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Vega Sicilia: Myth and Reality

by Andrew Stevenson. Photos Andrew Stevenson and © Vega Sicilia

Some estates have an aura about them: they produce the greatest and most sought-after wines, often wines of legend. Sometimes the legend is created by clever marketing, sometimes by stratospheric pricing, sometimes by 100-point scores from influential critics. Sometimes the wines they produce are such exquisite expressions of the winemaker's art, that they can achieve this legendary status purely on quality. Sometimes it's a bit of each.

One such estate is Spain's Vega Sicilia. My first experience of Vega Sicilia was when Bibendum substituted a couple of bottles of Valbuena for the Quintarelli Amarone I had ordered. Since then I have had the opportunity to taste or drink Vega Sicilia's wines on just a couple of occasions. They were impressive, to say the least, so when the opportunity to visit the winery in Valbuena de Duero arose, I moved quickly.

Vega Sicilia likes to promote an aura of myth and a legend about its wine: the words recur in their publicity materials. For a myth, there's a surprising amount that's well recorded both about the history of Vega Sicilia and the winery. Certainly, it is an exclusive wine, made from low yields and meticulous wine-making. The wines age extremely well, and their limited availability adds to the myth.

the history

In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal. At some stage that was shortened to Vega Sicilia. For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Toribio's son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864.
From one Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.


  In due course Don Eloy went bust and the estate passed to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn't a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of Vega Sicilia's Unico.

The next significant change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a "simple" table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernise and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.

the wines and vineyards

There are three key wines in the Vega Sicilia portfolio that carry the Vega Sicilia name: Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial is the top of the range; a non-vintage reserva blend produced from the best years. Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva is a vintage wine, produced only in good years and released after a minimum of ten years ageing, often much longer. Valbuena is made from younger vines in most years, though in years when Unico is not produced (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2000, 2001), grapes normally destined for Unico will go into Valbuena. It is released only after 5 years' ageing. A lower grade Valbuena, released after 3 years, was discontinued a few years ago.

The estate covers around 1,000 hectares, of which 230 - 250 are under vines. The best vineyards are on north facing slopes, while others are on the alluvial deposits in the valley: in all there are 19 different soil types. The bulk of the vines are now Tempranillo (here called Tinto Fino or Tinto Pais), with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère, and a small amount of Albillo (a local white grape).

In the vineyards, yields are kept low by green harvesting, with each vine producing less than 2 kg of grapes. Harvest at Vega Sicilia is always late - 1st October at the earliest (2003 is the exception, when they started mid September!) – and by hand. They employ a team of around 130 harvesters who pick in several passes through the vineyards. There is another rigorous selection at the winery, and the grapes are carefully de-stemmed. The low yields and careful selection means annual production is only around 25,000 cases, and around 2000 people are on a waiting list for an allocation. Interestingly, buyers are not required to take Alion or Oremus in order to get hold of Vega Sicilia proper - this "bundling" is not uncommon with other "cult" wines.

the winery and winemaking

Two immediate things struck me as I walked round the winery one morning in Summer 2003 with Rafael Alonso, Vega Sicilia's Export Manager: there is a lot of money floating around the place; everything is in perfect order and there are fancy designer light fittings on the walls. The second striking thing is how absolutely pristine and spotless the place is, to the point of obsessiveness.

Perhaps this goes back to the time when the 1994 Valbuena had to be recalled, it is said because of a cork problem. Certainly, everything is done to avoid any possibility of taint: metal is stainless steel throughout, down to the bands on the barrels, shipping palettes, and even the wedges on which the barrels rest (shown right). The wood used for cases is tested to ensure it is chemically inert, and no wine is shipped between June and October, unless in temperature controlled lorries.

The cork testing regime is absolutely rigorous. Their cork suppliers are instructed to send samples, which are independently tested in specialist laboratory in France. Upon delivery, a further double trial is carried out, with further samples being sent for testing. If a cork fails, the whole batch is rejected, with costs charged to the supplier.

 

On average, Rafael Alonso believes that two out of every three corks are rejected. In the vertical tasting I attended subsequently (see below), 81 bottles were opened and none were corked. To me this proves that the Vega Sicilia regime works, and that the cork industry does have the capability to eliminate TCA, if they take the problem seriously enough.

Valbuena and Unico spend several years maturing in oak before release, Valbuena for three and a half years, Unico for at least seven years. Vega Sicilia use a mix of new French oak, and a mix of new and used American oak. Correct "seasoning" of the oak and barrels is another priority here; the smell in the cooperage is amazing: a mixture of a carpentry shop and toasting oak, with a single, taciturn cooper working diligently, resenting our intrusion.

Whilst Valbuena will spend one and a half to two years in bottle before being released, the length of time that Unico is aged in bottle depends on the format: single bottles have at least three years in bottle; magnums and double magnum rather longer.

go to part II- the tasting



  A classicist and ancient historian by training, Andrew graduated with first class honours from King's College London before completing his PhD on Aulus Gellius and Roman Antiquarian Writing. Andrew let's his favourite fridge-magnet sum up his vinous philosophy: "Life is too short to drink bad wine". His other great passion is food and cooking. For this piece, Andrew recounts his visit to the legendary Vega Sicilia estate in Spain, and a massive tasting of their wines held later in London. More at Andrew's web site


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