains the cachet of rarity. Such is the demand for the rarely released Unico that there are 2,000 people on a waiting list to get onto the quota list. "I know it's not perfect, but we want to maintain the tradition of Vega Sicilia," explained Álvarez.
The system certainly has its critics. "It's nonsense," said Silvia Esteve of Padro Esteve, a Barcelona-based wine retailer and distributor. "For a business like ours, the quantity we can get [of Unico] makes it hardly worth bothering about."
"It is very hard to get stock," agreed Alex Duran, the head sommelier at La Florida, a luxury hotel in Barcelona. "There is a black market for Vega Sicilia wines, but if you want to guarantee quality, you have to try and get it direct from the winery."
With that sort of demand for the winery's reds, who can predict what sort of frenzy will emerge when and if it eventually releases its first white wine? Eight years ago, the Álvarez family planted plots of Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne in the Ribera del Duero region. Company policy dictates that vines have to be at least 10 years old before the first wine is made from them, so it will be some time before a Vega Sicilia white reaches a wine list.
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