VEGA SICILIA | Ribera del Duero, Spain - May 3rd, 2017
posted on 18/07/2017

It is bordered by France, Portugal, Gibraltar and Morocco. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It speaks seven languages, hosts 46 million inhabitants and countless tourists, is Seat's birthplace, has a long literary heritage, siesta and football culture, it is dancing flamenco, drinking wine and eating tapas. It is Spain!

 

Part of the vineyard of the historic Bodegas Vega Sicilia

 

Focusing on wine, although the most well-known red wine appellation of the country is Rioja in the Basque country in the north, however it's mass production and distribution gives Ribera del Duero to the south near Valladolid the red wine throne of Spain. Legendary producers of the wine world such as Vega Sicilia and Dominio de Pingus belong in Ribera del Duero and I feel very lucky as I visited them both. Valladolid, a relaxed city with a long history, has been an ideal base for an enjoyable wine exploration!

 

Bodegas Vega Sicilia in the heart of Castilla y León is located in northern Spain, at about the same latitude as Barcelona, Rome and Orestiada.

 

 

Arriving at the Estate...

 

...outside the family mansion

 

VEGA SICILIA


The standards were set very high from the beginning, since the first winery I visited was Vega Sicilia, perhaps the most prestigious Spanish producer with a history dating back to 1864. Here, legendary wines Unico and Valbuena are produced, while excellent Alion is been made at a nearby winery and Pintia in the neighboring Toro. The history, myth and quality of these wines are directly reflected in the prices the market has decided to pay for them and are counted at hundreds of euros per bottle, at least for Unico and Valbuena 5o. Since 1982, the winery has been owned by the Álvarez family, a member of Primum Familiae Vini (PFV), the association of the most famous and important wine producing families from France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

 

The first dot shows the N-122 road linking the area to Valladolid. From that point towards the hills to the left are 150 hectares (~ 1,500 acres) of vineyards with stone and chalk soils destined for Unico. On either sides of the winery (marked with two dots) are 50 hectares (~500 acres) intended for Alion, with limestone soils and sand and alluvial deposits further down. Duero River is marked with three dots and the winery’s oaks and cork trees with four dots.

 

It took me thirty-five minutes to drive from the center of Valladolid to the winery's gate. After the relevant formalities I passed to the courtyard of the impressive estate. The vineyard manager welcomed me and suggested we started from visiting their privately owned vineyards. The day was very warm so I was quite surprised to hear that two days ago Ribera and other areas of northern Spain (Rioja, Toro) faced serious frost damage. Within a few hours, production declined by 30%. The area’s continental climate (away from sea masses) creates conditions of intense heat abruptly altered with intense cold.

 

 

Visiting the Unico vineyard

 

Tinto Fino is exclusively planted in bush-trained vines

 

Ribera del Duero has no sea, only a sea of vines

 

We visited Unico's vineyard with chalk soils at the highest point of the hill up to the sandy slopes lower, used for Alion. We reached the well-known -but in fact quite narrow- Duero River, as well as the oak and cork tree fields of the winery, in land less suitable for growing vineyards. Besides, the winery believes in vertically integrated management and -if the experiment succeeds- it will produce corks for both its own wines and for trade in the future.

 

 

One of the outdoor heaters in the Unico vineyard

 

Fermentation tanks in the impressive winery

 

2001 was the year with the biggest frost disasters resulting in losing the entire production of Unico. This is why eight years ago the Company installed heaters into the vineyard that automatically start operating when the sensor detects a certain low temperature. The heat is distributed to the vineyards with the help of a large helix. This method is very useful at marginally low temperatures, although in more severe frosts it cannot prevent damage.

 

After a long car ride, we returned to the winery where we visited all rooms of the new winery which was completed in 2010, coinciding with Vega Sicilia's 150th anniversary celebrations.

 

 

The entrance to the brand new winery

 

The Valbuena 5o fermentation tanks. Unico is crafted in a completely separate room, in open-top oak fermenters.

 

 

Elevator for the transfer of wine to the barrel cellar without pumps

 

A small part of the labyrinthine cellar

 

 

Adhering the importer’s sticker for an export to Paraguay. The wines are exported to 108 countries in total.

 

All wines are exclusively packed in wooden cases

 

 

American oak ready for processing and barrel-making

 

Vega Sicilia produces 1.200 barrels of American oak annually! However, they buy ready French barrels as their wood is not so easy to process.

 

 

Band saw that cuts the wood

 

The first straps are placed into the barrels and the fire in the middle heats the wood making it flexible so it closes on the other side too

 

After a stunning tour, we ended up in the family mansion where a wine tasting of three wines took place.

 

Pintia 2012 (100% Tinta de Toro *) - We started sampling the less expensive Pintia, produced since 1997 in a separate winery in the neighboring Toro DO. Highly concentrated, New-World nose of black fruits, black cherries, licorice, forest fruits, black berries, sour cherries, a little plum, mineral notes, vanilla, hazelnuts and milk chocolate. Moderate acidity, high but sweet and mature tannins, high alcohol (14.2%), full body and a long aftertaste. Emphasis is on fruit and power rather than refinement, unlike Ribera del Duero. The wine is cultivated in 100 hectares with quartz and sandy dominating soils, about equal in proportion. In the sandy soils the vines are 70-100 years old and have not been infected by phylloxera.


Approximate retail price: € 35-50 // Annual production: 250.000 bottles

 

*Tempranillo clone

 

 

We are ready for the tasting!

 

This is how an unforgettable tour ends

 

Tasting three fine wines of Vega Sicilia: Pintia 2012 (Toro), Alion 2013 and Valbuena 5o 2012 (Ribera del Duero)


Alion 2013 (100% Tinto Fino **) – Next wine is Alion from Ribera del Duero, from the homonymous winery built by the family in 1991 near Vega Sicilia. The raw material comes 70% from private vineyards and 30% is purchased. A much nicer and feminine nose with aromas reminiscent of red and black cherries, berries, blackcurrants, violets and minerals, pencil shavings, leather, cigar box and some oak notes. A real ethereal power! On the palate high acidity, high but fine tannins, high alcohol (14%) and full body. The wine roars in the mouth! It is still a baby, although it already delivers finesse, courtesy and balance.

 

Approximate retail price: € 50-70 // Annual production: 200.000 bottles

 

** Tempranillo name in Castilla y León

 

 

Collection of Unico bottles from the 1960s

 

The beautiful lounge of the mansion


Valbuena 5o 2012 (100% Tinto Fino) –Merlot used to be a minority complement to the blend but in 2012 there was no Merlot at all; we tasted a varietal Tempranillo from 100% estate grown grapes. Red fruit aromas coexist with Mediterranean herbs, dried fruits (figs, plums), roasted nuts and fruit soaked into alcohol, along with oak and smoke notes. Impressive and complex nose. The palate is the best of all wines tasted, with a much more rounded mouth, excellent balance and exemplary incorporation of fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol (14%). Silky, soft tannins and more fruit in the palate.


Approximate retail price: € 100-130 // Annual production: 180.000 bottles


Unfortunately Unico with a retail price of approximately € 300-400 and annual production reaching 80.000 bottles has not been tested at all. Very rare is also a wine available only to collectors: Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial, a blend of Unico of different crops, aged for at least a decade.

 

Shortly before I left the premises of the historical producer

 

Visiting Vega Sicilia was a unique wine adventure that every wine-lover deserves to experience. I hope the historical winery’s wine masterpieces are poured more often into my glass and to have even more reasons to enjoy them!

 

Gregory Kontos, DipWSET


Wine writer and taster, sommelier graduate and WSET Diploma holder, with an appreciation for food, traveling, music, friends and bon vivant things in general. Co-partner at Aegean Food Exports and founder of Aegean Wine Selections, a Company focused in Greek wine exports. He is married to Stavroula Mariamou and they have a son. 

 

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