Although Valbuena 5° is clearly not the flagship wine from Ribera del Duero winery Vega Sicilia – that honour is reserved of course for Unico – it should not be seen as a ‘second wine’ according to winemaker Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan. Over an 8-vintage flight to launch the new 2013 vintage, he explains to Chris Wilson what makes Valbuena 5° unique and how it differs stylistically from Unico. Oh, and he also has a bottle of the 1995 open….
Because Unico is aged for 10 years, the nuances of the vintage can get a bit lost, not so Valbuena 5° that has a clear stylistic thread running through the wine. Tasting notes below on vintages 2006-2013.
There has been a string of fascinating and high-profile tastings recently where famous wines are explored, poked and prodded in their current guise and by tasting old vintages, in some cases going back many decades.
Following the Castillo Ygay vertical, where this famous Rioja was tasted back to 2001, I had the pleasure of tasting another Spanish icon wine from 2013 back to 2006, with a 1995 thrown in for good measure.
The wine in question was Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° from one of Spain’s most historic and highly-prizes bodegas. Vega Sicilia is located in Ribera del Duero and despite its Italian sounding name, there is no Italian connection – the name is contracted from Vega Santa Sicilia.
Vega Sicilia is 153 years old and produces on average 1.4m bottles a year across all wines, 50% of which are exported. Its flagship wine Único is a Gran Reserva that is aged for 10 years or more before release and is made from some of the oldest vines in the Ribera del Duero region.
Valbuena 5°, by contrast, takes its name from the village where it is produced and is aged for five years before release. It’s made from younger (11-12 year-old) vines grown on sloped vineyards at 615-700m above sea level.
“It’s not a second wine, it’s a different wine,” winemaker Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan is quick to point out as he begins the tasting, before going into the detail of how and why this wine is different to Único and Vega Sicilia’s other wines.
“The secret is where the vines are located, the winemaker is not the important thing,” he says modestly. “It’s the soil and the location which makes wines that can be aged for a long, long time. Soil is more important to me than the age of the vine for this wine.”
Valbuena 5° is predominantly Tempranillo with “up to 6% Merlot used as a seasoning like salt and pepper.” The wine is aged in American and French oak, and it’s the former which gives this wine a unique edge. American oak has been used at the bodega since the 1950s and there is an in-house cooper to keep up with demand for new barrels.
What Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan is most impressed with when it comes to Valbuena 5°, especially when tasted in a vertical line-up, is the stylistic thread which runs from vintage to vintage. “You can see the vintages directly through the wines, unlike with Único where it’s aged for longer and you can lose the vintage a bit”
It’s this thread that we were searching for during the tasting, and there’s certainly commonality between all these wines but also great variation which reflects the unique growing conditions of each vintage.
Here’s the run-down from a fascinating and eye-opening tasting.
The most recent vintage released has a sumptuous nose; it’s serious and strong with some upfront oak and black fruit. In the mouth there are plums and blackcurrant fruit as well as dark chocolate, dark toffee, eucalyptus and a stroke of savouriness; leather, dusty books. It all ends with a long, creamy finish.
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2012
A hotter vintage and that’s evident in the fruit, which is turned up a notch on the ripeness scale. There’s sticky red fruit as well as vanilla on the nose. The palate is fresh and vibrant and leaves nothing in the glass; there’s red cherry, juicy blackcurrant, lipstick and a lingering dried fruit finish. Perhaps lacking the tannic structure of the 2013 but a real crowd-pleaser none-the-less.
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2011
This has a lot going for it; structure, length, freshness… all coming together to make for an expressive, silky wine. The nose is mineral, stony and fresh, while the palate is long and clean and the wine rolls effortlessly around the mouth giving off sparks of redcurrant, red liquorice and mint. A deft sweetness on the finish lifts this high.
There’s sweetness of fruit here too, primarily on the nose, where it’s confected and vivid. The tannins are keen – this tastes younger than some of the more recent vintages – with some integration to come. It’s smooth and balanced though with clean black fruit and some savoury tapenade and wood smoke characters.
A woody nose (kindling?), there’s fruit of course too (raspberry, plum) but this plays second fiddle to the oak and tannins. Rounded and smooth on the palate with nice integration. Probably the weakest yet, and may not age too much longer.
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2008
A very different nose here, it’s savoury with a dairy, mineral edge. In the mouth it is a different beast altogether; blackcurrant and black cherry fruit dominate and there’s black pepper and dried herbs too. Superb structure and poise – so long and voluptuous.
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2007
Remarkably fresh and lean with some green notes and some astringency on the tannins to balance the redcurrant and red cherry fruit. 2007 wasn’t a great year in Ribera del Duero but this still sings… it doesn’t quite reach the high notes of many of the other wines tasted.
Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2006
2006 was one of the sunniest vintages ever and this is reflected in this bright, fresh wine. It’s rounded, plush and sweet with a velvet gloved touch in the mouth and a flurry of orange, rose petal and violet characters. There’s a delicious meatiness too and the finish is elegant and lifted.
To finish the tasting we were treated to one from the vaults. This 23-year-old wine is a rare thing and lives up to the billing. There are figs and raisons and stewed fruit but it’s still got the acidity to string it all together. A remarkable backbone of acid and tannin is key to this bright, complex and concentrated wine.