Bodegas Vega Sicilia
Ribera del Duero
October 21, 2015
The Ribera landscape is virtually desert, dry with red, brown and gray everywhere we looked on an overcast October morning on our way to visit the most revered of wine producers in all of Spain, Bodegas Vega Sicilia. I can imagine the stark green from the leaves in spring and summer must be a beautiful contrasting sight. As we pulled into the awkward entry off of the main road, we took the long drive that was where the railroad used to arrive when this was a fully functioning village in the 1800’s.
After checking in we started things out in the SUV and headed right to the vineyards. We started out in the flatter plots adjacent to the property that stretched to the river containing mostly the Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon in both Unico and Valbuena 5° and additionally Merlot for Valbuena 5°. Malbec was used in the past but was recently ripped out. We also were shown oak and cork trees that, in a few decades, will be harvested for barrel and cork production. Overall the entire property is approximately one thousand hectares, with only 250 under vine divided into 57 distinct plots. Elevation stands at about 750 meters.
We crossed the road to the hillsides where all of the old vine Tempranillo bush vines reside, ranging in age from 50 to 100 years old. These were some of the most beautiful vines I have ever seen. Contorted, knotty and thick, some were the size of a small car. With a perfect slope, the vines were in a reddish brown clay topsoil with gravel and sand, all laid out in a deep bed of calcareous limestone bedrock. As we drove on, we stopped at more plots along the hillsides admiring the view, the vines and the perfect aspect for some of the best, if not the best, site for Tempranillo vines in the world. These older vines from these perfect sites make up the core of Unico Gran Reserva and the Unico Reserva Especial. All of the vines on this side of the road are bush vine and are trimmed down to two shoots maximum per year. At harvest, the crop is usually 1-1.5 kilos per vine, at most 2 kilos per vine. No pesticides or inorganic viticultural methods takes place in the vineyards.
Back at the Bodega, we made our way into the production area. Pristine steel and glass were everywhere the eye could see. The lower floors contained the fermentation tanks of steel and oak that topped off at the second level where grapes come in from the vineyard, are held in a chiller room and then, when ready, patiently sorted, destemmed and pressed to release the first juices from the grapes. Over the next few weeks, the juice will ferment into wine while being treated to gentle pump over and pigeage of the cap that contains the pulp, skins, and seeds. When initial and malolactic fermentations are complete, the Unico wines are racked from the wooden tanks, separating them from the solids left behind. Unico will normally spend 6 years in American and French oak 225L barrels, typically in a higher proportion of American oak. Then Unico will spend about 4 more years in the bottle. Unico Reserva Especial is made up of 2 to 3 vintages only from great years and is aged for longer periods in bottle. In some versions, 6 to 7 vintages can be included, but is still a core of 2 to 3 vintages. Production of each version runs at about 15,000 bottles (1,250 cases).
Valbuena 5° undergoes initial fermentation with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in the same stainless steel tanks. After fermentation, Valbuena 5° is aged for five years between barrel (3 years) and in the bottle (2 years), which is where the 5 comes from in the name. A combination of new and used French and American oak 225L barrels and 20,000L vats age the wine to maturity before bottling.
Speaking of barrels, I have never seen a functioning cooperage but they have one here that was hard at work toasting, flexing, hammering and finishing new oak barrels. Wood is selected and cut down into staves that age outside in the weather for several years before being trimmed and cut into the slats you see that make up the barrel. It’s a long, slow, meticulously skilled process that, until you see it in operation, you can’t fully grasp how important each step of that process is. American oak barrels are made at Vega Sicilia while French oak barrels are purchased from Bordeaux cooperages.
Across the courtyard we made our way to the barrel rooms where the wines age for several years, DOC standards require specific time in barrel in order to use certain regional nomenclature which tells the consumer details about how long the wine was aged in oak. What you have is basically 24-60 months of time spent here in the quiet, cool and dark allowing the wines to sleep and slowly breathe in oxygen so that they develop the right tannic structure. I found it odd that, unlike many other places I have seen wine made, there were no markings on the barrels as to which wine was from which site, what grape, or even a toast level. Preferring to keep the barrels clean in appearance, the wine and barrel details are not tagged with codes as that information is kept elsewhere.
Once the barrel aging time is up, the wines move to bottle and are corked without labels. They are then packed in metal cube cages that are also stored in their own facility that is dark, cool and humid so they can finish out their time aging according to not just DOC required time frames, but Vega Sicilia’s own self- imposed longer aging times. Vega Sicilia will hold wines back for much longer than is required so that the wines are at some kind of drinkability when they make it to the consumer.
Vintages here are not rolled out every year and, in many cases, not in chronological order. If a vintage is poor in quality, forget Reserva Special, the wine will likely be sold off in bulk. Currently, the 2008 is the new release after the 2007 vintage. Prior to that 2004 was released. 2005 and 2006 are still resting in the cellar awaiting their turn for release in the next few years.
Our last stop was a visit to the tasting room that sits in a Japanese styled structure surrounded by a set of Japanese gardens and koi ponds. The owner, Pablo Alvarez, is married to a woman of Japanese descent.
I have tasted Unico about 4 times on other occasions and it is truly a special wine and needs time to settle into its greatness. I have some 2004 in my personal collection that I won’t be trying for at least another 5-10 years. However if you want to see what the style is like, Alion is a great way to do so and still afford your monthly mortgage payment. Another way is to seek out tasting events where the Unico is being poured. The wines we tried at the Bodega were the Alion 2012, Pintia 2008 and the Vega-Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2009. I was a little disappointed we did not taste the Unico but was happy enough to see their vines, one of the most ancient and maybe most revered site for Tempranillo in the world.
TASTING NOTES & WINE DETAILS
95% Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) 3% Cabernet Sauvignon 2% Merlot The color is a red garnet core with an edge of ruby. Elegant notes of red fruits, earth, mushroom and a beam of clean and well-integrated oak. The palate is juicy and fresh with excellent acidity. The tannins while firm are ripe and a medium grain. Similar to the Unico process of production, but is fermented in stainless steel tanks. Typical production for this wine is 180,000 bottles (15,000 cases).
Some of the vineyard sources are at Vega Sicilia, with the rest scattered through the local region. For example, I was told 25 hectares are in Padilla with 40 in Pesquera. The nose and palate show red opulent fruits, licorice, subtle French oak apparent with a spicy seasoning of wood and an underpinning of minerality and freshness from the cooler 2012 vintage. 250-280k bottles are typically produced annually. Fermentation takes place in wooden tanks and then in 225L barrels between 14 and 20 months, depending on the vintage, in new French oak. Aging in bottle is typically at least 15 months.
Plum, blackberry, rich but refined with full grain and ripe tannin that meshes well with the powerful, but not overblown Toro style of wine. Top 3 producer for me in the Toro region. American, French and Hungarian oak barrels are used in the production of Pintia. 70-30 or 60-40 French to American, with Hungarian usually less than 1%. 200k bottles of annual production. A cold maceration is carried out for 5 days prior to fermentation in oak wood vats. The malolactic fermentation is 100% carried out in wood before the maturation in barrels begins.