Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its Own Against Bordeaux Wines

Vega Sicila Winery
The Vega Sicilia winery, located in the northern region of Spain called Ribero Duero. Source: Vega Sicilia via Bloomberg

Twenty years ago few wine lovers outside Spain ever talked about the country’s wines, with one exception: Vega Sicilia, long considered one of the greatest red wines in the world by connoisseurs who rank it alongside France’s Premier Cru Bordeaux.

Vega Sicilia has been produced in the Ribera del Duero region of northern Spain for almost 150 years, primarily from tempranillo grapes, usually blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec.

The name is something of a mystery but has nothing to do with the island of Sicily. Many believe it refers to Saint Cecilia, revered in this part of Spain. The winery was founded by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves in 1864, who brought French varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to the region.

Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape that ripens early (the word temprano means “early”) and has power and concentration with alcohol levels between 13.5 and 14 percent.

The history of Vega Sicilia under various owners has had its ups and downs, but since being purchased by the Alvarez family in 1982, its eminence has been assured.

On Feb. 25 general manager Pablo Alvarez showcased a rare tasting of Vega Sicilia wines to the media and buyers at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. (The U.S. is the wine’s number one export market.)

Precipitous Drop

Alvarez outlined the challenges of wine making, noting that the temperature in the vineyards can hit 105 degrees during the day, then fall 30 degrees at night. In 2001 a frost killed off the vineyard’s entire crop of grapes.

If the old wisdom is true that grapes must suffer to produce great wine, then Vega Sicilia overcomes hardships with admiral grace. “Our entire philosophy is to make a wine of great elegance,” said Alvarez.

At the tasting of six wines, this philosophy was borne out by silky, luscious wines with depth and vitality, even in old vintages. The wine takes its time to mature and continues to do so for decades, which is why the producer does not release vintages for at least 10 years.

The exception to this is their lighter, leaner Valbuena 5 degrees, produced from somewhat younger vineyards and composed of tempranillo, merlot, and cabernet. The 2008 vintage I tasted was amazing for its depth and brightness, benefiting from a year of aging in new oak barrels, three months in older barrels, and six months in large oak vats. It is just being released this year and should retail for $160 a bottle.

Huge Bouquet

A 1998 Valbuena 5 degrees has been in the market for a decade and is no longer easy to find, but I located bottles on line at about $140. The wine has a huge bouquet with enormous, but not plumy, fruit, long legs and a robust character amazing for a 15-year-old “lighter” wine.

We then tasted the Vega Sicilia Unico, a Gran Reserva made from the vineyards oldest vines and sometimes not produced at all if the vintage is deemed unworthy of the label.

The oldest we tasted, a 1981 magnum, revealed a slightly musty nose at first, but it blew off after a few minutes to reveal a wine still taut, not yet giving up its dimensional complexity.

Its composition was 87 percent tempranillo and 13 percent cabernet. Released in 1998, it may still be found in magnum at $1000 to $1200, while the 50ml bottles available run between $300 and $550.

Tempranillo Bite

The 1994 vintage had more cabernet and merlot added to 80 percent tempranillo, and there was still plenty of grip and tannin, with a true tempranillo bite and a very dry finish. You can find it for about $500.

The youngster of the bunch was a 2004 vintage, with 87 percent tempranillo. It’s a very powerful wine though right now a little out of balance in its fruit, acid and tannins, a little jammy. But time will smooth it all out, maybe by next year when it is released.

The last wine is Vega Sicilia Unico signature Reserva Especial, a non-vintage blend of three wines from vintages that might date back decades. It is an artisanal, handcrafted wine, strictly allocated.

The wine I tasted was made in 2009 from 1990, 1994, and 1996 vintages, and it showed a magnificent complexity, with a very pretty nose, plenty of strawberry-like fruit, impeccable structure throughout, and a thickness of texture whose power was sheathed in a velvet glove. It sells for about $500.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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