Outside of the best Grand Cru Burgundy and First Growth Bordeaux, there are very few wines throughout the world that can demand the pricing and drive collectors crazy the way that Vega Sicilia can. In fact, I believe it’s warranted to say that Vega Sicilia has transcended beyond its country of origin and Denominacion de Origen to stand among a very small group of wines that are considered the best that the world has to offer. Much of this has to do with scarcity and the shroud of mystery that existed around the estate for the better part of a century, and even to this day, a search for Vega Sicilia on Google will turn up multiple sources of misinformation. The modern-day winery as we know it owes much of its reputation and the price that Vega Sicilia now demands to the current generation of owners, the Álvarez family. However, it’s the one and a half centuries’ worth of work that has gone into this property, which provides the foundations for what is essentially Spain’s only First Growth.
Recently, I was given the chance to peek behind the curtain at Vega Sicilia. To walk their vineyards, among vines that were 130 – 150 years old, and to literally put my hands in the soil. To tour the processes from the production of each barrel to the long aging rooms of the rare Unico, with vintages spanning decades. What I came away with was a deep respect for what this family and their company are doing and the feeling of being humbled, because it’s easy to believe that a wine such as Vega Sicilia–one of such scope and magnitude–would lack the passion of people behind it. Yet passion is what I found.
Passion and Pride
Vega Sicilia was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, a Spanish merchant, real estate owner and sometimes winemaker, who had a vision of creating a self sufficient and fully functional community, which was built around the production of wine. The location itself was chosen for him through inheritance, a large portion of barren land that ran along the Duero River. If for nothing else, it was the transformation of this land and his creation of community that paved the path for what the winery has become today. Eloy Lecanda’s vision was guided by the Chateaux of Bordeaux, and by his belief in modernized farming practices and vineyard management.
He chose to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère and Malbec, which he interplanted with the local variety, Tinto Fino (otherwise known as Tempranillo). In those days, the winery produced every manner of Spanish wine, including Sherry, as well as all of the agriculture products needed to sustain the community.
However, the history of Vega Sicilia is full of both achievements and heartaches, as Eloy Lecanda lost all that he had before he died. The winery changed hands multiple times before the next major step in it’s evolution, and that was the introduction of Cosme Palacio and his cellar master Domingo Garramiola (otherwise known as Txomin) in the early 1900s. It was at this time that the reliance on Bordeaux varieties faded, as the superior-quality Tempranillo from the Duero was realized. Palacio, a prominent figure in Rioja and known throughout the world of wine, came to believe that the grapes from this unique terroir may actually be Spain’s finest.
What we think of when we think of Vega Sicilia today is very much the result of the work that these two men accomplished. The reputation of Vega Sicilia continued to gain traction in international markets through awards won around the globe. Then, at the World’s Fair in 1929, two vintages (1917 and 1918) were awarded the Gran Premio de Honor.
While this may be the moment that most people reference as the property’s crowning achievement, it is in fact the accumulation of devoted private customers that allowed Vega Sicilia to thrive through good times and bad. The fact is that the sale of wine from Vega Sicilia was primarily to a list of private collectors that grew over many decades. This highly sought-after list still exists, and for the longest time, it was the only way that a collector could acquire the wines. This lucky group of collectors treasured their bottles, and for many decades they seldom made it to the secondary market. Upon asking, I was informed that the current waiting list is no less than ten years long.
The next major development took place in 1982, when Vega Sicilia was purchased by David Álvarez, and things began to change for the better. Under the watchful eye of David’s son, Pablo, the Álvarez family began to breathe new life into the winery and expanded its holdings throughout Spain, and even into Hungary, with the opening of Oremus in Tokaj. They began producing their own barrels, which fill the aging rooms of all of their Spanish properties, and are now even growing Cork Oaks on the property, with the idea that one day Vega Sicilia may even produce their own closures.
However, this list of refinements and fine tuning that have been accomplished is only meant to bolster what Vega Sicilia already had for generations, and that is access to its ancient vines and the esteemed 240 hectares that provide the fruit for their brand. This is the 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.
While touring the vineyards, I was amazed by these tortured vines which seemed to be reaching up from the earth in hope of finding some freedom from the sands beneath. In one vineyard, the vines were said to be up to 150 years old–it was amazing, to say the least.
The reward for this labor is the creation of three wines that drive the collector markets mad: 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. A slight step down in prestige is Valbuena 5°, also Tempranillo with a small percentage of Merlot, fermented in stainless steel tank and aged for a total of five years between barrel and bottle. However, the truly rare bird in this collection is the Unico Reserva Especial, a wine of no vintage, which is released once a year and is composed of a mix of the best vintages to create a wine that represents the best that the estate is capable of producing. The Reserva Especial is hunted for by collectors and seldom seen in the secondary market.
I ended my day with a meal prepared in an old family home on the estate, one which had also served as a school at one time. I was once again reminded of the people behind the scenes, some whose families have worked there for four generations, before the Ribera del Duero was known around the world for its wines. A time when Vega Sicilia had started on the path to becoming the icon of Spanish wine that it is today. In the end, it’s the people that make the difference and make this wine great–something that Vega Sicilia has never forgotten.
On to the tasting notes:
2005 Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Único – A classy and refined vintage for Unico. The nose was dark and mineral-inflected with black cherry, exotic savory spices, hints of pepper, dried flowers, animal musk and stone dust. On the palate, it was amazingly fresh with crushed raspberry and strawberry fruit followed by a wave of acidity that deposited notes of dried orange, cherry, and inner floral tones. The finish was long with fine tannin drying the fruit, yet floral and spice tones prevailed. Stunning! (95 points)
2012 Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Valbuena 5° – The 2012 Valbuena is an understated beauty of a wine with a bouquet of floral perfumes and sweet spices, which gave way to lifted cherry and tobacco notes. On the palate, I found silky textures with an interplay of zesty acidity and young tannin that provided grip. Raspberry, cherry, and spicy herbs filled the senses as inner floral tone unfurled. It finished long and spicy with hints of cherry and young tannin. (93 points)
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