Tasting the new releases from Vega-Sicilia is up there with ‘DRC day’ in January. But when that tasting is behind the hallowed doors of the wine estate itself then tasting Unico 2010, Valbuena 5° 2015, Alion 2016 and Unico, Reserva Especial 2020 takes on an added frisson of excitement. Spain’s ‘first growth’ and arguably its most prestigious winery is notoriously difficult to gain access to, but Peter Dean did and posts this account of what it’s like to sample Unico 2010 in the hushed drawing room of the Nineteenth Century villa that serves as its headquarters.
Full tasting notes of the magnificent Unico 2010, Valbuena 5° 2015, Alion 2016 and Unico, Reserva Especial 2020 – but first putting the wines in context, both in the vineyards and winery.
It’s not for nothing that you refer to Vega-Sicilia’s home in Valbuena de Duero as its headquarters. As you turn off from the busy main road to Valladovid you hit a security gate that feels more like a military facility than home to some of the world’s most exotic and mysterious wines. We wait almost five minutes as the driver’s details are triple-checked and everyone’s name in the vehicle. I suspect there are open prisons that are easier to get out of.
It’s understandable – my back-of-a-fag-packet calculation has about £300 million worth of Unico here at various stage of maturation, not even taking into account the bottles back vintages or second and third wines.
The site is massive, functional, impersonal and perishingly cold – it’s only November and the wind is already getting lazy, going through you rather than around. It’s only the topiary and Nineteenth Century villa that gives clues to the artistry and vision of what is being produced here.
I am here to taste Vega-Sicilia’s new releases including the much-anticipated Unico 2010, but first get to see the vines and winery with Enrique Macias, the director of viticulture who sits on the main board.
Vega-Sicilia has been on this site for 155 years and, until the denomination of Ribera del Duero was created in 1982, was one of the few wineries bottling its own wines in the region.
The Vega-Sicilia site is 1000 hectares in total with 210 hectares under vine, 40 of these hectares are used to produce Unico, 50 hectares go to make Alion, the modern interpretation of Ribera del Duero made at the company’s sister winery. In all there are 23 different clones of Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) in the vineyards.
The vineyards are all roughly 700m above sea level, are planted at 2,222 vines per hectare with yield being 3,600 kilos of fruit per hectare.
There are also 19 different soil types on the site which have been divided into 57 plots. In one area of the vineyard towards the forest you find the oldest vines on the estate – this one pictured above is at least 110 years old – and this ancient vineyard contains 22 different rare varieties of grape. It is used primarily for viticultural study only.
It is the soil that is rich in gypsum, located on the upper slope (below the tree line), where the vines used for Unico are located. These soils are old lake beds, and the gypsum behaves like a sponge – good for alleviating water stress with the vines – and is also important for the wine’s minerality.
The new winery was opened in 2010 and feels like NASA inside rather than a place for making wine. There are 81 fermentation tanks that correspond to the different plots in the estate. Space-age sorting tables, gravity systems for filling the vats, a ‘wine lift’ to move fermented wines.
There are cold chambers designed impeccably to take exactly the right amount of corporate-branded fruit trays.
Some say that it is the mix of traditional and modern winemaking techniques, particularly the ageing process that makes Unico so unique and distinctive. It is aged for 10 years in a variety of different size formats, French and American oak and new and used barrels – each batch treated separately. So one vintage, for example, could spend 15 months in 20,000-litre tanks, 25 months in new barrels, 17 months in used barrels and then a further 26 months in the big oak vats. The remaining three years in bottle.
In recent years, however, the style has changed towards fresher wines that see less oak with the wines having more velvety tannins and so, instead of spending the last three years in bottle, they are spending between four and five years out of the 10.
The styles of Vega-Sicilia’s second and third wines are also changing. With Valbuena 5° (named because it is aged like a Rioja Gran Reserva for five years) the winemakers are looking at going back to steel after the first year in oak, they are also experimenting more with the size of the vats. With Alion they are starting to use 5% of the vinification in cement tank from the 2018 vintage and some American oak.
Vega-Sicilia has its own cooperage where it produces a third of the French oak barrels used at the winery. Part of the rationale is that it allows the winemakers to toast the barrels according to each vintage of wine after it has been fermented. Brand new oak is the norm with no barrels used over six years old.
There are three wines produced at Vega-Sicilia. Unico (currently 90,000 bottles), Unico Reserva Especial (15,000 bottles) a blend of three different Unico vintages, and Valbuena 5° (180,000 bottles); given the scale of the winery the output seems modest by today’s standards
Vega-Siclia is part of a group owned by the Álvarez family that also owns Alión (250,000 bottles), a sister Ribera del Duero bodega formed in 1986, Pintia formed in 2001 in Toro, Oremus formed in Hungary’s Tokaji region, and 50% of Macán, a joint venture with Benjamin de Rothschild in Rioja.
There’s always a frisson of excitement about a new release of Unico because, quite apart from it being one of Spain’s greatest wines it is also hugely variable – the wines are markedly different one release to the next – which partly explains some of its attraction.
Because of the decade-long ageing process of Unico and the relatively quick turnaround of Alion the 2019 Vega Sicilia releases include two of the best Ribera del Duero vintages of the past 15 years – 2010 and 2016.
So how were the wines tasting?
Alion, Vega-Sicilia, 2016
100% Tinto Fino
Thankfully there was no frost in the spring of 2016 and, although the summer was not very warm, the ripening was long and gave rise to Tinto Fino of a high standard. The nose is ripe and enticing with notes of blackberry jelly, blossom and fresh tobacco; the palate is ripe, juicy fruit with very fine tannins and a sturdy structure. There is great balance here and a nice relationship between ripe, rich hedgerow fruit and the rounded-tannin structure. Dry, slightly curt finish. Fantastic value for money. (£288 for 6 IB RRP)
Valbuena 5°,Vega-Sicilia, 2015
90% Tinto Fino 5% Cabernet Sauvignon 3% Merlot and 2% Malbec
Made from a younger part of the vineyard on limestone soils which helps bring elegance to this wine and make it more approachable in youth. It has a sweet floral nose, with a hint of spice (fresh mace), and black fruit. The mouthfeel is immediately open and rounded, so fine and sleek, with fine sandpaper tannins, that almost caress the tongue. There’s a blackberry/ blueberry coulis edge to the fruit which builds to a tidy, dry stone finish. Always a joy and so elegant. (£267 for 3 IB RRP)
Unico, Vega-Sicilia, 2010
90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Hard not to dust off the long list of superlatives when tasting this phenomenal wine, certainly the best Unico I have tasted. The wine leaps out of the almost opaque claret depths in the glass; there’s a slightly disorienting, heady waft of spice (cardamon, fenugreek) as if you had just walked into an Indian spice shop, sweet strawberry jam, black cherry, jamon; the palate is completely approachable, rounded and ripe, with cranberry coulis and liquorice root amongst the complexity and layers of flavour, ending on a lifted sweet pastry note and splash of vanilla custard.
Like all great wines of this stature this has such purity and completeness from the first enticing, savoury aromas, to when the wine registers perfectly on the palate and finally to the point a long time after the wine has left the palate that keeps your mind humming – like the reverb on the string section after an orchestra has just reached a breath-taking crescendo. There is such freshness and lightness of touch here, wave after wave of layers, underpinned by the structure of the Cabernet and the tannins are so fine I swear you can pick out the atoms of this wine. This is really something. (£672 for 3 IB RRP)
Unico, Reserva Especial 2020
A blend of Unico vintages 2008, 2009 and 2010
The rarest of the wines is Unico, Reserva Especial which is almost decadently complex. The wine changes in the glass with every swirl displaying an unbelievable mix of elements – young and old. Dark and more broody this has oriental spices, dried black fruit, fresh bramble fruit, library book; the palate is equally complex with dark cherry chocolate, rich balsamic, dried cherries, Rumptopf strawberries and a blood orange streak of acidity keeps the balance in check. Quite divine and seductive.