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Vega-Sicilia, a sublime Spanish wine!

Vega-Sicilia, a sublime Spanish wine!

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2007-09-15

Considered a national treasure in the same way as the Prado Museum in Madrid or the Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona, the Vega-Sicilia estate produces, in the outback of Old Castile, one of the world's most prestigious wines: Vega-Sicilia Único...By appointment, you can visit this estate that makes event the most renowned French chateaux pale with envy at its splendour and professionalism

A monument of Old Castile
Served at the table of King Juan Carlos ever since he came to the throne, Vega-Sicilia wines are the very embodiment of a certain idea of Spain. Uncompromising, dark and distinguished like Vélasquez portraits, these wines aged for 10 years before being sold are among the world's most civilised.
Unlike many French chateaux closed to the public, Vega-Sicilia makes it a point of honour to receive anyone asking to visit. So don't hesitate to make an appointment for a guided tour:  the estate's technical director, Xavier Ausàs López de Castro, will let you into the secrets of one of the finest masterpieces of the history of wine: Vega-Sicilia Único!
Origin of a legend
The history of Vega-Sicilia began a century and a half ago when an excentric vine grower from the Rioja region, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, decided to draw inspiration from great Bordeaux wines and break with the tradition of powerful, heavy and oxidised Spanish wines.  In 1864, he therefore bought some of the best land in Castile, located at an altitude of 700 metres above the 'golden' river, the Duero (which reaches the sea at Oporto under the name of the Douro), and planted Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Malbec vine varieties from the Bordeaux region (i.e. 40% of the whole of the vine varieties of the vineyard).
To these 'civilised' vine varieties generating finesse and balance, he didn't forget to add the sublime Tempranillo (also called 'tinto fino' or 'tinta del pais' depending on the regions) that grows successfully on the poor, clayey soils of Ribera del Duero.
This extraordinary vine variety, which ripens slowly while keeping an acidity rate that is rare in Spain, indeed develops in good years an intense fruitiness and a fine tannic structure: 'The world's finest vine variety to my mind' says Xavier Ausàs López de Castro with a smile...
Vine growing respectful of the environment
Subject to blistering summers and harsh winters, the Vega-Sicilia vines, partly a century old, produce very few grapes (approximately 20 hectolitres per hectare) and are worked organically, without weeding and with exclusively organic manure. Vega-Sicilia was moreover one of the world's first estates to adopt sustainable development. Everything here has been thought out with the long term in mind: for instance the current owners (the Álvarez family) have planted forests of cork oaks and olive trees on the hills surrounding the vineyard to create a protective and regenerating ecosystem.
A world-unique ageing method
Since the outset, the Vega-Sicilia estate has always taken pains to seek perfection in all respects. As everyone knows this involves attention to details. When there are bad years, two or three times a  decade, the grapes are not picked! When the harvest is sound, the long process leading to 'Único' is well and truly astounding.
To fully realise this, you must enter with Xavier the inner sanctum composed of the ageing cellars whose brick vaults and walls are decorated here and there with strange golden dishes that softly reflect the light... It is here, for 7 or 8 years, that the wines from the estate's oldest vines age: first in new barrels assembled on the spot in the cooperage, then in old barrels from France.
Everywhere else, this method would make the wines undrinkable  as they would be dried out and too woody!  Here, the specific nature of the Tempranillo, its acidity and its tannins, allow the wine to absorb the wood harmoniously. 'Powerful' in its youth, then 'chiselled' according to an ageing process taking the characteristics of each vintage* into account, the wine is then kept bottled for a further 2 to 3 years before being sold: therefore Vega-Sicilia Único 1998 will not be available till 2008!
Five different wines, but which all bear the 'Vega-Sicilia' signature
To taste Vega-Sicilia wines is a privilege. To fully understand the style of this institution, Xavier kindly took us to the restaurant of the Hotel Fuente de la Aceña, a former water mill in the village of Quintanilla de Onesimo. Although delicious, the menu was necessarily overshadowed by the beauty of the wines tasted...
The first Vega-Sicilia wine is Pintia from Toro. This 100% Tempranillo aged for 13 months in new barrels has wonderful purity of fruit and silky tannins, which is not generally current in Toro where the wines are generally considered rustic: 'It's a domesticated Toro', jokes Xavier. The 2005 is a fine full-bodied wine, reasonably priced at 23 euros a bottle at Corte Inglés stores.
The property's second wine is Alión which we tasted in the 2004 vintage. Silkier than Pintia, it already expresses all the greatness of Ribera del Duero with intense aromas of red fruits and balsamic notes. Launched for the first time in 1995 (resulting from the 1991 harvest), Alión  is  produced and aged in an ultramodern wine cellar located just over a mile from the historic bodega.  Production is industrial (350,000 bottles a year) but the quality remains exceptional. This is one of the most listed wines in gastronomic restaurants in Spain. 35 euros a bottle.
Resulting from a specific blending (85% Tempranillo, 8% Merlot and 7% Malbec), Valbuena is, for its part, aged for 5 years in barrels. This fine wine is impressive by its freshness, aromatic complexity and suave and melted tannins.
'The 2003 results from low yields harvested at maturity: the fruit literally explodes' Xavier tells us. Some even prefer it to Unico... Accessibly priced at  50 euros.
Lastly, comes Único . really unique by its intensity, the harmony of its body and the elegance of its bouquet! The 1998 which we were lucky enough to taste is nearing the end of its 4-year ageing in bottles. It's a feminine ruby coloured wine with tannins that are still edgy, but what freshness and what elegance!
In actual fact, Vega-Sicilia Únicos are 'monsters' produced to last a century. You should therefore try to drink old vintages like the 1961, the 1970, the 1974, the 1978, the 1985 or even the 1990 which mix intense fruit with spices and notes of tobacco.
A festive wine in Spain served on major occasions!  Nonconforming, it is also a complex wine that may disconcert those who  know only about 'modern' wines that immediately flatter the palate. Expect to pay 150 euros a bottle in Spain. 
Still even rarer is the Special Reserve which is a blend of several great years, like 1990, 1991 and 1996. A curiosity reserved for faithful clients!
A faithful and select clientele
In Spain, a few thousand clients (mostly private individuals) share most of the 200,000 to 240,000 bottles produced each year of Valbuena and Único together, a very select club dating to the beginning of the 20th century. If you're not one of the select few, you can find these wines at Corte Inglés stores in big cities. Outside Spain, they are twice as dear!
Our advice: at Tordessillas, the traditional restaurant El Torreón proposes several different vintages of Vega-Sicilia Único at the interesting price of 150 euors a bottle. An excellent address to have a good time with friends. 
*For instance the 1974 has aged 6 years in a vat, then 2 years in 'half young' oak barrels, and a further 2 years in old oak. A series of tastings are held over time to allow the technical team to determine the best adapted ageing method, changing it as required.

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