In 1848 a Basque landowner, Don Toribio Lecanda, met the bankrupt Marques de Valbuena and bought from him a 2,000 hectare estate, the Pago de la Vega Santa Cecilia y Carrascal. At some stage that was shortened to Vega Sicilia.
For the first 16 years, the land was used for agriculture, until Don Lecanda's son, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, founded the winery in 1864. From one Monsieur Beguerié in Bordeaux he bought 18,000 young vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They may have made some wine at that stage, but most of the production went into brandy and ratafia.
In due course Don Lecanda y Chaves went bust and the estate passed over to the Herrero family, and another Basque, Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who had trained as a winemaker at the Haro Oenological Centre. At first most of the wine was sold in bulk and – presumably – passed off as Rioja. When the Rioja vineyards had recovered from Phylloxera in 1915, Garramiola turned to making estate bottled wine. Initially this wasn't a commercial venture, but was given away to aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Herrero family. The quality of these wines was obviously not an issue: the 1917 and 1918 wines won prizes at the World Fair in Barcelona in 1929, an achievement still celebrated on the labels of all Vega Sicilia's Unico today.
The next significant change was not until 1982, when the Denominacion de Origen Ribera del Duero was established. This move meant that Unico (and the other wines) was no longer classified as a "simple" table wine. At the same time, the Alvarez family bought Vega Sicilia, and began to modernise and expand, a process which has continued, including the creation of new estates: Bodegas Alion in 1992, Bodegas Alquiriz (in Toro) in 2001, and Tokaj Oremus in Hungary, founded in 1993.
There are three key wines in the Vega Sicilia portfolio that carry the Vega Sicilia name:
Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial is the top of the range; a non-vintage reserva blend produced from the best years.
Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva is a vintage wine, produced only in good years and released after a minimum of ten years ageing, often much longer.
Valbuena is made from younger vines in most years, though in years when Unico is not produced (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2000, 2001), grapes normally destined for Unico will go into Valbuena. It is released only after 5 years' ageing. A lower grade Valbuena, released after 3 years, was discontinued a few years ago.
The estate covers around 1,000 hectares, of which 230 - 250 are under vines. The best vineyards are on north facing slopes, while others are on the alluvial deposits in the valley: in all there are 19 different soil types. The bulk of the vines are now Tempranillo (here called Tinto Fino or Tinto Pais), with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère, and a small amount of Albillo (a local white grape).
In the vineyards, yields are kept low by green harvesting, with each vine producing less than 2 kg of grapes. Harvest at Vega Sicilia is always late - 1st October at the earliest (2003 is the exception, when they started mid September) – and always by hand. They employ a team of around 130 harvesters who pick in several passes through the vineyards, note - no machines, commercial wines take note. There is another rigorous selection at the winery, and the grapes are carefully de-stemmed. The low yields and careful selection means annual production is only around 25,000 cases, and around 2000 people are on a waiting list for an allocation. Interestingly, buyers are not required to take Alion or Oremus in order to get hold of Vega Sicilia proper - this "bundling" is not uncommon with other "cult" wines.
The winery is essentially a modern day, pristine and glorious winemaking palace. It consists of rather classy looking lighting, top of range equipment, most of it bespoke, and everything is laid out in precise order, with lots of attention to detail, to the point of obsessiveness.
Perhaps this goes back to the time when the 1994 Valbuena had to be recalled, it is said because of a cork problem. Certainly, everything is done to avoid any possibility of taint: metal is stainless steel throughout, down to the bands on the barrels, shipping palettes, and even the wedges on which the barrels rest. The wood used for cases is tested to ensure it is chemically inert, and no wine is shipped between June and October, unless in temperature controlled lorries.
The cork testing regime is absolutely rigorous. Their cork suppliers are instructed to send samples, which are independently tested in specialist laboratory in France. Upon delivery, a further double trial is carried out, with further samples being sent for testing. If a cork fails, the whole batch is rejected, with costs charged to the supplier. On average, Rafael Alonso (current Export Manager) believes that two out of every three corks are rejected.
Valbuena and Unico spend several years maturing in oak before release, Valbuena for three and a half years, Unico for at least seven years. Vega Sicilia use a mix of new French oak, and a mix of new and used American oak. Correct "seasoning" of the oak and barrels is another priority here.
Whilst Valbuena will spend one and a half to two years in bottle before being released, the length of time that Unico is aged in bottle depends on the format: single bottles have at least three years in bottle; magnums and double magnum rather longer.
Today, Vega Sicilia produces some of Spains best wines, notably Unico, which has in turn, become one of Spains most expensive wines. Typically, when released, it can often be found for anything from £150 to £250 per bottle, depending on the vintage, and as it ages, where current wine maker Xavier Ausas is quoted to have said "Vega Sicilia starts discretely and finishes hugely" - it's price also increases.
Unico is often regarded to only be drunk after a considerable period, anything up to 50 years, where it reaches it's full potential and develops all it's secondary flavours and aromas.
Today, Unico can be regarded as one of Spain's best wines, old style winemaking, showing off the Terroir, and adhering to time-honoured traditions. Hence the name, "Unico" means Unique.
Profile of Vega Sicilia by the Wine Doctor Profile of Vega Sicilia