A Spanish icon

Vega Sicilia is Ribera del Duero’s legendary estate,
and its wine, Unico, is the stuff legends are
made of, writes SERENA SUTCLIFFE MW

When I was feeling my way in wine in those far-off days of the Tender Twenties (my age, not the decade of my youth!), Vega Sicilia was a mythical name, like Château Chalon, old Ausone and ungrafted vine gems such as Noval Nacional and Bollinger Vieilles Vignes. One lusted after them, longed to taste them – and the odd ‘god’ would regale one, slightly patronisingly, with tales of their magical qualities.Then someone opened a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico at the end of a long lunch and it was both oxidised and full of volatile acidity – a winning combination that, simultaneously in my studies, I was being told could not happen. Now, many hundreds of bottles of Unico later, I still see lots of volatility in bottles of 50 years old and more, and these are not my favourite examples of the genre.
However, Unico from certain vintages of the 1950s, and from the 1960s onwards, has given me some of the most fascinating drinking experiences of recent years. Of course, the actual taste is complex and multi-dimensional, but I think it is the slightly unpredictable nature of Unico that adds a frisson every time a bottle is opened. Vega Sicilia Unico is never ‘classic’ – it is Dolce e Gabbana rather than Ferragamo – cutting edge rather than couture. Suddenly one sees that the most venerable of all Spain’s great wines is also the most ‘way out’.

There have been five owners of Vega Sicilia since its inception to the present day. In 1864, Don Eloy de Lecanda intended to emulate Bordeaux on his estate at the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal, but he soon discovered that Ribera del Duero’s native grape – Tinto Fino, or Tempranillo – performed to perfection in its own environment. The area’s mixture of schistous base soil covered by a chalky subsoil, married to the region’s altitude (600–700m above sea level) giving cool nights after hot days and a long ripening season, is all grist to the quality mill. In 1900, the Herrero family took over for half a century, and then Prodes SA, from 1950–64. The Hans Newmann ownership from 1964–1982 marked a fabulous period for Vega Sicilia, and a glittering array of riveting wines. By coincidence, the current owners, the Alvarez family, bought the estate in 1982, the year Ribera del Duero was made a Denominación de Origen. Bodegas Vega Sicilia now owns about 1,000ha (hectares) of land, of which 250ha are under vine. Vega Sicilia Unico and Valbuena 5 Año (so named because it is put on sale five years after the harvest) are made from selected grapes of top quality, from vines that are over 10 years old. The average age of Valbuena vines is around 25 years, and 45 years for Unico.

Harvesting (usually from about mid-October) is manual and grapes go past a selection table before
fermentation in oak vats for Vega Sicilia Unico, and in stainless steel for Valbuena. Length of fermentation is limited to 15–18 days. Unico is made essentially from Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, while Valbuena is mostly Tempranillo, with more Merlot than Cabernet. The grape varieties are vinified separately when they come from young vines, but fermented together from the old, mixed plots.
Vega Sicilia Unico undergoes malolactic fermentation in wooden vats and then remains in these vats for another year before being put into new barrels in January of the following year. Historically, American oak has always been used at Vega Sicilia. Valbuena goes through malolactic fermentation in cement tanks lined with epoxy resin and is then aged in new barrels for three years, with six months in large wooden vats to complete the process. Unico is aged for ‘much longer’ than Valbuena, originally for about 10 years, but now more likely to be five to six years. Unico is only made in great years – maybe six or seven times every decade – and the great years often give a low yield of about 20hl/ha. When there is a year with no Unico, everything of quality goes into the Valbuena so, somewhat ironically, a less good vintage in Ribera can lead to an especially good Valbuena. The 1989 Valbuena must be a prime example of this.

The Alvarez family has made a huge investment in refining and honing the estate to produce top quality. There has been total ‘renewal’ and rethinking with regard to maturing, ageing in wood, bottling and ageing in bottle before sale. Everything is air conditioned. Since 1985 the bodega has made American oak barrels in its own cooperage. French oak barrels, both Nevers and Allier, are sourced from suppliers such as Radoux, Saury and Séguin Moreau.

Vega Sicilia Unico

Two big vertical tastings of Vega Sicilia Unico, one in America and the other in Germany, served to fix the mind wonderfully. These, happily, are supplemented by occasional great bottles that appear at dinner tables.
Unico is a faithful friend to food as its exotic nature and flavours firing off in all directions can cope with all manner of game and a panoply of spices, including classic Chinese, Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden period for Vega, the 1980s are flexing their muscles to powerful effect, and the 1990 is a force to be reckoned with. Unico is the foundation stone on which great Spanish wine was built, but it is now also in the vanguard of the new Spanish quality revolution.

Only released in 2000, this is a monster! Decant two hours before drinking so it can escape. Black fruit on the nose. Becomes more meaty and peppery in the glass, ending on a peppermint note. Raw power. Concentrated. Great ageing potential.

Wonderfully scented, a compote of black fruits. Vibrant black fruit on the palate. Jammy yet so stylish, and finer textured than the 1985. Great aromatic complexity. A favourite of mine.

Spicy, healthy bouquet, with exotic notes. Vibrant chocolate (a very Unico thing) taste, fruit confits, musky and minerally. Lots of tannin, with glycerol to match. A real finish of dates, which is a first for me. Powerful.

A very brambly nose. Decant. Tannic and totally spice-bazaar. Meaty and forceful – a giant.

Spiced plum glühwein on the nose. Great mineral quality – another Unico hallmark. Liquorice taste. Great iron-like backbone. Would be fantastic with Cantonese roast duck.

Glorious sweet, ripe nose. Lovely coffee bean taste. Heavenly sweet, supple tannins. Mouthwatering. Intense. So delicious, aromatic and fascinating.

Slightly Burgundian nose. Very red fruit. Soft, American oak. Pure pleasure. Sweet leather at the end.

Tarry, cherryish nose. Good, big, inky wine, with the volatile acidity now beginning to dry it out, so drink up.

Heavenly cinnamon nose. Almost a Burgundian bouquet. Plummy, rich and pleasing. Cinnamon soft. Drink now.

Sweet, meaty, violetty nose, with those inky, mineral Vega Sicilia hallmarks. Sweet violet fondants on the palate, with a touch of mint.

Lovely, spicy spearmint nose. Full, meaty and minty flavours. Complex, with great beauty. Sweet finish with an intriguing hint of fennel. Touch fuller than the 1973. One of the greatest.

Great spicy, meaty nose. Gloriously aromatic. Sweet violets. Heavenly spice-drenched taste. Utterly rich and opulent. A superb, solid wine with fantastic fruit and body and some of the sweetness of the 1974.

Inky, mineral, smoky and chocolatey nose. Lots of impact and yet so gentle. Sheer elegance and a lacy finish. The great wine of the difficult 1972 vintage. The taste is inky and spicy, with lots of glycerol. Dark roasted coffee finish, but ultimately sweet.

Superb aromatic bouquet. So sweet and seductive. So round and complete that it is ‘spheric’! Totally aromatic.
A giant of a wine. A recent magnum had a nose of blackberries in liqueur and a taste of wine gums and liquorice – glorious rich glycerol all the way.

Almost Burgundian on the nose. Sweet, ripe and classy. Great finesse of texture. Lots of fruit and attack. Great chocolate at the finish.

Glorious Rhône-like nose. Spicy, deeply scented. Great rich Northern Rhône taste – violets, with balanced fruit, acidity and tannin. At its apogee. Liquorice. So fresh and yet so subtle and complex now. Lovely and meaty with a rich fruit finish.

My last bottle had some oxidation, but it was rich and tarry, halfway between a liqueur and a port. At this stage, we are talking individual bottles, and the 1960s was a great epoch for Vega Sicilia. v

Wonderful meaty nose. Plummy. Meaty and chunky on the palate. Full, ripe, grapey and deep. Bitter chocolate at the end.

Earthy mushrooms on the nose, with violets and aniseed. Lovely opulent Burgundian taste. Sweet, melting, violetty fruit. Like a great, minerally, top Côte de Nuits. Thicker than the 1962 and much spicier, with an earthy finish.

Classic nose, young, fresh and healthy. Walnutty, quite minerally. Very crisp. Finish of walnut liqueur with a touch of chocolate. Another bottle had a complex bouquet and palate – a surprise around every corner. Solid, firm and full of body, with a great peppermint aftertaste.

My last bottle was a little oxidised with a whiff of wet barrels. Thick, sweet and ripe but the volatility was taking over.

The vanillin/leather nose of American oak, smoky with spicy spearmint notes. Great complexity, with a raspberry lift at the end plus the American oak.

Sweet, ripe nose. Burnt raisins and bitter orange chocolate on the palate. Lasts well in the glass.

Inky, minerally nose. Great impact. A touch of volatility. So meaty that it was superb with sautéed John Dory and rabbit juice. Sweet finish.

My most recent bottle was Madeira-like in character.
The last bottle I tasted had a pale colour and was just like a Madeira.

Lovely plum and spice, fresh nose. Sweet and charming on the palate, typical of 1953. Fruit and freshness. Complete. Chocolate at the end.

Like orange caramel all through. Resembles a 19th century claret.

Plummy, rich, black molasses nose. Tarry taste with a toffee end.

Now rather like an old Madeira.

Rich, plummy nose, but volatile.

Like old, pale Madeira. Chocolatey.

Serena Sutcliffe MW is head of the international wine department at Sotheby’s.

Written by Serena Sutcliffe MW