Tasting at Vega Sicilia

written by Michael Oudyn

In 1970s Spain the very words “Vega Sicilia” inspired mystery and awe.  “World´s greatest wine”: “Most expensive wine in the world.” Of course nobody I knew had ever tasted it, or even seen a bottle of it, for that matter.  (My friends and I might get into a mid-level Rioja on a good day.)  Jancis Robinson attributes much of this awe to Vega Sicilia´s “splendid isolation” in the ruggedly inhospitable Castilian backwaters a couple of hour’s drive north of Madrid; steamy hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter.  Vega Sicilia was far from any official wine region.  So in those days “the best wine in the world” had to be sold as the lowest of the low: vino de mesa, table wine. And their neighbors were capable of nothing better than plonk. Definitely the stuff of fairy tales.  Personally I wasn’t completely convinced that Vega Sicilia wasn’t just some  weird collective patriotic hallucination until I saw, with my own two eyes, a bottle of it in a Barcelona wine shop.

Legend and exclusivity go way back to 1864.  The founders of Vega Sicilia built a grand chateau in the Bordeaux style and surrounded it with unknown French varieties like cabernet sauvignon and malbec (called “exotic plants” on the import boxes). When in the early 1900s the original owners went belly-up the rich Basque bankers who held the mortgage took over the property.  They proceeded to make a very limited amount of very expensive wine. Actually way beyond expensive.  Mere money couldn´t buy Vega Sicilia; it was given to the select aristocratic friends of the family, like the present Spanish king’s grandfather who was a frequent guest.  In 1982 the property was bought by the Alvarez family who have even since guarded the mystique of the winery as jealously as they have fanatically preserved the fabled quality of the wine.

And there I was with a busload of the chosen few on our way to the legendary Vega Sicilia for tasting and tour.  It was late last April and we were attending the Fine Wine Congress 2010 (Aranda del Duero, Ribera del Duero.)  We had heard that these tastings were few and far between; Vega Sicilia is not open to the public and their Olympian aloofness adds to their mystique.  Our initial reception was a bit chilly.  The winery gates were well guarded and we were kept waiting in the bus. (Had they changed their minds?)  Finally we were escorted to the impeccable Japanese-style gardens in front of the chateau where we were to taste.  Back on the bus my friend Andre and I were fantasizing about a once-in-a-lifetime vertical tasting of numerous vintages of their superstar flagship Único going way back to some mythical vintage or other.   That proved too much to ask, but head wine maker Xavier Ausás did lead through four quite tasty red wines.

1. Alion 2007, a “modern style quality wine of 100%-tempranillo-grape with little oak made for early drinking.”  (All quotes are from Ausás). This is made at a nearby estate Vega Sicilia bought a few years back so they could make just such a wine without depleting the exclusive grapes used in the great Único.

2. Valbuena 2006, which features “purity of fruit aromas.” “Definitely not a second label … but rather a high quality wine which doesn’t need as much aging as Único,” Ausus insisted despite the difference in price.

3. The fabulous Único from the 2002 vintage “still very much a work in progress” as “Únicos should really not be drunk before ten years.”  Then, the 1995 Único, the pièce de résistance.

I have no tasting notes. I was too busy taking in the general vibe and, in any case, mine is not one of those privileged palates that that can predict what a wine I sniff and sip today will be like years down the pike when it reaches its peak.  But they all seemed real good to me.  I would love to get my hands on a couple of full bottles of Unico for dinner with friends sometime.  Not too likely; curiosity led to internet research. Unicos were coming in at around $450, if you could find them; the Valbuena for around $150, if you were lucky.  Oh well, maybe a humble Alion some time.

Then we toured of the facilities.  The over-all feel was one of hospital-like cleanliness (their Valbuena had a problem of TCA cork infection in 1994), close control over every phase of the wine-making process (their third generation cooper makes all their American-oak barrels on the premises), and deep pockets.

Our guide explained their strategy for high quality.  First, keep yields incredibly low by practicing green harvest on the “the world´s greatest grape”, super-Spanish tempranillo which has a phenomenal ability to age in oak.  Then conjure up the magical masculine/feminine balance, their wine´s essence.  The explanation was a bit mystical; throughout fermentation and aging, the wine goes back and forth from cement casks to new American oak barrels to used American oak barrels, and thus is alternated between “muscle-izing” (masculine) and “education” (feminine).  To finish the tour Ausás showed us the staff’s private stash of super-exclusive Burgundies. He casually held up a bottle of Domaine Romanee-Conte. Vega Sicilia is the exclusive Spanish importer of super-expensive DRC and it slipped out that of the 15 or so bottles of it that are imported into Spain anually, only about five of them ever get off the premises.  The other ten are simply drunk up by the staff.  A nice little coup de théâtre to finish off my brief peek into how the other half lives and drinks.

6 Responses to “Tasting at Vega Sicilia”

  1. Rubén Arranz Glez. Says:

    Ey Michael, me alegra poder leer este post. Finalmente pude visitar Vega Sicilia junto con Rebeca (tco. comunicacion D. O. Ribera) y Michael Schachner (wine enthusiast). Javier Ausás nos hizo un recorrido maravilloso y nos dispensó con un trato muy cercano. Algo tiene Vega Sicilia que solo pronunciar su nombre nos hace estremecernos. Puede que sus elaboraciones estén algo lejos del gusto imperante, el conocido “corte moderno”. Pero realmente sus botellas siguen distinguiendo una mesa. Quien pruebe por primera vez Vega Sicilia, debe saber que por su boca no pasará las nuevas y atrevidas tendencias que desfilan por París, Milan o Cibeles. Beber por primera vez Vega Sicilia no es una moda, mas bien es descubrir el mito y la leyenda.
    Saludos desde la estepa castellana.

  2. Andre Ribeirinho Says:

    Hi Michael,
    thanks for the for great post about our visit to Vega Sicilia. I really like that you took the time to investigate their history and give some context to the exclusivity of the tasting.

    Well done my friend!

  3. Albert Bramona Says:

    Hola Mike,
    Tus escritos son pequeñas perlas de conocimiento. Tus aportaciones para difundir la cultura del vino son realmente interesantes y leerlas produce placer.

  4. alicia Says:

    I’d like to tour Vega Sicilia. I won’t be going with a tour or anything special. What do you recommend?

    • oudyn Says:

      I’d afraid there’s really no way that I know of. Tours are extremely rare, and the winery is not open to the public. Sorry.

  5. Catral Tourist board Says:

    It’s remarkable to visit this website and reading the views of all friends on the topic of this paragraph, while I am also eager of getting know-how.

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