Plus a Closer Look at New Vintages

Last year, I was fortunate to be able to visit each of the wineries under the umbrella of Tempos Vega Sicilia. This historic Ribera del Duero property had managed to elevate its brand and the importance of their wine to rival the First Growths of Bordeaux. Over the course of 150 years, Vega Sicilia went from one man’s dream of a community effort to represent the best of Ribera del Duero to become the most collectible and celebrated wine from Spain. Through it all, they never lost their connection to the people and the land. As I toured 130-year-old vineyards, I met with farmers that had learned from knowledge passed down over generations. In many cases, their fathers and grandfathers worked these same vineyards to produce Vega Sicilia.

A century-and-a-half may have passed, but Vega Sicilia still operates under a set of rules with long-term goals that set them apart from most producers around the world. For one thing, they are determined to control every aspect of the winemaking process in-house, from composting and farming, to barrel production, to winemaking, and finally to bottling. In fact, a grove of cork trees grows on the property, with the goal of one day creating their corks. Under the guidance of the Álvarez family since 1982, Vega Sicilia has also taken on a new challenge, one of expanding, using the same principals that have made this property great, and creating wines from Rioja, Torro, and even Tokaj.

During my tour of all of these regions, what became apparent to me is that Vega Sicilia in not just about an iconic wine. It’s about iconic people, who are willing to experiment–sometimes fail–but ultimately succeed in creating a legacy that is Tempos Vega Sicilia.

Macan – Rioja

In a joint venture with Benjamin de Rothschild, Vega Sicilia began to seek out parcels throughout the Rioja region. That was ten years ago, and today these holdings amount to over 120 hectares, all around the village of San Vicente. For the longest time, this project was kept secret, until construction began on the recently-unveiled winery and the first vintages of Macan.

The idea to keep things local is a big part of what makes Macan a true wine of Rioja Alta. As we toured the vines, which were between 60-80 years old, I couldn’t help but notice the amazing views of the surrounding vineyards and towns. In these high elevations, the soils are made up of stoney calcareous clay, and the sky seemed to take on the same hue as the ground beneath my feet. It was quite an experience.

When in Rioja, I tasted the two wines of the house, Macan Clasico (their second wine) and the flagship, Macon. While the Clasico is an energetic and vibrant wine, the Macan is one of power, prestige and longevity. With the 2014 vintage, the decision was made to hold the flagship Macan for an extra year, making the Clasico the only current release. However, it’s a great candidate for drinking now while waiting for its big brother to hit the market.

Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia Rioja Macan Clásico 2014 – Here I found a seductive bouquet of blueberry, violets and lavender with hints of dark chocolate, crushed stone and saline-minerality. On the palate, silky textures gave way to a juicy expression with a mix of dark red and blue fruits, along with spice. The finish was medium-long with spicy blueberry and minerals. I may have craved a little more depth, by this is simply gorgeous at this price point, never weighty or overly done, just perfectly balanced. (92 points)

Pintia – Toro

For me and many others, the Toro region of Spain is notable for its wines of intense power and burly, often rustic, signatures. Pintia has managed to harness much of that unbridled power, while also adding an elegance and refinement that I find quite striking each time I taste it.

These are not hot wines or overwhelming. They may be big, but they are also balanced. In my opinion, the lover of Rhone wines and varieties would find a lot to like here.

The region is marked by its extremely cold winters and extremely hot summers. In Toro, old vines bake in the daytime heat, yet, much like Chateauneuf du pape, they grow in stoney soils, with vines that reach deep beneath the surface of boulders and rocks, helping to build water reserves. With the addition of the region’s Atlantic influences, it is quite possible to grow fruit of balanced ripeness–and Pintia excels at just that.

Bodegas Pintia Toro Pintia 2013 – The ‘13 Pintia puts another point in the corner of the Toro region for me. The nose was intense and earthy, with mineral-encrusted blackberry and cherry, giving way to animal musk and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found silky textures that coated the senses with saturating black fruits, savory herbs and spice, followed by a stunning wash of acidity that provided freshness. The finish was long, displaying chalky tannins, black fruit and purple floral tones. (93 points)

Vega Sicilia – Alion – Ribera del Duero

Welcome to Ribera del Duero, where vines exist in spite of the brutal climate and conditions that Mother Nature deals out with each vintage. The 140 hectares of vines that are used to create Valbuena and the esteemed Unico grow on slopes that are formed between the higher elevated hills and the alluvial plains beneath. The soils consist of a fine mix of colluvial deposits from the hillsides above, along with sandy limestone and a layer of quartz gravel beneath. In some locations, chalk can be found, giving entire swaths of land a white hue. In one vineyard, it was explained to me that the vines were up to 150 years old–it was an amazing sight, to say the least.

From these vines they create three wines: Valbuena 5°, Unico, and the rare Unico Reserva Especial. Each one showcases the Tempranillo grape, with Unico as their flagship, aged no less than ten years (six in barrel) and blended with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. Valbuena 5°, also Tempranillo with a small percentage of Merlot, is fermented in stainless steel tank and aged for a total of five years between barrel and bottle. Then there is the Unico Reserva Especial, a wine of no vintage, which is released once a year and is composed of a mix of vintages. In a world where non-vintage wines aren’t the trend, Vega Sicilia goes against the grain by sticking to tradition–in the end, it’s the rarest wine of the entire portfolio.

Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Valbuena 5° 2013 – The ‘13 Valbuena displayed a bouquet of intense red berry fruits with a mix of zesty blueberry, sweet florals and herbs, followed by undergrowth, and with time in the glass, a note of brown sugar. On the palate, I found silky yet energetic textures as blue and red fruits were ushered across the senses by brisk acidity, as hints of spice and inner floral tones added depth. The finish was long and zesty, lingering on red fruits and spice. For a vintage that I was told was difficult, Vega Sicilia certainly knocked this one out of the park. (94 points)

Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Unico 2006 – What a treat it was to taste the 2006 Unico. Here I found a dark expression of Tempranillo that pulled me closer to the glass with each sniff, as dusty flowers, dark red fruits and sweet spices gave way to crushed stone and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found silky textures that seemed to coat the senses, before being cleansed by zesty acidity and a wave of red and blue fruit. Compact at its young age, but hard to resist on its energy alone, the ‘06 finished with fine dusty tannins and lingering spicy red fruits. The potential for improvement in the cellar here is tremendous. (97 points)

Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Reserva Especial R18 – The R18 is hard to resist already. This blend of the ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07 Unico displayed rich, deep, dark and seductive aromas of crushed red and blue fruits with mulling spices and violet floral tones. On the palate, I found soft, caressing textures, as juicy blueberry, cherry and blackberry all made an appearance. The senses were coated in textural richness, as a wave of acidity began to cut through, adding balsamic spice and minerals to the mix. The finish was long and soft with sweet violet floral tones that lingered long. It’s hard to imagine how this wine might age, because it is drop-dead gorgeous already and begging to be enjoyed today. (95 points)

Then there is Alion, a 100% Tempranillo, produced in a separate winery but by the same winemaking team. The wine is made using fruit from the Vega Sicilia vineyards (around 70%), which is balanced by holdings around the region. The goal of Alion is to create a wine that represents all of Ribera del Duero, not just the terroir of Vega Sicilia. It may not carry the price tag of their other wines, but it certainly stands proud among them, and it is seen as the insider’s wine for fans of the brand.

Bodegas y Viñedos Alión Ribera del Duero 2014 – The ‘14 Alion struts its new oak well and with class, as notes of ripe cherry and blackberry mix with sweet florals, a dusting of spice and hints of vanilla. On the palate, I found a silky sheen of pure cherry fruits, lifted by brisk acidity and hints of spice. The finish was long with saturating red and black fruits, spice, a slight twang of acidity and chewy tannin. This should age well for another 10-15 years, but it’s so enjoyable already. (93 points)

Oremus – Tokaj

Tokaji, pronounced “toe-kay,” is one of the world’s oldest winemaking traditions from the first classified vineyards in Europe. It’s thought that winemaking in this part of Hungary may have predated Roman expansion which brought vitis vinifera to the nations of Europe. The region that shares the same name as it’s famous wine is located in north-eastern Hungary, at the foot of the Zemplen Mountains. It’s here that the tradition of making sweet wines from botrytized Furmint berries (known here as Aszú, but otherwise known as noble rot) was invented.

With the fall of Communism came a reawakening throughout the winemaking regions of Hungary, and a desire to reintroduce the world to what was once thought of as one of it’s greatest wines. Outside investment followed throughout the nineties, and one such investor was David Álvarez of Vega Sicilia. He saw tremendous potential in the region and it’s complex terroir, with soils composed of a diverse mix of volcanic sedimentary rock.

Along with a traditional winery, he was also able to secure a cellar, which held decades worth of back vintages.

Putting aside the amazing wine that Oremus now produces, what is just as impressive, was the decision to run the winery and vineyards under the management of locals who have a deep attachment to the land. One change however, and a very welcome one at that, is the creation of a dry Furmint from what is considered a Grand Cru of the region, Mandolas.

I can’t recommend these wines highly enough.

Oremus Tokaji Furmint Mandolas 2016 – The nose was stunning, with a green herbal persona that was perfectly balanced by intense lime, bright floral tones, smoky crushed stone and hints of almond. On the palate, I found oily, waxy textures offset by zesty acidity, as green apple gave way to minerals and spicy herbs. The finish was long and cheek-pucking tart, with lasting minerality. (92 points)

Oremus Furmint Tokaji Late Harvest 2015 – Here I found a mix of lime with intense minerality, almost salty in its profile, giving way to crushed stone and dusty earth and soil. On the palate, rich, oily textures were kept in check by perfectly balanced acidity, with notes of ripe tropical fruits and saline-minerality. It finished long and balanced, with a perception of total dryness. (94 points)

Oremus Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2008 – What a nose on the ‘08 Aszú 5 Puttonyos, as dark, dusty earth gave way to a savory expression with smoky minerality, dried apricot and floral tones. On the palate, I found silky-verging-on-oily sweet textures, with a mix of dried apricot, mango, and peach, which evolved into raw almond and contrasting saline minerality. The balance was impeccable, as was the streamlined acidity that grounded this wine to the earth, and the finish went on and on and on. (94 points)

Credits and Resources

* Please be aware that the vintages talked about in this article were not yet released at the time of publishing.

Article, Tasting Notes and Photos by: Eric Guido

Visit the Tempos Vega-Sicilia Website

Find Vega Sicilia at Morrell Wine and Spirits

Find Oremus at Morrell Wine and Spirits

Find Alion at Morrell Wine and Spirits

Vega Sicilia is distributed by David Bowler Wine

Thank you to Il Buco, for an amazing meal to pair with Vega Sicilia