(June 2018) There are certain times in life when you taste a wine that is so magnificent that it transports you into another century. That is what happened to me the first time I tasted Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva a few years ago. We were attending a pool party at a friend’s house, when one of the guests approached me with an open bottle of 1986 Vega Sicilia. “My company is relocating me to Europe,” he said, “but I cannot bring my wine collection, so I’ve decided to share some of my favorite bottles with friends here tonight.”
Of course, I had heard of Vega Sicilia – considered by many to be the top wine of Spain – but I had never tasted it. “Thank you,” I said with enthusiasm, and watched as he deftly poured one ounce into my glass. It was a dark ruby with hints of garnet on the rim, and the bouquet jumped out of the glass, enveloping me in spice, leather and dried black plum. The palate was electrifying with exquisite acidity, textured tannins, black tea with a smoky note, and a very long mesmerizing finish. That one small taste of the 1986 Vega Sicilia Unico spawned a dream to one-day visit the estate.
Fast forward five years to the Wine Spectator Experience in New York City in the fall of 2017. There I bumped into Elisa Alvarez, co-owner of Vega Sicilia, who kindly invited me to visit the next time I was in Spain.
Arriving at Vega Sicilia
So, it finally happened! On June 13, 2018, I picked up at Hertz rental car at the Madrid airport with my 21-year old daughter, and we drove the two hours north to Vega Sicilia. The drive was beautiful, as we snaked through deep valleys and hills on the main freeway, and then eventually turned west to meander along smaller roads with fields of red poppies and ancient castles dotting the way.
There are no signs announcing the entrance of the famous winery, so a good GPS system is necessary. Making a sharp right turn down a narrow hedge lined road that ended in an iron gate with a guard shack, I wondered, at first, if my GPS had led me to the wrong location.
“Hola,” I said to the guard, “Esta Vega Sicilia?”
“Tengo una reserva para las doce.”
So I told him, and he consulted a ledger in the office. “Bienvenido,” he said and slowly the iron gates swung open. I continued to drive along a narrow twisting road, lined with beautiful trees and hundreds of white rose bushes in full bloom. To the right we saw a Japanese garden, while on the left there rose a two-story very long peach colored brick building.
After parking in a small parking lot, another guard met us and escorted us to a wooden door in the large brick building. There we were warmly greeted and invited to relax until Elisa and her husband, Pablo, arrived, along with the rest of our group. Once everyone was present, Elisa led us on a three-hour very in-depth tour of the estate, concluding with a tasting in their beautiful old manner house filled with antiques and exquisite artwork. It was there that Pablo joined us again to see how we were enjoying the wines.
The Green Land of Saint Cecilia
Elisa began our tour by explaining the mean of the name “Vega Sicilia.” Apparently the term “Vega” means “green vegetation or green land,” whereas the term “Sicilia” is in honor of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians.
“Many people think our winery is located on Island of Sicily in Italy,” explained Elisa, with a smile. “But as you clearly know, we are in the Ribera del Duero DO of Spain.”
The winery was established in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who trained in Bordeaux and wanted to start a great winery in Spain. He selected the Ribera del Duero region because it was warmer and at a higher altitude than Rioja. The winery sits at around 750 meters and has a continental climate. The area achieved DO status in 1982.
The Vineyards of Vega Sicilia
Vega Sicilia has a total of 1000 hectares, with 200 hectares planted to vines. There are 50 separate vineyards, with 90% planted to tempranillo. The terrain is quite diverse with 19 different types of soil, including some limestone. Elisa told us they have been practicing organic farming for the past 15 years, but are not certified. The vines are on a combination of different trellis systems, including small bush vines and some VSP. There is no irrigation, unless it is a new vineyard – in which case, it is only irrigated for the first year.
The estate used to be a self-sufficient farm with many crops and workers living on the property. They still maintain a poly culture, with more than 50% of the property covered with forests and a collection of 300 different types of trees.
Interestingly the best vineyards, including Unico, are situated on north facing slopes, so they receive less sunlight in the hot afternoons and also have better drainage. The word Unico means “Unique,” and the Don named the wine this because he felt it was very unique for Spain, because it usually has some Bordeaux grapes in the tempranillo blend. For example, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and merlot are often part of the blend. We were told that the Unico vineyard blocks have more limestone and less organic material than other vineyards.
Major challenges in the vineyard include “esca,” which is an extreme form of eutypa. Elisa said they are using 41B and 110R rootstock to help combate this as well as other types of rootstock. They have also created and patented a spray made from garlic, vanilla and other ingredients to spray on wood cuts to help alleviate esca. Frost is also an big issue, and so they have purchased large wind machines at 50,000 euros each.
They do not harvest the vines until they are 10 to 12 years in age. “Vines are like kids,” stated Elisa, “and we believe it takes about 25 years before they are good quality. At 65, they are very good quality, but less quantity.” Harvest is usually around 22 hectoliters per hectare (approx. 2 tons per acre), but Unico is only one ton per acre.
There is also a small plot with vines that are over 100 years old. These are primarily a mix of different varietals, and they are trying to preserve this block.
State of the Art Unico Winery
We took a walking tour of the estate, and I was surprised to see how big it is. Elisa told us there were five different wineries there to produce their various wine brands. We toured the winery where Unico wine is made. The cellar was spotless with very expensive, top of the line equipment.
All grapes are hand-harvested in 12 pound white plastic bins. They use a Pellenc to crush and destem, and then the must gently transported to French oak foudres with double insulation. They allow natural yeast to carry out the fermentation, but have a back-up batch ready just in case of a slow or stuck fermentation. Temperature ranges from 26 – 28 degrees C, and the whole process takes about 10 – 14 days, with gentle pumpovers.
After fermentation, they use a basket press and then transfer the wine to 100% new French oak 225 liters barrels for 18 months. Next the wine is moved to used oak barrels for another 18 months, and then, finally to large used oak foudres. Altogether Unico spends four years in oak, and then another 5 to 6 years bottle aging. Unico is always released 9 to 10 years after harvest date, and is considered to be one of the longest aging red still wines in the world.
Onsite Cooperage – Toasting the Barrels
We also had the opportunity to visit the cooperage onsite and to witness one of the coopers toasting a barrel. It was fascinating, and smelled wonderful. Elisa gave us each a small piece of barrel stave with the imprint of Vega Sicilia.
Grand Tasting in the Manor House
The wine tasting at Vega Sicilia was one of the most elegant I’ve ever experienced. Once we were all gather in the beautiful old mansion near the fire place, Elisa opened a bottle of 2008 Pol Roger champagne and we all enjoyed a toast together. Later Pablo stopped by to see how we were enjoying the wines.
Next we tasted several wines from their other properties, including Oremus in Tokay, Hungary, Pintia from Toro and Macan Classico from Rioja. All were excellent, but I was more interested in the wines from the property – and they were amazing:
Vega Sicilia Alion 2014 – 100% tempranillo aged in 100% French oak for 12 – 14 months. Savory palate with spice, chocolate and red cherry. Quite enjoyable. 92, $65
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2013 – balsamic, black fruit, earthy and savory. 95% tempranillo and 5% merlot, 70% American oak. Very long and delicious. I continued to enjoy this wine at several locations in Spain. Always good. 94, $200
Vega Sicilia Unico 2006 – 94% tempranillo, 6% cabernet sauvignon. 6 years in barrel/vats, 4 years in bottle. Black cherry, tar, tea, earthy notes. Great acidity; well integrated oak, very long and luxurious. Truly mesmerizing, and one of the great wines of the world. 96 points, $570
Vega Sicilia Wines Heavily Allocated
As we tasted, several guests asked Elisa about their marketing and sales strategy. She explained that they sell via distributor and to some private clients. The wine is completely allocated, and they require advance payment before shipping. Currently they are in 102 countries, with 40% allocated for Spain. They also distribute DRC and Petrus in Spain, and partner with Gaja in Italy.
As we departed, I look around the beautiful property and felt a great sense of gratitude for Elisa and Pablo in welcoming us to their winery. They are carrying on the tradition of one of the truly great and extremely special wine estates in the world. In doing so, they are offering employment to many people, preserving the land, and creating great works of art in their wine.
Postscript: Several days later, I discovered that my iPhone made a video of the day. Here it is below: