02 May Vega Sicilia: The Crown Jewel of Spanish Wines
In February 2020, a few days before the world shut down, I had the privilege to enjoy dinner with Pablo Alvarez, the owner of Vega Sicilia, the crown jewel of Spanish wines. Almost exactly three years to the day, I attended another dinner with Pablo Alvarez and the wines of Vega Sicilia. I understand how special it is to have enjoyed these exalted wines, not once, but twice now, and I wrote about these wines for Monarch.wine and now share it here.
In the world of wine, there are some producers whose names are exalted. These are the wines that collectors clamor for and the average consumer rarely tries. Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero in Spain is one of these revered wineries. They are considered one of the greatest wine producers in Spain and their red wines are some of the most valued in the world.
THE LEGACY OF BODEGA VEGA SICILIA
Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves was a Bordeaux-trained Spanish winemaker who founded Bodega Vega Sicilia in 1864. Returning to Spain from France, he brought cuttings of Bordeaux varieties and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec alongside Tempranillo, the indigenous variety of the Ribera del Duero.
From 1865 until 1927, Vega Sicilia was the only winery in the region. Vega Sicilia were pioneers in the region and in 1929, they brought international acclaim to the region when Vega Sicilia won the 1929’s World’s Fair in Barcelona.
In 1982, the Alvarez family purchased the estate and Pablo Alvarez has been at the helm since 1985. The Alvarez family is only the fourth family to own Vega Sicilia in its 100+ years. The year the Alvarez family purchased Vega Sicilia is the same year that the Ribera del Duero DO (Denomination of Origen) was awarded.
ABOUT RIBERA DEL DUERO
Ribera del Duero is in the north of Spain in the Castilla y Leon region. The Duero River runs through the region and Ribera del Duero means “bank of the Duero”. This is the same river that extends into Portugal and changes to the name Douro.
Ribera del Duero sits on a plateau, 2800 feet above sea level. The inland region is protected by two mountain ranges and has a continental climate. Summers are hot and dry, and winters are cold. It is these conditions, as well as the soils, a mix of limestone, marl, and chalk under silt and clay, that add to the character of the wines of Ribera del Duero.
The region is almost entirely dedicated to red wine and Tempranillo is the most planted grape variety. Tempranillo, also called Tinto Fino, must make up a minimum of 75 percent of what is in the bottle. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec, the three grapes introduced by Vega Sicilia, make up the remainder of the blend.
There were 14 wineries in 1982 in Ribera del Duero and today there are 307 wineries. Vega Sicilia was a pioneer in the region and today is one of the greatest wine producers in the world. Pablo Alvarez explained, “what makes the region great is the complexity and elegance that can be obtained.”
THE WINES OF VEGA SICILIA
Unico is the flagship wine of Vega Sicilia. It is aptly named, as Unico translates to “unique” or “the only one” and this is in fact a very unique wine. It is a wine that is only made in great vintages. It is a wine served at royal functions. It is a wine considered by some to be like a “first growth” from Spain.
Unico is made from at least 80 percent of Tempranillo with the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is aged in large and small American and French oak barrels for as much as six years and then spends three years in the bottle. Unico is not released until at least ten years after the vintage, and sometimes longer.
When a vintage of Unico is produced, it is special. According to Pablo Alvarez, there are some very memorable vintages of Unico. “Old vintages, such as 1942 and 1962 are very elegant and vintages such as 1994, 1999, 2004, and 2010 are fantastic.”
And these are wines that can age. The two new releases, 2012 and 2013, which both retail for $650, have the potential to age for the next 50 years.
VEGA SICILIA UNICO RESERVA ESPECIAL
Unico Reserva Especial is a blend of two or three vintages of Unico. For every vintage Unico is produced, some of the wine is held back from being bottled and aged for Reserva. The result is a non-vintage wine, a common thing to do in Spain in the 1800s. Vega Sicilia continues this tradition with this very limited production. The most recent release is the Reserva Especial R 23 which retails for $870. Like the Unico, the Unico Reserva Especial can also be aged 50 years.
Valbuena 5° is the third bottling produced by Vega Sicilia. This wine is made mostly of Tempranillo with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot added and then aged for two years in French and American oak. The wine is aged for five years before release, hence the name 5°, and has the potential to be aged for 20 to 30 years. The two current vintages of Valbuena 5° available in the market are 2017 and 2018, both of which retail for $250.
While all these wines have the potential to age for decades, Pablo Alvarez added, “I believe all of them can be enjoyed upon release. That’s why the Valbuenas are aged 5 years and Unico 10 years before we release them. But these are wines that will continue to evolve and gain more elegance and complexity.”
The wines of Vega Sicilia are not everyday wines. For those who are privileged to drink them, these are wines that will be savored. That is if you are willing to open them now, and not in 20-50 years.
Read the original story in Monarch.wine.