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Vega Sicilia: Myth and Reality. Part II

by Andrew Stevenson. Photo © Vega Sicilia

go to part I: a profile of the estate

For the tasting in Spain we were joined by Xavier Ausas (shown right), Vega Sicilia's winemaker and now Technical Director. Xavier has worked for Vega Sicilia since 1989, and was responsible for launching Alion. He took over full responsibility from Mariano Garcia, who left to spend more time on his own Mauro project. Two thoughts from Xavier Ausas: “Vega Sicilia starts discretely and finishes hugely.” and “The vine is a good mother: she will try to nourish however many bunches of grapes she produces, unlike other fruits which will always drop their excess fruit”.

The notes that follow combine the tasting held at Valbuena (indicated by V) and at Decanter's Fine Wine Encounter (indicated by D). It is a testament to Vega Sicilia's rigorous cork selection and testing process that none of the 81 bottles opened at the latter was corked.


Oremus Dry Furmint 2001 Mandolas
Whole bunch pressing, fermented in Hungarian oak, then five months' ageing in new Hungarian oak. A creamy nose with peaches and pears. Quite light initially, then fills with creamy stone fruit dominating the palate. Very pleasant wine, with a nice fragrant note. V

Alion 1999
100% tempranillo with 13 months in 100% new French oak casks. Released after two years in bottle. A heavy, prestige bottle embossed with the winery name and crest. Big nose with vanilla and some exotic fruit and a bit of marzipan. Very Bordeaux like in style. Huge tannic structure and also a good acidic backbone. Complex, with nice fruit and an excellent finish. V.
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1998
This was the first vintage for which Xavier Ausas had full responsibility, having joined Vega Sicilia in 1989. It was a difficult harvest (though it does seem that most Vega Sicilia harvests are difficult!), following a lot of summer rain, saved only by some good weather at the end of the ripening season. As is usual at Vega, harvest began in October. The 1998 is the only year when they have used the stalks as well as the fruit, having included around 10%-15% stalks in the brew. 85% tinto fino (i.e. tempranillo), 15% merlot and malbec. A very dark appearance, with plenty of youth evident. Intense black plums on the nose, with a touch of licorice, and some balanced oaking. Nice fruit on the palate, but then massive, very massive tannins. The big meaty fruit still comes through though. A complex, if rather austere wine. D.
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 1999
Although 1999 was looking like a great year, it turned out to be another tough harvest, becoming increasingly renowned for the surge in Marlboro shares as Xavier Ausas chain-smoked himself through the harvest, the hardest he has known. Harvest began fairly normally on 10th October, but lasted only until 14th October when heavy rains put a stop to it. The rains continued until 26th October and harvesting recommenced at the start of November. In the meantime, all the harvesters remained on the payroll, employed on repeated checks on the vines, removing any grapes that displayed any sign of rot and trimming back foliage to keep a good airflow around the grapes that remained. 80% tinto fino, the rest mainly merlot with some malbec. This wine will be released in 2004. The 1999 Valbuena has a lighter appearance, with more youth. On the nose, there is plummy black fruit, especially blackcurrants and an oaky sweetness. The nose is intense and long with great depths, and pleasantly aromatic. I find this quite different and a much lighter style of Valbuena. There is more forward fruit on the palate, neatly balanced by some acid. Still a lot of tannin, but it's already softer and silkier than the 98. A very spicy finish concludes a wine that is showing remarkably well, but I wonder whether it has as much longer term potential as the 98 and particularly the 2000. The 1999 Valbuena was also tasted in May at Vega Sicilia: my notes are entirely consistent. D and V .
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Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2000
Yet another difficult year, though this time the problems were during the growing season rather than at harvest. Two hard frosts at flowering set things off badly and things didn't improve. 45% - 50% of the crop was removed in a green harvest, with the result that yields were very low. I have a note here that says that in 2001 and 2002 the crop was even smaller, down to 6 litres per hectare: I guess that should be 6 hectolitres per hectare, but even that seems extraordinarily low. This wine was bottled in July 2003, and will go on sale in 2005. Back to 85% tempranillo. This has the same apparent level of youth as the 1999, but is much darker and more opaque. The nose shows vanilla, tobacco and lots of dark plummy black fruit. On the palate the immediate impression is of plenty of forward fruit and lots of tannic structure. This is a complex wine, much more so than the 99, and while the 99 had a lighter style all round, the 2000 also has an impressive elegance. Big potential. I have to agree with Xavier Ausas that the 2000 combines the finesse of the 99 with the power of the 98. D

Vega Sicilia Unico 1991
An even, black plum skin colour. Intense leather black fruit on the nose: very aromatic and even a touch portlike. Plenty of oak evident, but well balanced and not at all distracting. Excellent fruit on the palate with a spicy richness. Layer after layer. Great depth with good tannins. Amazing length. Clearly still rather young, but already well balanced. This will be released in 2004. D

Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
This is the current release of Unico, at least in bottles: the larger format bottlings have yet to be released. 80% tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Two years in large oak vats; 16 months in a mix of US and French oak new barrels, 3 years in a mix of new and old barrels, three in used barrels and a final three years back in large oak vats. Slightly more mature than the 1991, but hardly noticeable. Even and dark. A very complex leathery, brambly nose with a certain gaminess and a blackcurrant-chocolately sweetness. Nice use of oak. Very elegant. Light fruit initially complemented by excellent tannins and building in the mouth. Very well balanced and really well integrated. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1989
Fabulous nose. Soft subtle hedgerow fruits with leathery notes, a roast pork meaty smokiness and a touch of spirit. Some fruit initially. Nice elegant structure. Very fine and elegant despite its evident youth. Good tannic structure and excellent balance. Has decades ahead of it. V

Vega Sicilia Unico 1987
A difficult harvest, much interrupted by rain, and consequently a small release. 80% tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot. Excellent colour. Bright and clear appearance, just starting to mature. More blackcurrants on the nose, although the percentage of Cabernet in the blend has gone down. Bit of a thumper. Dark, leathery fruit with hints of cocoa bean. In the mouth, this is big and integrated, full and round. Huge depth and complexity with loads of layers and also huge elegance. Very attractive indeed. Excellent drinking. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1964
A mere 65% tempranillo, with 20% cabernet sauvignon and the remaining 15% coming from a mixture of merlot, malbec and albillo. The last is a white grape, more commonly found in Toro, but often making an appearance in Unico, but usually only making up only about 1% of the total blend. A very light mature colour, like 20 year old tawny port. Lovely nose. Very enticing and attractive. Gorgeous layered fruit. Touch of oxidation, though I don't find it unpleasant. Soft evolved fruit on the palate, wtih little or no reduction. Still a big wine, with lots of structure and huge length. Remarkable, though starting to show its age at the edges. I wonder if it's the lower percentage of tempranillo/tinto fino in this that makes it seem more advanced than its two older sisters, the 1953 and the 1942? D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1953
80% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Coo! A superb mature colour, still with nice depth (more so than the 64). Slight bricking. Very aromatic on the nose with a cedary nuttiness, but still some pretty big fruit showing through. Superb. Elegant. Velvety. So much fruit! Remarkable, nay incredible. D .
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Vega Sicilia Unico 1942
My empty bottle says a mere 12,000 bottles made. 75% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon. Of course it looks fully mature, with an orangey rim, but it's certainly not overly brickish. Some volatile acidity on the nose and I suppose naturally enough a bit of oxidation, but rather interesting with some complex depths and a touch port-like. On the palate, it's difficult to believe this is 61 years old: there is so much life and vitality and there's still plenty of red fruit in there. Soft buttery tannins with a sweetness of fruit to it. I found a touch of spirit on the finish. D .
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Oremus Late Harvest Furmint 1999 (half bottles)
Fermented in stainless steel and aged for months in new oak. 102 g/l residual sugar. Amazing nose: some honey and some very fresh tropical fruit. Very good attack. Very fine balance of sweetness and acidity. Creamy rich, exceptionally fine and elegant. V.
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Oremus 5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu 1995 (50cl)
Fermented for 40 days in stainless steel then 3 years in Hungarian oak casks. 136 g/l residual sugar. Exceptionally elegant nose: quite restrained. A honeyed sweetness. Very full. Just enough acid to keep it fresh. Very exotic flavours with a strong dried apricot backbone. Hedonistic. V.
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So what's the reality of the myth and legend of Vega Sicilia? The usual story: a long history, some very long-lived wines, restricted production, a touch of marketing spin and a huge attention to detail in the winery. “Myth and legend” is going over the top, but I have no doubt that this is one of the top wine producers in the world and with their continuing interest in new ventures like Oremus, Alion and especially Alquiriz, they deserve our attention.

To see all Vega Sicilia wines available from UK stockists click here
To see Rosemary George MW's report on Vega Sicilia click here