Tasting the wines of Vega Sicilia

>Vega Sicilia is indisputably one of the great estates of Spain. Vines were first planted in 1864 near the town of Valbuena in the Duero valley by Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves, who arrived from Bordeaux with Bordelais grape varieties and wine making techniques, thereby laying the foundations for what was to become one of the best wines of Spain. Since 1982 the property has belonged to the Alvárez Diez family, who have continued the traditions of the founder, with their wine maker, Javier Ausás. Javier was in London recently to present the current vintages from the Vega Sicilia estate, as well as the wines from a second Ribera del Duero estate, Alion, their newly developed Toro vineyard, and the wines from the recently purchased Tokay estate, Oremus. The latter marks the only Spanish investment in Hungary so far.Javier explained how in all four wineries he looks for personality and quality. We began with a vertical tasting of Vega Sicilia’s Valbuena. Javier insists this is not the second wine of the more expensive Unico, though it is true that the latter wine is not made in less satisfactory vintages. He attempted to demonstrate that Valbuena is a wine in its own right, with a style of its own, in a vertical tasting of five vintages:

Valbuena vertical

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1997
This was a difficult year; no Unico was made which means that the blend of Valbuena includes some Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Merlot, Malbec, and the traditional Spanish variety, Tempranillo, known in the Ribera del Duero as Tinto Fino. The wine lacked the concentration of the younger wines, with some vegetal notes on the nose and the influence of American oak on the palate. Vega Sicilia has its own cooperage and pays meticulous attention to the choice of oak, with the staves seasoned for four years; the new barrels are toasted according to the quality of the vintage, with the lighter wines requiring less toasting. As well as barriques of both French and American oak, they use 8 – 20 hectolitre tonneaux.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1998
Another tricky vintage; it was their work in the vineyard that counted here, with a considerable amount of green harvesting, both after flowering and after véraison, to make a wine that was elegant, though still quite tannic, with a rounded integration of oak. The style is intriguing; you can’t quite decide whether it tastes of Spain or of Bordeaux.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1999
was affected by rain. When they began picking on 10th October, everything looked set for a great vintage, but then the rains came on 14th October and lasted until 26th. They did not start picking again until 1st November and in the interim they worked assiduously in the vineyards, removing any grapes that showed signs of rot and removing leaves to allow for maximum aeration of the grapes – and in between they smoked a lot of Marlboros! And the resulting wine is remarkably fine, with silky tannins and dry cassis fruit, with a youthful balance of fruit and acidity, which will allow it to age.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2000
This was the vintage of the good wine grower, for much depended on careful work in the vineyard, which has given the wine richness and concentration, with tightly knit fruit and nicely balanced oak, making for a structured but elegant wine.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2001
Another vintage in which Unico was not produced. A very hard spring frost killed the first shoots, so the Valbuena was made from the second generation of grapes. A very hot summer meant a surprisingly early harvest, with ripe fruity wines, which they felt were unsuitable for the lengthy barrel ageing given to Unico. The 2001 Valbuena has a sweet oaky ripeness, with notes of orange, and it will be intriguing to see how it develops.

The second flight of wines compared and contrasted the four Spanish wines in Vega Sicilia’s expanded portfolio, from the 2002 vintage:

the 2002 vintage Spanish wines

Bodegas Alion 2002
The new Ribera del Duero estate offers a contrast with Vega Sicilia; this is the modern face of Ribera del Duero, as opposed to the classical tradition of Vega Sicilia. The wine is pure Tinto Fino aged in new French oak, to make a ripe rounded oaky wine, with youthful berry fruit. It was very polished and elegant.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2002
More concentration was immediately apparent, with sturdier tannins.

Vega Sicilia Unico 2002
More structured still, with a smoky concentration of fruit and tannins. It promises well for the future. In 2002 they were lucky and really did pick before the rain; 300 pickers started on 3rd October in an attempt to try to beat the rains forecast for 7th October, and but for one barrel, they succeeded.

Alquirez 2002
First vintage of the new Toro estate, Alquirez, from the DO further down the river. It has some blackcurrant fruit, with supple tannins; you can see the similarities with Ribera del Duero and also the differences.

We then went on to taste a couple of older vintages of Unico, which spends a minimum of 10 years in cask and bottle before release:

some older Unicos

Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
This is the current commercial release of Unico, after ten or more years of ageing in cask and bottle; it was still remarkably youthful, with attractive smoky notes, and a long finish.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1964
This wine illustrated just why Vega Sicilia has the reputation that it has, with lovely rich elegant cedary fruit; as Javier said “Unico begins discreetly to finish grandly”.

Finally a sweet note was provided by tastings of the firm’s recently acquired Tokaji estate, Oremus:

Tokaji Oremus

Tokaji Oremus 5 puttonyos 1999
Honey balanced by lemony acidity, making for an elegant freshness.

Tokaji Oremus 6 puttonyos 1999
By contrast this is much more concentrated, both sweeter and with more acidity. It needs time for its edges to soften.

Tokaji Essencia 1995
Amber in colour, with intense apricot fruit and sweetness. Again it needs time, but was a fitting conclusion to an impressive overview of the Vega Sicilia portfolio.