Any discussion about Spain’s top wines has to start with Bodegas Vega Sicilia. In the minds of many, it could also end there.
Vega Sicilia Export Manager Puri Mancebo-Lobete, who visited Grand Cayman recently, said the winery’s flagship wine, Unico, has an unprecedented reputation – and price point.
“It’s always been known as the most expensive and most representative wine of Spain,” she said.
Bodegas Vega Sicilia celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, having been established by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves in 1864 in Ribera del Duero. At the time, the Ribera del Duero region wasn’t popular with winemakers because its climate and soil conditions required what Mancebo-Lobete calls “extreme viniculture.”
But the very thing that makes the region difficult for grape growers – higher altitude, little rain, cooler temperatures, lots of sun, chalky soil – create a terroir that can produce extraordinary wines. For years, Vega Sicilia was the only winery with the courage to make wine in the region.
“It was one winery in the middle of nowhere for 120 years,” she said.
When Ribera del Duero became an official “Denominación de Origen” in 1982, wine making increased in the region, and now there are more than 300 wineries in a region that is recognized as the producer of some of Spain’s best wines.
At one of the regular “Uncorked” events at Jacques Scott Wines and Spirits, Mancebo-Lobete led a tasting of six wines produced by Vega Sicilia, including three from Ribera del Duero, one from the nearby wine region Toro, and two from its winery in the Tokaji region of Hungary.
The foundation of Vega Sicilia wines is Tempranillo, Spain’s iconic red-wine grape.
Tempranillo has many synonyms, not only in other countries, but also inside Spain itself, where in different wine regions it is sometimes called Tinto Fina, Aragonez, Tinta de Tora, Cencibel or Tinta del Pais.
“All these words, at the end of the day, are for Tempranillo,” said Mancebo-Lobete.
The wines that come from Tempranillo grapes grown in different regions in Spain take on different characteristics. Wines made from Tempranillo grown in Toro, for instance, tend to be rich, powerful and fruity, and those grown in Ribera del Duero tend to have less body, with more finesse and softer tannins.
“Toro will give you an explosion of fruit on the nose and Ribera del Duero will offer more complexity on the nose, with many layers,” Mancebo-Lobete said.
Vega Sicilia’s wine. Pintia. is produced in Toro, while its other red wines, including three sampled at the tasting – Unico, Valbuena and Alion – all come from Ribera del Duero (where the wines are blended with small amounts of other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Malbec).
Without a doubt, Vega Sicilia is most famous for its flagship gran reserva wine Unico, which is sometime referred to as Spain’s First Growth wine, comparable to France’s Premier Cru Bordeaux wines.
Vega Sicilia only makes Unico in good vintages.
“Unico is not made every year,” said Mancebo-Lobete. “If it’s not, that’s a sign that something [bad] happened [during the growing season].”
Unico is normally aged for 10 years before it is released, although some vintages – like 2007 – are released much earlier because aging wouldn’t improve them, while others – like 2005 – won’t be released for 15 or 16 years because it will take longer for them to reach their potential.
“Sometimes, 10 years is not enough,” Mancebo-Lobete said.
Production of Unico is relatively small, with between 40,000 and 100,000 bottles produced annually, depending on the vintage.
Regardless of the quality of the vintage or production volume, the wine is released by the winery at the same price every year, adjusted yearly for inflation. In terms of retail price, Unico generally ranges anywhere from US$350 to US$550 bottle these days, depending on the country where it is sold, with the price in the Cayman Islands on the lower end of the scale.
For Macebo-Lobete, Unico exemplifies Ribera del Duero and the Spanish people.
“Wine is an expression of human beings and your culture is expressed through the wine,” she said.