While Rioja is and always has been the best-known winemaking region of Spain, one of the country’s most important wineries throughout the 20th Century has been in Ribera del Duero.
Founded in 1848, Vega Sicilia became an international sensation because of good wine-making techniques (and probably good marketing). It was one of the first Spanish wineries to “borrow” Bordeaux wine-making techniques, which included making great efforts to clean out the barrels used for aging wine. They also followed some of the techniques that the Riojans had already borrowed from the Bordelaise: lengthy aging in vats and wooden casks, and bottling the wine to order.
Located about 150 miles north of Madrid, Ribera del Duero sits on a plateau some 2500-3000 feet above sea level. It’s split in the middle by El Rio Duero. The river is important to the region because it provides humidity in an area that gets very little rain.
The most important grape variety in Ribera del Duero is Tinto Fino, which you may know by its Riojan name: Tempranillo. This is a thin-skinned grape that ripens early. It creates wines that are complex and nicely concentrated without being particularly tannic.
In both regions you’ll find wine with excellent acidity as the nocturnal drop in temperature that occurs in high altitudes promotes the development of sugars without alleviating the grapes of their acidity. If you are a fan of wines from Rioja, you will probably enjoy wines from Ribera del Duero as well.
Vega Sicilia is best known for two labels – Unico and Valbuena 5o – which I was lucky enough to taste with general manager Pablo Alvarez in New York. We tasted the most current vintages as well as older ones to illustrate the aging capability of the wines.
The Unico is never released until at least ten years after the harvest. It is made predominantly from Tinto Fino but has a good percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with in.
The Valbuena 5o isn’t released until it’s at least five years old (hence the 5o or fifth year). Also made mostly from Tinto Fino, this wine is blended with Merlot. The wine is generally a bit softer than the Unico without the tannic structure that Cabernet Sauvignon imparts.
We started the tasting with the Valbuena 5o from the 2008 vintage, which is being released this year. In this vintage they blended 7% Malbec/Merlot into the Tinto Fino. The wine is all about lovely red fruits. It’s light, bright, juicy and has great acidity. The oak (12 months new) isn’t dominant , and the wine is very pretty. Morrell carries it for $200.
Next came the Valbuena 5o from the 1998 vintage, which had 15% Malbec/Merlot blended in. This was not a particularly good vintage, and I thought the wine was past its prime. The 1999 is a better vintage. Zachy’s has that for $180.
We then moved on to the Unico 2004, which has yet to be released. The wine is blended with 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, is drinking beautifully now. It should come to market next year. I would advise anyone interested in the Unico to wait for the 2004 vintage, which is much better than the 2003 currently on the market.
Moving on to the 1994 vintage, it became obvious why people hold on to this wine for so long. There was very little obvious development on the palate (more on the nose), and lots of lovely primary fruit was lush and bright on the palate. This vintage contained 80% Tinto Fino, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot. Flatiron Wines has this for $450.
The 1981Unico in magnum (released in 2002) was the second to last wine. It was my favorite of the tasting as it combined subtle hints of development with a beautiful balance of ripe red fruit. Royal Wine Merchants carries this at $1,625 for the magnum.
The final treat of the tasting was the very rare Unico Reserva Especial, which is a non-vintage wine. This particular bottle was a blend of the excellent 1990, 1994 and 1998 vintages. This wine is much darker than the vintage Unicos. It is very complex with leathery notes and ripe red fruit taking a supporting role. It was very good. Released in 2009, PJ’s carries it for $490.
All in all, the tasting served to illustrate why Vega Sicilia Unico deserves its place as one of the most important wines in Spain.