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As you drive along the N-122 from Valladolid towards Peñafiel it is easy to find Vega Sicilia. Just keep an eye on the red kilometre posts and when you reach km 323 you are there. A rather functional address for one of the world’s greatest wine domaines but reassuringly unpretentious and very handy if you do not have satellite navigation.

This was the first stop on our recent road trip to Spain to seek inspiration from two of Spain’s top wine regions – Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Javier Ausas Lopez de Castro, the technical director, was our guide for the visit and after a brief introduction we jumped in the cars and drove 10km down the road to their Alion winery.

Alion is Vega Sicilia’s newer Ribera del Duero winery (1991). A superb 120 hectare estate producing one wine from one grape variety – Tempranillo or Tinto Fino as it’s called here. The pristine grape reception area looks down on the vinification cellar, three quarters complete with wooden foudres, the other quarter currently being replaced as part of a rolling renovation programme. Post fermentation the wine undergoes ageing in new Nevers barriques for around 15 months followed by 2 years ageing in bottle. It is highly impressive to witness 2 years worth of stock gently ageing before your eyes. The attention to detail from grape growing to bottling – there is even a machine to make sure the Alion branded corks are always inserted the correct way up, is staggering. Statistics and superlatives abound but none more so than with harvesting. Everything is harvested by hand and up to 300 people are employed. In 1999 harvest lasted 6 weeks, in 2005 the harvest was completed in 5 days !

Alion 2007 : Lovely perfume, elegant red fruits, medium bodied, early drinking. Excellent wine from a cool and difficult vintage. Harvested 7-10 October. 100% Tinto Fino, 14 months ageing in barriques, 2 years ageing in bottle. Due for release late 2011.

Alion 2005: Fuller, more structured than 2007. Concentrated, fine grained tannins interwoven with wild strawberry fruits.A seamless wine with no rough edges or flaws. 100% Tinto Fino, 13 months ageing. Harvested 20 – 26 September.

Alion 2000 : Brick red, more savoury than others, a maelstrom of leather, truffle, spice and hedgerow fruit with trademark elegant finish. 100% Tinto Fino, 15 months ageing. Big vintage – 316680 bottles produced.

Vega Sicilia

Back in the car for a short drive back to Vega Sicilia via a trip though the vineyards.Here they just make 3 wines , Unico, a Gran Reserva vintage wine produced in the best years, Valbuena the second wine of Vega Sicilia  and Reserva Especial a non-vintage blend from exceptional years – rare as hen’s teeth. The impressive statistics keep on coming :

200 hectares of vineyard, 1.4million oak trees planted, carbon neutral, no vines under 10 years old are used, oldest vines 110 years, own massale selection of vines (15 types), average yield 22hl/ha…

One of the striking things about Ribera was the weather. Snow on the way down, morning mists, frost.. this is a marginal climate. At around 800m altitude it is common to experience frosts at either end of the growing season – spring and autumn, witness 27th September 2008 -4 degrees C ! As Javier remarked – people always underestimate the harsh conditions in Ribera, popularly referred to as ” 9 months hiver, 3 months l’enfer ..” The vineyards at Vega Sicilia are located either side of the N-122. In broad terms those on the North facing side are for Valbuena and Unico, the flatter more alluvial soils on the South facing side are predominantly Alion. 

Tinto Fino is the main variety at Vega Sicilia, complemented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and a few vines of white Albillo. Full hand harvesting (300 people), severe selection in vineyard and winery, de-stemming and long oak and bottle ageing are the hallmarks of this domaine. The facility is a juxtaposition of several buildings with state of the art equipment (each destemmer alone costs around 60,000€) and a separate fermentation cellar for Unico. It’s not just a case of money no object, there is an understandable reason for each process and an awe in that nothing is left to chance.

We were firmly on Spanish time now and we moved to the private house for pre-lunch tasting, aperitif (a classy Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1998) and lunch. Pablo Alvarez, the owner of Vega Sicilia, hosted a fabulous meal which we finally got up from the table at 5;15pm. The pre-lunch tasting included :

Pintia 2008 : The VS estate in Toro.Deep purple, intense blackberry and blueberry fruit, tight structure like a caged tiger desperate to be unleashed. 100% Tempranillo (Tinto de Toro), 40-60 year old vines, 12 months in oak, 70% French/30% American, 2 years in bottle. Due for release later in 2011.

Pintia 2007 : Super ripe raspberry and fig, bold but integrated style with high degree of minerality, surprising freshness and elegance that belie the 15 degrees of alcohol.The big boulders in Toro (similar to the galets roulés of Châteauneuf) have a real influence on this wine.

Oremus “Mandolas” 2007 : The Tokaji estate owned by VS. 100% Furmint, pale gold, dry, modern style with traces of lanolin and quince underpinned by crisp acidity.  Fermented in Hungarian oak, aged for 6 months in barrel with batonnage and 1 year in bottle.

Wines with Lunch

Lunch was served with 2 vintages of Valbuena and 4 vintages of Unico – all served blind.

Valbuena 2006 : Perfumed, fragrant, pure core of red fruits, oak quite prominent but not overbearing. 15 months in new oak (60% American, 40% French), 3 months in one year old oak and 3 months in wooden vats. Tinto Fino 85%, Merlot and Malbec 15%.

Valbuena 2000 : More leathery and balsamic with gorgeous wild strawberry flavours, delightful tannins and refreshing acidity. A wine at peak but with the stamina and silkiness to keep going and going .. more Sebastian Coe than Steve Ovett.

Unico 2003 : Lightly fragrant, deceptive debut, starts slowly but quickly picks up pace. Lovely mélange of cherry, vanilla and spice with a suppleness and elegance that lingers. Hard to believe this wine has had over 6 years ageing in oak.. The next Unico for commercial release.90% Tinto Fino, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 37000 bottles produced.

Unico 1999 : Deep ruby, cherry, forest fruits, leather, cedar, gunsmoke and wild herbs – like a symphony orchestra in full flow. Impressive on every level but still with the trademark restraint and class. Harvested really late even for Vega Sicilia. Started 11th October, finished 16th November.90% Tinto Fino, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Wood ageing : 21 months in vat, 20 months in new oak, 17 months in 1-2 year old oak and 24 months in large vats. 3 years bottle age.96159 bottles, 2596 Magnums, 157 Double Magnums

Unico 1994 : Brick red, more evolved style, cassis, menthol, mocca, pencil shavings and sweet spice.  A totally harmonious wine with unbelievable poise and class and an infinite finish. Like Margot Fonteyn and Darcy Bussell combined. Incredible wine. 85% Tinto Fino, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 24 months in vat, 22 months in new oak, 30 months in 1-2 year old casks, 30 months in large vats followed by 3 years in bottle. 96280 bottles, 2196 Magnums, 150 Double Magnums

Unico 1953 : Verging on the garnet, cocktail of wild fruits, rosemary, truffle, iodine and cedar. Elegant and persistent with immense breeding and stature. Lovely weight, more akin to Grand Cru Burgundy than First Growth Bordeaux. 80% Tinto Fino, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, Malbec and Albillo. Ageing – long.. 32000 bottles produced.

And finally..

Oremus Aszú 5 puttonyos 2002 : Deep gold, huge botrytis, marmelade, beeswax and barleysugar all underpinned with searing acidity. Benchmark Tokaji in the modern rather than oxidative style. 75% Furmint, 20% Hársevelü, 5% Muscat de Lunel. Fermented in Hungarian oak for 2 months, aged for 2 and half years in new Hungarian oak. 12% Alcohol, 148g/l Residual Sugar.

After our final goodbyes and photos we left at 5:30pm. Often in the wine trade you are privileged to taste some top wines in wonderful locations. However in 24 years in this wonderful trade I find it hard to remember a more extraordinary day that I have experienced. To spend over 6 hours with one of the world’s greatest winemakers, enjoy unrivaled access to the majestic facilities, share lunch with owner Pablo Alvarez and to taste some outstanding wines including 4 vintages of Unico spanning 50 years will live for ever in the memory. 

I would like to thank both Javier and Pablo for giving up their entire day to us and for providing us with such a memorable experience. Finally, an extra special thank you to Elisa Kwon for making the whole day possible. Muchas gracias !