Winery Profile: Vega-Sicilia

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vega-sicilia-logoVega-Sicilia is Spain’s icon winery, and is situated in Ribera del Duero. It’s vaunted history began in 1864, and has since seen four different owners. The current owner, Pablo Alvarez, is constantly escorted by bodyguards since the winery’s icon status makes it a target for Basque separatist groups. That’s not the sort of fact you hear about a winery very often.

Alvarez sums up his philosophy: “Quality is what we strive for, in every wine we have developed, or will develop in the future. We do believe in quality above all, above trends, above uniformity. We believe in the personality of different wines made all over the world; if the personality disappears, the wine world will disappear as well.” Part of this philosophy includes an obsessive attention to the life of the vineyards, which are essentially organic, although Alvarez has no interest in getting certification.

One of the craziest practices involves re-planting the vineyard once the vines hit around 60 years of age, letting the land lie fallow for five years, replanting, and then waiting 9-11 years before making any wine from those vines. Alvarez explains that this process is important because after a certain age vines lose their talents. He compares them to humans and says “would your 100 year old grandmother have the same capabilities as when she was 40?”

Furthermore, there are 19 different soil types on the Vega-Sicilia lands, on which four varieties are planted: tempranillo (being the most dominant), malbec, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. There are 2200 vines planted per hectare, which is very very low. Interestingly, though, Vega-Sicilia does not push for extremely low yields because that can over-concentrate the flavours and cause the resulting wine to lose complexity. Also interestingly, the vineyards see 100 days below 0 degree celsius, which is a surprising amount of winter time stress for the vines.

Vega-Sicilia owns four properties: the eponymous and famous Vega-Sicilia, the second, more modern styled Ribera del Deuro project Alion, the new Toro project Pintia, and the Hungarian Tokaji winery Oremus. They put the same effort and standard of care into each of these wineries. I tasted through wines from all of these estates in a decadant flight, hosted by Anthony Gismondi here in Vancouver.

pintiaPintia 2005: I tasted the 2003 vintage of this wine with Sean a few weeks ago, which was a stunning bottle. The 2005 is just as good, although it was showing its extreme youth at the tasting. The vines for Pintia are now 25-40 years old and the wine pours very dark and extracted looking. This sees 100% new oak treatment and is made from 100% tempranillo. The nose was a bit closed, another sign of its youth, but shows chocolate, blue and black fruit and heavy extract. The palate was still very tannic, but, like the 2003, had some herbal punch up front with thyme and sage notes, and a bunch of earth on the back end. This is a superb wine, with good blueberry, black cherry and blackberry fruit and a massive structure. It needs tons of age. Excellent. $70 at BCLDB and Everything Wine.

alionAlion 2004: I have previously tasted the 2002 Alion, which was nothing at all like this superb vintage. Alvarez says this is “made in a style with less shouty oak” than the Pintia, and it shows. A more supple and elegant wine, the nose on this was smoother and softer than the Pintia, with blue and red fruit, and some pepper and spice. I found the nose still closed, but promising a lot. The palate was very elegant and refined, with far less power than the pintia, while still being a big wine with a boat-load of flavour. There is a lot less fruit here, though, with plenty of herbs, smoke, cigar, and leather. This has great length and structure. I think the 2004 is a must buy wine for the cellar for anyone at all into Spanish wine. Excellent to Excellent+. $85 at Everything Wine and BCLDB.

Vega-Sicilia Valbuena 2003: The first of the grand daddy, and insanely expensive, wines from the eponymous estate, the Valbuena, according to Alvarez, is emphatically NOT a second wine. I can certainly attest to that claim after giving this incredibly unique wine a healthy sniff and sip. This wine is made with 90% tempranillo, about 9% merlot, and a smidgen of malbec. Released after 5 years of bottle age, as Gismondi mentioned, the tannins in this wine are surprisingly supple for the level of flavour, which shows the uniqueness of tempranillo versus cabernet sauvignon. The colour is a rich dark and slightly browning red. The nose was insane: raisins, chocolate, smoke, red-cherry, sweet plum and fig and an incredible dose of layers of flowers. This was insanely expressive at the tasting. The palate was also brilliant, although it had very high acid. I found dry earth, sour cherry, crushed blackberry, underbrush, roots and licorice. This is very very long and smooth and has a freshness uncommon for a wine so big. This is made in a completely different style from both Pintia and Alion, and is certainly showing the old-school traditionalist love. Alvarez considers this a 20 year wine, and with the acidity levels I noticed, I can believe this claim. Excellent to Excellent+. $250 at Everything Wine and BCLDB.

unico-1998Unico 1998: Unico is probably the most legendary wine of Spain. I have been wanting to taste this icon ever since I got into wine, and never thought I’d ever have the chance. Unlike a California icon wine, this wine has over one hundred years of tradition behind it, and while techniques have modernized, the style has stayed very traditional, which is part of what gives this wine its uniqueness. Alvarez uses some crazy techniques to make this wine, transfering it from new oak and back to old oak over and over again over a period of two years. Pouring a dark red, this was still youthful looking, even though it had 11 years of bottle age. The nose had lots of earth and herbs, some cherry fruit, but was also very meaty and leathery. This was almost like drinking a saddle: leather, rich earth, with dense plum and fig notes, the fruit is secondary to the leather and meat. The tannins are still firm, but the acidity is less volatile than the Valbeuna, perhaps due to the extra bottle age. While this was a singular wine, I don’t think it was showing perfectly well at the tasting, and perhaps needed more bottle age. So, while I was happy to taste it, I can’t say, based on what I tasted, that this is worth the money. That said, this is certainly a wine that will change dramatically with time, and I think its icon status is well deserved given its sheer uniqueness, its impressive structure, and its clear adherence to tradition. Excellent. $380 at Everything Wine and BCLDB.

I also had the chance to taste three wines from Vega-Sicilia’s Tokaji estate Oremus, which was a pretty fun experience for this Tokaji newby.

Tokaji Oremus Dry Furmint “Mandolas” 2005: Made dry with the furmint grape, this was oaked heavily in Hungarian oak, as is the tradition. There was perhaps a bit too much oak overwhelming the fruit, but this wine was also fresh and acidic and had a nice finish. The nose had nuts, some rubber/sulpher reduction, orchard fruits such as peach, and vanilla. The palate was quite robust, with nuts, peach, cream, but a dry finish of candied apricot. Sort of like a combination of riesling and chardonnay, this was pretty fun, and I think a lot of people would enjoy it. If they toned down the oak, this could be killer. Very Good+. $30 at Everything Wine and BCLDB.

oremusTokaji Oremus late Harvest 2004: The basic dessert wine, this was lighter and more acidic than I was expecting, but I enjoyed that aspect of it tremendously. With a nose of fig, grapefruit, and citrus candy, I loved the freshness here. The palate, again, had lovely acidity and lightness with apricot, fig and tons of dried fruit leather notes. This is not as layered as a Sauternes (although also made via Botrytis), but you can actually drink a lot more of this because of its lower sugar and high acidity levels. I think this would be a great wine for those who find dessert wines to be too syrupy and viscous. You can actually finish a bottle of this without a sugar headache. Very Good+ to Excellent. $34/375ml at Everything Wine.

Tokaji Oremus 5 Puttonyos 2000: This is a famous Tokaji dessert wine, and it certainly was rich, dense and flavourful. It still had a lot of rubber on the nose, though, which Gismondi called “shower curtain” and “beach ball”. The palate was all apricot and papaya in a thick viscous dried fruit cocktail. I thought this was very good, but also overpriced for the quality. Very Good+. $97/500ml at Everything Wine.

What did I learn from this tasting? Vega-Sicilia rocks, and traditional Rioja lovers will find a lot to love in their two top wines, which represent a traditional style for Ribera del Duero – one that is getting displaced by ‘Parkerized’ fruit and oak monsters. For those looking for a more modern approach, Pintia will deliver with massive fruit and earthy herbs, while Alion provides a beautifully elegant wine bridging the gap between tradition and modernity. I highly recommend both. All of the red wines were singular, expressive, and utterly unique, and a sign of the kind of wine making and care that I wish we would see more often at the lower end of the scale. That said, if you have the cash, and you appreciate the various styles on offer, then these are wines worth pursuing.

Posted in: Spanish Wine, Tastings


  1. Edward
    November 8, 2009


    I’m envious! The Alion is a cracker. I can only imagine the Unico and Vega. . . I think the Vega is around $500 where I live!

  2. Shea
    November 9, 2009

    They were very interesting, although in a completely different style. But ya, I was lucky to get into this tasting, it was very cool!

  3. Slaked
    November 9, 2009

    Sounds like a great tasting. Too bad the Unico didn’t live up. Not enough air perhaps? I’ve always wanted to try it. Would be fun to drink that and Pingus side by side.

  4. Shea
    November 9, 2009

    It might have been lack of air, or bottle shock or something. I mean it was really good, I was just expecting more. I also think some more bottle age would have been nice.

  5. hungarianboy
    November 10, 2009

    unfortunately, the Mandolás furmint is usually overoaked, not just the 2005. But 2005 is not a really good year in Tokaj, the next vintage, 2006, is much better, and the Mandolás 2006, while still quite oaky, is considerably better as well…

  6. Shea
    November 10, 2009

    That’s too bad about the furmint, I feel like it could be really nice with less oak on it.

  7. hungarianboy
    November 15, 2009

    absolutely 🙂 I would recommend to try some from Szepsy or Királyudvar, if available there. Not cheap, but these are maybe the best producers in Tokaj

  8. Shea
    November 15, 2009

    It might be hard to find, but I’ll look for it on my excursions to the U.S.

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