Vega Sicilia: Myth and Reality

By Andrew Stevenson

Some estates have an aura about them: they produce the greatest and most sought-after wines, often wines of legend. Sometimes the legend is created by clever marketing, sometimes by stratospheric pricing, sometimes by 100-point scores from influential critics. Sometimes the wines they produce are such exquisite expressions of the winemaker’s art, that they can achieve this legendary status purely on quality. Sometimes it’s a bit of each.

One such estate is Spain’s Vega Sicilia. My first experience of Vega Sicilia was when Bibendum substituted a couple of bottles of Valbuena for the Quintarelli Amarone I had ordered. Since then I have had the opportunity to taste or drink Vega Sicilia’s wines on just a couple of occasions. They were impressive, to say the least, so when the opportunity to visit the winery in Valbuena de Duero arose, I moved quickly.

Vega Sicilia likes to promote an aura of myth and a legend about its wine: the words recur in their publicity materials. For a myth, there’s a surprising amount that’s well recorded both about the history of Vega Sicilia and the winery. Certainly, it is an exclusive wine, made from low yields and meticulous wine-making. The wines age extremely well, and their limited availability adds to the myth.

The history

In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal. At some stage that was shortened to Vega Sicilia. For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Toribio’s son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864.
From one Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.

xIn due course Don Eloy went bust and the estate passed to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn’t a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of Vega Sicilia’s Unico.
The next significant change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a “simple” table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernise and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.

The wines and vineyards

There are three key wines in the Vega Sicilia portfolio that carry the Vega Sicilia name: Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial is the top of the range; a non-vintage reserva blend produced from the best years. Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva is a vintage wine, produced only in good years and released after a minimum of ten years ageing, often much longer. Valbuena is made from younger vines in most years, though in years when Unico is not produced (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2000, 2001), grapes normally destined for Unico will go into Valbuena. It is released only after 5 years’ ageing. A lower grade Valbuena, released after 3 years, was discontinued a few years ago.

The estate covers around 1,000 hectares, of which 230 – 250 are under vines. The best vineyards are on north facing slopes, while others are on the alluvial deposits in the valley: in all there are 19 different soil types. The bulk of the vines are now Tempranillo (here called Tinto Fino or Tinto Pais), with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère, and a small amount of Albillo (a local white grape).

In the vineyards, yields are kept low by green harvesting, with each vine producing less than 2 kg of grapes. Harvest at Vega Sicilia is always late – 1st October at the earliest (2003 is the exception, when they started mid September!) – and by hand. They employ a team of around 130 harvesters who pick in several passes through the vineyards. There is another rigorous selection at the winery, and the grapes are carefully de-stemmed. The low yields and careful selection means annual production is only around 25,000 cases, and around 2000 people are on a waiting list for an allocation. Interestingly, buyers are not required to take Alion or Oremus in order to get hold of Vega Sicilia proper – this “bundling” is not uncommon with other “cult” wines.

The winery and winemaking

Two immediate things struck me as I walked round the winery one morning in Summer 2003 with Rafael Alonso, Vega Sicilia’s Export Manager: there is a lot of money floating around the place; everything is in perfect order and there are fancy designer light fittings on the walls. The second striking thing is how absolutely pristine and spotless the place is, to the point of obsessiveness.

xPerhaps this goes back to the time when the 1994 Valbuena had to be recalled, it is said because of a cork problem. Certainly, everything is done to avoid any possibility of taint: metal is stainless steel throughout, down to the bands on the barrels, shipping palettes, and even the wedges on which the barrels rest (shown right). The wood used for cases is tested to ensure it is chemically inert, and no wine is shipped between June and October, unless in temperature controlled lorries.The cork testing regime is absolutely rigorous. Their cork suppliers are instructed to send samples, which are independently tested in specialist laboratory in France. Upon delivery, a further double trial is carried out, with further samples being sent for testing. If a cork fails, the whole batch is rejected, with costs charged to the supplier.

On average, Rafael Alonso believes that two out of every three corks are rejected. In the vertical tasting I attended subsequently (see below), 81 bottles were opened and none were corked. To me this proves that the Vega Sicilia regime works, and that the cork industry does have the capability to eliminate TCA, if they take the problem seriously enough.

Valbuena and Unico spend several years maturing in oak before release, Valbuena for three and a half years, Unico for at least seven years. Vega Sicilia use a mix of new French oak, and a mix of new and used American oak. Correct “seasoning” of the oak and barrels is another priority here; the smell in the cooperage is amazing: a mixture of a carpentry shop and toasting oak, with a single, taciturn cooper working diligently, resenting our intrusion.

Whilst Valbuena will spend one and a half to two years in bottle before being released, the length of time that Unico is aged in bottle depends on the format: single bottles have at least three years in bottle; magnums and double magnum rather longer.

Tasting note

xFor the tasting in Spain we were joined by Xavier Ausas (shown right), Vega Sicilia’s winemaker and now Technical Director. Xavier has worked for Vega Sicilia since 1989, and was responsible for launching Alion. He took over full responsibility from Mariano Garcia, who left to spend more time on his own Mauro project. Two thoughts from Xavier Ausas: “Vega Sicilia starts discretely and finishes hugely.” and “The vine is a good mother: she will try to nourish however many bunches of grapes she produces, unlike other fruits which will always drop their excess fruit”.The notes that follow combine the tasting held at Valbuena (indicated by V) and at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter (indicated by D). It is a testament to Vega Sicilia’s rigorous cork selection and testing process that none of the 81 bottles opened at the latter was corked.

Oremus Dry Furmint 2001 Mandolas
Whole bunch pressing, fermented in Hungarian oak, then five months’ ageing in new Hungarian oak. A creamy nose with peaches and pears. Quite light initially, then fills with creamy stone fruit dominating the palate. Very pleasant wine, with a nice fragrant note. V

Alion 1999
100% tempranillo with 13 months in 100% new French oak casks. Released after two years in bottle. A heavy, prestige bottle embossed with the winery name and crest. Big nose with vanilla and some exotic fruit and a bit of marzipan. Very Bordeaux like in style. Huge tannic structure and also a good acidic backbone. Complex, with nice fruit and an excellent finish. V.
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1998
This was the first vintage for which Xavier Ausas had full responsibility, having joined Vega Sicilia in 1989. It was a difficult harvest (though it does seem that most Vega Sicilia harvests are difficult!), following a lot of summer rain, saved only by some good weather at the end of the ripening season. As is usual at Vega, harvest began in October. The 1998 is the only year when they have used the stalks as well as the fruit, having included around 10%-15% stalks in the brew. 85% tinto fino (i.e. tempranillo), 15% merlot and malbec. A very dark appearance, with plenty of youth evident. Intense black plums on the nose, with a touch of licorice, and some balanced oaking. Nice fruit on the palate, but then massive, very massive tannins. The big meaty fruit still comes through though. A complex, if rather austere wine. D.
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1999
Although 1999 was looking like a great year, it turned out to be another tough harvest, becoming increasingly renowned for the surge in Marlboro shares as Xavier Ausas chain-smoked himself through the harvest, the hardest he has known. Harvest began fairly normally on 10th October, but lasted only until 14th October when heavy rains put a stop to it. The rains continued until 26th October and harvesting recommenced at the start of November. In the meantime, all the harvesters remained on the payroll, employed on repeated checks on the vines, removing any grapes that displayed any sign of rot and trimming back foliage to keep a good airflow around the grapes that remained. 80% tinto fino, the rest mainly merlot with some malbec. This wine will be released in 2004. The 1999 Valbuena has a lighter appearance, with more youth. On the nose, there is plummy black fruit, especially blackcurrants and an oaky sweetness. The nose is intense and long with great depths, and pleasantly aromatic. I find this quite different and a much lighter style of Valbuena. There is more forward fruit on the palate, neatly balanced by some acid. Still a lot of tannin, but it’s already softer and silkier than the 98. A very spicy finish concludes a wine that is showing remarkably well, but I wonder whether it has as much longer term potential as the 98 and particularly the 2000. The 1999 Valbuena was also tasted in May at Vega Sicilia: my notes are entirely consistent. D and V .
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2000
Yet another difficult year, though this time the problems were during the growing season rather than at harvest. Two hard frosts at flowering set things off badly and things didn’t improve. 45% – 50% of the crop was removed in a green harvest, with the result that yields were very low. I have a note here that says that in 2001 and 2002 the crop was even smaller, down to 6 litres per hectare: I guess that should be 6 hectolitres per hectare, but even that seems extraordinarily low. This wine was bottled in July 2003, and will go on sale in 2005. Back to 85% tempranillo. This has the same apparent level of youth as the 1999, but is much darker and more opaque. The nose shows vanilla, tobacco and lots of dark plummy black fruit. On the palate the immediate impression is of plenty of forward fruit and lots of tannic structure. This is a complex wine, much more so than the 99, and while the 99 had a lighter style all round, the 2000 also has an impressive elegance. Big potential. I have to agree with Xavier Ausas that the 2000 combines the finesse of the 99 with the power of the 98. D

Vega Sicilia Unico 1991
An even, black plum skin colour. Intense leather black fruit on the nose: very aromatic and even a touch portlike. Plenty of oak evident, but well balanced and not at all distracting. Excellent fruit on the palate with a spicy richness. Layer after layer. Great depth with good tannins. Amazing length. Clearly still rather young, but already well balanced. This will be released in 2004. D

Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
This is the current release of Unico, at least in bottles: the larger format bottlings have yet to be released. 80% tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Two years in large oak vats; 16 months in a mix of US and French oak new barrels, 3 years in a mix of new and old barrels, three in used barrels and a final three years back in large oak vats. Slightly more mature than the 1991, but hardly noticeable. Even and dark. A very complex leathery, brambly nose with a certain gaminess and a blackcurrant-chocolately sweetness. Nice use of oak. Very elegant. Light fruit initially complemented by excellent tannins and building in the mouth. Very well balanced and really well integrated. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
Fabulous nose. Soft subtle hedgerow fruits with leathery notes, a roast pork meaty smokiness and a touch of spirit. Some fruit initially. Nice elegant structure. Very fine and elegant despite its evident youth. Good tannic structure and excellent balance. Has decades ahead of it. V

Vega Sicilia Unico 1987
A difficult harvest, much interrupted by rain, and consequently a small release. 80% tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot. Excellent colour. Bright and clear appearance, just starting to mature. More blackcurrants on the nose, although the percentage of Cabernet in the blend has gone down. Bit of a thumper. Dark, leathery fruit with hints of cocoa bean. In the mouth, this is big and integrated, full and round. Huge depth and complexity with loads of layers and also huge elegance. Very attractive indeed. Excellent drinking. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1964
A mere 65% tempranillo, with 20% cabernet sauvignon and the remaining 15% coming from a mixture of merlot, malbec and albillo. The last is a white grape, more commonly found in Toro, but often making an appearance in Unico, but usually only making up only about 1% of the total blend. A very light mature colour, like 20 year old tawny port. Lovely nose. Very enticing and attractive. Gorgeous layered fruit. Touch of oxidation, though I don’t find it unpleasant. Soft evolved fruit on the palate, wtih little or no reduction. Still a big wine, with lots of structure and huge length. Remarkable, though starting to show its age at the edges. I wonder if it’s the lower percentage of tempranillo/tinto fino in this that makes it seem more advanced than its two older sisters, the 1953 and the 1942? D.
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1953
80% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Coo! A superb mature colour, still with nice depth (more so than the 64). Slight bricking. Very aromatic on the nose with a cedary nuttiness, but still some pretty big fruit showing through. Superb. Elegant. Velvety. So much fruit! Remarkable, nay incredible. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1942
My empty bottle says a mere 12,000 bottles made. 75% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Of course it looks fully mature, with an orangey rim, but it’s certainly not overly brickish. Some volatile acidity on the nose and I suppose naturally enough a bit of oxidation, but rather interesting with some complex depths and a touch port-like. On the palate, it’s difficult to believe this is 61 years old: there is so much life and vitality and there’s still plenty of red fruit in there. Soft buttery tannins with a sweetness of fruit to it. I found a touch of spirit on the finish. D.
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Oremus Late Harvest Furmint 1999 (half bottles)
Fermented in stainless steel and aged for months in new oak. 102 g/l residual sugar. Amazing nose: some honey and some very fresh tropical fruit. Very good attack. Very fine balance of sweetness and acidity. Creamy rich, exceptionally fine and elegant. V.
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Oremus 5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu 1995 (50cl)
Fermented for 40 days in stainless steel then 3 years in Hungarian oak casks. 136 g/l residual sugar. Exceptionally elegant nose: quite restrained. A honeyed sweetness. Very full. Just enough acid to keep it fresh. Very exotic flavours with a strong dried apricot backbone. Hedonistic. V.
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So what’s the reality of the myth and legend of Vega Sicilia? The usual story: a long history, some very long-lived wines, restricted production, a touch of marketing spin and a huge attention to detail in the winery. “Myth and legend” is going over the top, but I have no doubt that this is one of the top wine producers in the world and with their continuing interest in new ventures like Oremus, Alion and especially Alquiriz, they deserve our attention.

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