DRINK / Ageing aristocrat asleep in a barrel: Forget the rioja, says Anthony Rose; Spain also produces some extravagant and remarkable wines

SPAIN, to most wine drinkers, probably inspires just two words: rioja and plonk. But there is another well-heeled Spain, best conjured up in the name Vega Sicilia.

In his book, The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson describes Vega Sicilia as 'legendary . . . a Gargantua of a wine'. It may be legendary in Spain, but it is almost unknown in this country, presumably because if we are going to pay through the nose for a wine, there generally has to be a whiff of bordeaux or burgundy in the air. But at a Christie's pre- sale tasting in 1990, British palates were introduced to several vintages dating back to the Forties. Power, flavour, intensity, longevity, structure, not forgetting price, of course: these were the hallmarks of Vega Sicilia.

When Pablo Alvarez Diaz's father, David, bought the estate in 1982, it was about as accessible as Dracula's castle. A remote property on the high, gently undulating plains of the Duero valley, 40 kilometres east of the Valladolid, it was not the sort of place you could wander into unannounced. Almost 200 hectares of the 1,000-hectare farm are devoted to tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec, plus a bit of the white albillo grape, planted in the poorer, chalky clay soil of the valley's gently sloping hillsides.

The estate was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who brought cabernet sauvignon and oak barrels from Bordeaux, establishing the unique Spanish-bordelais blend. When David Alvarez Diaz took over in 1982, old casks were replaced and the period of ageing in casks reduced.

Throughout his 25 years as Vega Sicilia's winemaker, Mariano Garcia's first priority has been to maintain the personality of Vega Sicilia, an intuitive affair between Garcia and his vineyards. Depending on the character of the vintage, the fermenting and maturing periods vary, as do the proportion of French or American oak casks in which the wine is matured.

'There are no fixed rules,' Mr Garcia says. Vega Sicilia is made only in the best vintages (bordeaux could usefully take a leaf out of that book), and in lesser years a second wine, Valbuena, is made. But, Mr Garcia stresses, Valbuena is a second wine but not a second-class wine. With little or no cellaring tradition in Spain, neither Vega Sicilia nor Valbuena are released until they are thought ready for drinking.

The owner and his winemaker were in London recently to show their wines and to announce a new acquisition: 70 hectares of vineyard in Hungary, where they aim to recreate another legend, the famous wines of Tokay.

Dinner began with the Valbuena fifth-year 1988. It was delicious with a fine, slightly smoky aroma and succulent, vibrant fruitiness, a snip, no doubt, at pounds 30 a bottle.

It was followed by the 1982 Vega Sicilia Unico. Still opaque without a trace of age in its deep ruby hue, this was a powerful, almost port-like wine with the intensity of a Chateau Latour and a backbone of iron to match. At pounds 425 a case, trade price, this means a cool pounds 60 per bottle on the shelf.

The third wine was the 1974 Vega Sicilia Unico. Living up to the Unico name, it was remarkable, bottled in 1984 after 10 long years in cask. Despite the fact that it was made in the old-fashioned style, it had an aromatic intensity and superb fruit concentration and was only just beginning to ease out of its tannic shell.

Stockists include: Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446); Roberson, London W14 (071-371 2121); Justerini & Brooks, SW1 (071-493 8721); Harrods; Fortnum & Mason; Selfridges; Peter Green, Edinburgh (031 229 5925).

(Photograph omitted)