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Vega Sicilia

2011 April 27
by Mike

One of the perks of being a wine-stained wretch is that I get to attend fun tastings from time to time, and one of the nice things about having a blog is that I finally have a place in which to post notes from those events. These are notes from a Vega Sicilia dinner hosted by Sotheby’s in October 2009. Sotheby’s was selling a cache of wines sourced directly from this fabled Spanish estate, located in the Ribera del Duero region about two hours north of Madrid. The event was held at the Sotheby’s headquarters in Manhattan, and around 50 people attended—mostly collectors, plus me and a few other hacks. Pablo Álvarez, Vega Sicilia’s general director, was there, as was Serena Sutcliffe, who heads the Sotheby’s wine department. She and her colleagues were clearly thrilled to have received the consignment, and they put on a terrific dinner featuring some outstanding bottles. Eight wines were served, and there was not a limón in the bunch.

The highlight of the tasting was four vintages of the Vega Sicilia Unico—1991, 1981, 1970, and 1966. Sometimes called the Château Lafite of Spain, the Unico is the country’s most celebrated wine. According to the Vega Sicilia website, it was first produced in 1918. For many years, it was a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec. The last two grapes are apparently no longer used for the Unico; recent vintages have been around 90 percent tempranillo, 10 percent cab. The Unico is not released until it is at least a decade old; these days, it typically spends 6-7 years in barrel (some old, some new), and is then aged for another 3-4 years in bottle before being shipped. Incredibly, the 1970 was held back for 26 years! Clearly, carrying costs are not a problem for Vega Sicilia, which has 250 hectares under vine. The grapes used for the Unico come from vines with an average age of 60 years, and around 8000 cases are produced in a vintage.

The evening’s marquee attraction was the 1970, considered by some to be the greatest Unico ever made. The 70 was sensational, but there was a slight dent in the Bentley—the wine was dried out on the finish. Although provenance was clearly not an issue, I have to assume it was a case of bottle variation, because other people seem to be having no problems with the 70.  While the 70 didn’t quite live up to its exalted reputation, the 81 Unico was a knockout. A blend of 65 percent tempranillo, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 10 percent merlot and malbec (not sure the exact percentages of each), the 81 was my wine of the night: it had power, elegance, and above all, that almost Zen-like completeness that you find in truly great wines. But as I said, all of the wines were excellent, and relative to other blue chips, the Unico is a good buy (it ain’t cheap and I’m not buying, but compared to the Bordeaux First Growths and the most sought-after red Burgundies, it is attractively priced).

Anyway, the notes:

Pintia 2004: This is 100 percent tinta de toro (a thick-skinned clone of tempranillo) from a winery that Vega Sicilia established in the Toro region of Spain in 1997. The first commercial vintage of the Pintia was 2001. The 2004 is a full-bodied wine, loaded with ripe, fleshy black fruit. It has excellent concentration and structure, and while it shows a lot of oak (it was aged in 70 percent new French oak, 30 percent new American), it carries the wood reasonably well. A slight medicinal flavor across the backend, which doesn’t thrill me, but overall, a suave and enjoyable wine. A-.

Alion 2001: Bodegas Alion is a Ribera del Duero estate that Vega Sicilia established in 1991. The all-tempranillo Alion is aged in 100 percent new French oak and is considered Vega Sicilia’s alta expresión wine—its modernist rendering. The grapes are sourced from Alion’s own vineyard and from the Vega Sicilia property. A big blast of pipe smoke, black currant, and flowers hits the nose. The palate is loaded with sweet blackcurrant fruit, topped by mineral, herb, and oak notes. The tannins are huge and a bit dry, but there is some restraint and elegance here; I’m not a fan of most alta expresión wines—I’m a paid-up member of the anti-flavor elite—but this is one I’d be happy to drink. A-.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena No. 5 1998: The Valbuena is Vega Sicilia’s second wine, after the Unico, and is comprised of tempranillo, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. It is aged for five years before release (hence the “No. 5” in the name)—three in barrel, two in bottle. The 98 has a sensational bouquet redolent of cherries, tobacco, leather, spice, and flowers. A succulent, almost chewy wine, with terrific density and warmth. The merlot adds fleshiness. Big ripe tannins, low acidity, and a lick of vanilla on the backend rounds out a very satisfying wine. A-.

Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial 2009: The Reserva Especial is a unique wine; it is a blend of three different vintages of the Unico. The 2009 Reserva Especial is comprised of the 1996, 1994, and 1990 Unicos. It serves up a huge blast of tobacco, along with notes of black currant, leather, vanilla, flowers, menthol, and some raw meat. A chewy, spicy, mouth-filling red, but with great poise to it. The tannins are slightly obtrusive, and the wine loses a little steam on the licorice-inflected finish. Overall, though, a superb wine. A.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1991: A sensational perfume, with a riot of aromas—black currant, menthol, tobacco, leather, herbs, and a nice, complicating whiff of brett. A rich, warm, spicy, wonderfully poised Unico that unfurls beautifully across the palate. Superb concentration and complexity, with a nice mineral edge. Finishes with bracingly dry, monster-truck tannins, the only blemish in an otherwise impressive effort. A.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1981: One whiff tells the story—this is a beauty. Here, too, a kaleidoscopic array of aromas, including cherry jam, coffee, leather, black pepper, herbs, game, menthol, and licorice. A bit of merde on the nose, too, but it’s good shit. A rich but sinewy wine, with excellent minerality and structure to parry the exuberant fruit. Amazing composure. It is a wine that has freshness, that offers power and elegance in equal measure, and that closes with a soaring, endless finish. Great. A+.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1970: Another gorgeously perfumed Unico, with scents of black currant, leather, tobacco, menthol, herbs, and licorice, along with a Graves-like scorched earth note. Decadently flavored, showing lots of black currant, leather, and spice on the palate. This, too, combines enormous thrust with great elegance. Unfortunately, it flags a bit on the finish, where an over-the-hill dryness creeps in. All in all, a wonderful wine, but I’d love to try it again to see if our bottle was indeed just a touch off. A.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1966: Bringing da funk with this one—a fabulously kinky nose, marked by chocolate, cherry, mint, leather, honey, and dried flower notes, along with some volatile acidity. It is a slightly sweet, sumptuous wine that, like the other Unicos, shows terrific harmoniousness (these are all such graceful wines). This one is a bit past its sell-by date—it shows its age on the backend, where it dries out and fades. A delicious bottle nonetheless, and a privilege to experience it. A.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2011

    Thanks, Victor. We tend to forget that for some of the world’s acclaimed estates, financial stability is a very recent development. I did a story about DRC, and was stunned to learn from Aubert that the domaine never turned a profit until the early 1970s.

    I’ve never tried the 42 or 53 Unico (or the 68, for that matter)–they are now on my to-do list!

  2. May 4, 2011

    Mike, you’re correct: the Álvarez family took over in 1982. Under an absentee Venezuelan ownership, the winery was foundering, as Mariano García (the winemaker there between 1968 and 1997) once told me: no money to buy any barrels or to make simple repairs. Unbelievable today, but true. I think what was ‘modern’ was basically some improvement in the equipment, and finally some new barrels. García was aware that exposure to much new wood was risky, so with better barrels (some, from American oak, coopered right there; the French ones imported, of course) the total time in oak was cut from some eight to about five years, which basically preserved the character of the wine because, in addition, they have a strict program: Único spends only a few months in 100% new oak, then it’s moved to progressively older barrels and may also spend some time in the big oak vats.

    The 1970, to me one of the three greatest Únicos with 1942 and 1953 (BTW, Bill – that doesn’t mean the 1968 wasn’t great, as were those other fine 1960s wines like ’62 and ’64!) spent about a decade in large 20,000-liter vats simply because they had NO barrels to put it in! Mariano believes this practically arrested its development during that time, making the wine (from a very exceptional vintage which gave perfect grapes) practically a decade younger than the vintage which appears on the label…

  3. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 4, 2011

    Dude! Although not represented at this particular tasting, if the 1970 is in the all-time great category, what is the 1968 Vega, chopped liver?

  4. May 3, 2011

    Hi Victor,

    Great to hear from you. Wasn’t the 81 the last Unico produced under the ancien regime? If memory serves, the Alvarez family took over the following year. At any rate, I thought it was a sensational wine. Per your comment, I will have to try the 2000.

    That’s no surprise re the Pintia; I thought it was quite impressive. Every wine we had that night was excellent. It was an exceptional tasting.


  5. May 2, 2011

    Nice memories, Mike! Some of us consider 1981 the last of the very fine ‘classic’ Únicos, and 1985 the first of the very fine ‘modern’ ones – with a little less time in barrel, a little more fruit concentration. But when the good ones age, they all turn out to be classic Únicos. Some recent notes: the 2000 vintage has all that it takes to become one of those classics, and the markedly elegant 2008 Pintia tied with the very good 2008 Termanthia (the first LVMH vintage) atop our most recent (blind) Toro tasting. What’s remarkable is that Pintia is a $40 wine, and Termanthia $220…

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