When asked which of his character traits he’d most like to change, Pablo Álvarez replies, ‘My excessive reflection’. The 68-year-old head of Vega Sicilia and its attendant wineries can indeed seem as if he’s contemplating some deep, even existential, question. This gives him the appearance of a Hispanic Eeyore, the gloomy donkey of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories (known as Ígor in Spanish, if you’re interested); in photographs he seldom smiles. His American wife Elisa, a former MW student (she passed the tasting exam but then they had a daughter and she decided not to go on with the course), is deeply invested in wine, although she has no formal role at Vega. She’s in marked contrast to her husband – energetic and humorous, she’s the kind of partner of whom people say, ‘She’s very good for him.’
Álvarez recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of his family’s 1982 purchase of Vega Sicilia by hosting an extraordinary day of tastings at the three-Michelin-Star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona in Catalonia. Forty journalists tasted 40 vintages of Vega Sicilia’s flagship Único, going back to 1965. As we sat at tables clinking with glasses, he stood to make a short speech of welcome. ‘Whatever Pablo says, he’s going to say it very, very quietly,’ one of my colleagues said irreverently.
But there’s nothing wrong with being quietly spoken and spare with words. When I caught up with Álvarez on Zoom a couple of weeks after the tasting, I asked him how it had gone for him. ‘The wines were very, very nice,’ he said. ‘This is the history of Vega Sicilia – wines that are young and drinkable after 50 years.’
The more you talk to this undemonstrative man, the more you see that his contemplative personality belies determination and ambition. He approvingly quotes a journalist who said that he’s like a duck on water: tranquil on the surface but paddling fast below.
And over the years there’s been much activity under the radar. The ownership of Vega Sicilia is byzantine. Its parent company is the real estate company El Enebro, wholly owned by the Álvarez family; El Enebro owns 40 per cent of Grupo Eulen, the vast multinational logistics company founded by Pablo’s father David in 1962; Tempos itself owns half of the worldwide importer Europvin.
Álvarez – who took over at Vega Sicilia in 1985 – won’t be drawn on the acrimonious legal battle he had with his father David and two of his six siblings 10 years ago, over control of Eulen, and which continues to make column inches. ‘All families are complicated,’ is all he will say. In a later email he blames journalists for sensationalising the situation – ‘No problems exist today and there have been no problems in the past concerning the operations of the company’ – but he concedes ‘there are certain things that are still up in the air’.
Tempos Vega Sicilia, as the wine division is called, owns six wineries and some 650ha of vineyard: Vega Sicilia and Alión in Ribera del Duero; Macán, a joint venture with Benjamin de Rothschild in Rioja; Pintia in Toro and Oremus in Tokaj, Hungary. In February this year Vega Sicilia announced a new €20m project called Deiva in Rias Baixas, Galicia, from which we’ll see the first wines in 2025. They’ve got around 22ha of vines and they expect to double that figure. Álvarez believes absolutely in the importance of owning vineyards rather than purchasing grapes. He’s always been a pioneer. He remembers Lalou Bize-Leroy in Burgundy explaining biodynamics to him in the early 1980s. ‘It was the first time I’d heard about burying cows’ horns; I had to ask her to repeat what she said.’ He dropped all herbicides and chemical fertilizer in 1985.
He doesn’t sit still for long. Fifteen years ago he came close to buying Clos Fourtet in Bordeaux from the Lurton family, and a few years later put in an offer for the Jerez bodega El Maestro Sierra, but that fell through. Has Galicia satisfied those acquisitive instincts? Not really, he says. ‘I’d like to have another winery in another place in the world – Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône, maybe Napa. Or Sonoma as that’s closer to the coast.’
When’s he going to slow down? He laughs. ‘I should retire at 70. Old people and very old vineyards don’t make the best wines.’ (Álvarez not only has a sense of humour but he’s an iconoclast: ‘You and I won’t be better at 100 than 40, and vines are the same.’) There’s a succession plan in place. He notes that a recruitment specialist is in charge of selecting his successor. That might be his agricultural engineer son Pablo, but ‘we have to open the process to the whole family.’
Whoever takes over the top job will inherit one of the world’s first growths, and a legendary Spanish wine that has for decades been a benchmark of excellence. The 40 vintages at the anniversary tasting were astonishing for their consistency and quality.
Álvarez may be reserved, but his far-sighted stewardship of this great bodega speaks for itself. As he approaches retirement (he gives another of his rare laughs when I ask him what his mental age is) he seems quietly spry. ‘You have to keep on learning,’ he says. ‘You need patience in this business.’
What was your childhood ambition?
When I was a child, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it sounded good.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
I would have liked to know at 21 the good and the bad that I have learned during the rest of my life.
What exercise do you do?
Every day I try to do between 30 minutes and an hour at the gym. I dedicate a lot of time to my job, and this is what best adapts to my free time.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
My excessive reflection, though most of the time this is not a bad thing.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
An 18th-century Louis XVI secretaire abattant (drop-leaf desk): ormolu-mounted, tulipwood, bois satiné, fruitwood, amaranth, green-stained, by Leonard Boudin.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I would like to live along the shore because the ocean is almost infinite and gives me peace.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
Since I’ve worked all my life with wine, which is a living being and a product of nature, I feel I would enjoy working with any other product that nature provides us.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
I don’t think I would take any luxury item to go to a desert island. I would prefer something simpler.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
A journalist once wrote that I was like a duck on water due to the tranquility I transmit, though I continue to paddle my feet under the surface. I would like to be able to move them a bit less.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for a king or queen to enact his or her first law.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
With all due respect to my lovely wife, I would invite a beautiful and intelligent woman and Sir Winston Churchill. I think this would be the perfect dinner party.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I enjoy great cooking, which sometimes makes me feel guilty.
What’s your secret talent?
My few talents are all well-known
When were you happiest?
My happiest moments have been provided by my children.
Whom do you most admire?
I admire anyone who is honest, intelligent and humble.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
The best wine is yet to be made.
What’s your greatest regret?
Not dedicating more time to my children.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
Anything by Rod Stewart.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
My suits, shirts and shoes.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Asador Etxebarri [the one-Michelin star restaurant in Bizkaia in the Basque country, considered one of the world’s best restaurants]
What time do you go to bed?
I get up early to go to the gym, so I go to bed at 10:30pm.