The First Growth of Spain
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. 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 late 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 they now use, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (for Valbuena). 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 able to be harvested for their own barrel and cork production. Overall the entire property is a thousand hectares, with only 250 under vine divided into 57 plots. Elevation stands at about 750 meters.
We then crossed the road to the hillsides where all of the old vine Tempranillo bush vines reside that ranged in age from 50 up 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 of some of the greatest Tempranillo vines in the world. So it goes without saying but I will do so anyway, this is where most of the grapes for Unico and Unico NV come from when they declare an Unico vintage. 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.
Back at the bodega, we made our way into the production area. Pristine steel and glass where everywhere the eye could see. The lower floors contained the fermentation tanks of steel and oak that topped off at the second level where the grapes come in from the vineyard, are held in a chiller room and then when ready patiently sorted, destemmed and then pressed to release the first juices from the grapes into said tanks. 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 complete, the wines are racked from the tanks, separating them from the solids left behind. In barrel the wines age from 24 to 60 months depending on which wine is being made.
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 surface of a barrel. It’s a long, slow, meticulously skilled process that once you see it in operation you can’t fully grasp how important each step of that process is.
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 unlike many other places I have seen wine made that there was no markings on the barrels as to which wine was from which site, what grape, or even a toast level.
Once the barrel aging time is up, the wines move to bottle and are corked without labels and 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 won’t likely be made to make any Vega Sicilia and be sold off in bulk. Currently, the 2008 is the new release after 2007. 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.
We made our way to the tasting room that sits in a Japanese styled structure surrounded by a set of beautiful Japanese gardens and koi ponds. 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 several bottles in my personal collection, but I won’t be trying them 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 2009. I was a little disappointed we did not taste the Unico, but was happy enough to see their vines, maybe the most ancient and revered site for Tempranillo in the world.