Its success in retaining such a reputation, and in almost complete isolation in the Ribera del Duero wine region of Spain, is testament to the quality and consistency of its production, although its history has not been without its challenges.
Vega Sicilia is situated on what is known as the “golden mile”, a stretch of road between Pañafiel and Tudela de Duero, where the prestigious wineries of Vega Sicilia, Pingus and Pesquera are all situated.
Driving through, it is a somewhat underwhelming sight as far as vineyard vistas go, so much so you could almost pass through it without noticing. Being an altiplano there are no sweeping mountainous views, you only feel the altitude from the freshness of the air. In the higher vineyards of Soria at the edge of the Ribera appellation you are rewarded with more vistas, as well as a sense of history with evidence of prehistoric cave-like dwellings where farmers sheltered from the extreme climatic conditions of this largely desolate region.
While there are pre-phylloxera ungrafted vines dating back over 100 years dotted around the region, the vines at Vega Sicilia - with vineyards at 700 metres - average around 35 years of age. Vega Sicilia have an extensive replanting scheme in their vineyards preferring the quality of their fruit in their mid-life as opposed to old age, with typical vine age in Unico around 60-65 years old, with the younger vines going into the Valbuena cuvée.
The high altitude and continental climate means extreme conditions are at work in the vineyards. Winters can be very cold whereas the summers can be fierce. Most notably in regards to grape growing, due to the altitude there is a huge diurnal shift in temperatures from day to night helping to retain the acidity and freshness in the grapes whilst reaching high levels of ripeness.
The main grape in all Vega Sicila wines remains the Tinto Fino (the particular clone of Tempranillo) distinct to the region. The Tinto Fino is said to produce smaller berries with higher concentration of tannins compared with the Tempranillo grown in Rioja.
The Unico also has a proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (anything from 6-20% in more recent releases) with a higher proportion in older vintages. In the Valbuena, the majority of the blend is Tinta Fino with a small amount of Merlot (typically 5%) .
The property is huge in scale with 200 hectares of estate owned vines producing anything from 40,000 to 100,000 bottles of Unico each year depending on the vintage.
UNICO The style of the flagship cuvée of the winery has remained virtually unchanged since its inception in terms of production, although assemblage has modernised. Élevage times have reduced and the influence and proportion of Bordeaux varieties has become less in more recent releases.
In the past Unico was only made using huge 40,000 litre fermentation tanks (this was all that was available at the winery) therefore in a difficult vintage, if this sort of volume was not possible at the quality level they expected, then no Unico would be released that year. Since 2010 the winery has introduced smaller 8,000 litre tanks, enabling smaller micro-vinfication of their wines and suggesting a release of Unico every year (in varying quantities) is more likely.
The winery today operates at a spec similar to the top estates in Bordeaux. They have introduced 81 separate fermentation tanks allowing them to carry out intra-plot fermentation. The have introduced highly sophisticated sorting tables, there is more temperature control of the wine and the winery is now completely gravity fed enabling greater precision when it comes to winemaking.
Following fermentation, the wines destined for Unico are blended in small oak barriques (50% French oak / 50% American oak) for 12-24 months depending on the vintage. The French oak is 100% new whilst the American oak, coopered on site, tends to be one to four years old. Following barrique ageing, the wine is then transferred to large old oak casks where it typically matures for five years before being bottled and aged further prior to release. Unico is typically released at 10 years old.
VALBUENA 5° The Valbuena typically comes from the younger vines of the estate and is aged in oak in barriques for 12-18 months before being transferred to larger old oak casks for a further 18 months prior to bottling. It is then aged for two years in bottle. Valbuena is typically released at five years old.
UNICO “RESERVA ESPECIAL” The Reserva Especial is the mythical bottling that initiated the Vega Sicilia legend. It is made up of choice parcels from a blend of vintages (in recent releases it tends to be select parcels from three vintages). Prior to the 2001 release, details of the blends of older bottlings are not very easy to come by. With only 15,000 bottles produced this is the rarest cuvée from Vega Sicilia and a nod to the traditional multi-blend wines that were typical prior to vintage specific bottlings becoming more popular in the mid to late 1800s.