Vega Sicilia vertical
The actual tasting took place in June 2012, amid the delightful surroundings of The Square restaurant in London. But the wonderful thing about this estate is that it makes wines that mature in glacial fashion so it’s not as if anything will have changed too much since then.
I’ve tasted the 1953 on a couple of other occasions lately – once in a blind tasting (see Wine Wars) and also at the Primum Familiae Vini event – plus I sat next to estate co-owner Pablo Alvarez at the stellar International Wine Trade Dinner at the Vintners’ Company. For a venerable estate, the people behind Vega Sicilia have hardly been resting on their laurels, adding a new Rioja brand to their portfolio (which also includes a Tokaji producer).
But it’s Unico that still sits very much at the pinnacle of what might be termed the Vega Sicilia group do. This red blend, based around Tempranillo but including other varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon (the mixed, and not wholly identified plantings even include a dash of Carmenère) is famously long-lived and sturdy, with an almost Piedmontese rugged, craggy charm that softens with time into ethereal grace and beauty. It’s a roller coaster ride for the taste buds. Its landscape is thoroughly Castilian: brutal, rustic, austere, compelling. Its accent is guttural yet cadenced, in the Castilian style. Maddeningly, brilliantly, it demands patience. As head winemaker Xavier Ausás lyricises: ‘vibrancy and acidity is essential to the character of Unico: it’s our passport to eternity.’
Changes have been afoot at the estate since 1989 in order to embrace what Ausás terms, ‘a Burgundian mentality’. Detailed soil studies, for example, have identified 19 different variations on their clay-limestone soil type. Renovated winemaking facilities – they now have 80 tanks rather than the 30-odd they used before – mean individual lots can be made according to soil type and enable greater precision in the blending.
‘Imagine we’re a painter,’ mused Ausás. ‘Before we had just one blue colour. Now we have three, four or five different shades of blue. Which means we can work for greater precision and complexity. It’s not necessarily about being better. Just ever more unique.’
This was a point Ausás returned to repeatedly. When noting the different characters of each vintage, for example, he emphasised the essential nature of this wine as, ‘a passion for personality and a fight against global standardisation.’ He talked of the importance of preserving Vega Sicilia’s 150-odd years of history, rejecting the notion he would ‘prostitute’ the style because of fashion or critical acceptance.
Music, then, to most critics’ ears, mine included. But what of the wines? Full tasting notes are below but top wines included a nascent 2004, a tense 1994, a come-hither 1989, teasing 1987, old-school 1979, sinewy 1976, engaging 1964 and surprisingly lively 1920.
But my absolute favourites were a sensational 1982, a compelling 1972 and a supremely lithe 1967. It’s not every day you get to say that…
The last words, though, go to Ausas. ‘Some wines are impact wines. Ours are reflection wines. We want them to keep giving, keep evolving in the glass. This style is getting lost. We must – and you must – fight to keep it.’
VEGA SICILIA UNICO TASTING
Vega Sicilia Unico 2005, Ribera del Duero (UNRELEASED SAMPLE: 7/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Complex aromas. Lots of wood but also sous bois and fruit. Fierce acidity grounds it. Tannins very firm. It’s young but in an austere way, not a flabby or overdone way. Maybe a bit hot on the finish. Very very young. A baby yet.
Vega Sicilia Unico 2004, Ribera del Duero (UNRELEASED SAMPLE: 8.5+/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – slightly less dark than the 2005. The aromas are relatively mute and ungiving but there’s a florality and sous bois character together with wild red fruit. Don’t really notice the wood so much. Again that fierce, rugged, burly attack of vibrant acidity and robust tannin. Lovely savoury character too. It’s way too young, Mohammed Ali in nappies, but it has a cogency and power that will age very well. Savoury. Almost hints of Piedmont here. Long. Very young. Could be great.
Vega Sicilia Unico 2000, Ribera del Duero, 14% (8-8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – dried leaf and tobacco character comes through. Again, brisk acidity carries it, firm tannin. Nice elegantly savoury character. Its firm and fierce, still way too young. Definitely has that incisiveness that winemaker Javier Ausas describes. Lovely linearity and punch and drive. Will be very good indeed. Perhaps just a touch lean on the finish..?
Vega Sicilia Unico 1999, Ribera del Duero, 14% (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – More open aromatically than the younger vintages, more scented. You notice the creamy oak more. Definite sense of evolution for the first time here. Layered punchy mineral and dense. Very complex. Exciting to see it evolving. Furniture polish edge. A nod to Rioja. And the oak. But exciting to see it start to unfurl. Looking lovely, actually.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1996, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Elegant high toned aromas. Dark and red fruit. Soft tannin texture for once – just starting to show itself. Lovely dense mineral palate texture with beautiful acidity underscoring. Young, savoury, cries out for lamb. Remarkable consistency here across these vintages so far. Vibrant, incisive, smoky on the finish, beautiful wine.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1994, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (9/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Tobacco and dried fruit starting to show through, some nice age. Still tight and quite taut. Mineral. Dense. But linear and very drinkable. This is a big style but not tiring on the palate – more tension and verve than sheer heft. Lovely textural presence and foodie. Delicious stuff! Still needs to come into its own. But lovely. Will still benefit from ageing.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1989, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8.5-9/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Just starting to unfurl. Tobacco and dried red fruit emerging – but only just. Lovely hints of what is to come. Coffee and all spice. Rounded smooth tannic weight. Just begs to be drunk. Lovely acidity, beautiful tannic charge, this will age very well indeed. Spice on the finish. But still needs another 10 years or so. Perhaps a touch more drying on the finish versus the 1994. But still v v good.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1990 en magnum, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Toffee, dried herb notes. Cream too. Spicy, firm, robust. Hallmark vibrant acidity. Dried flowers. Seems a bit big and garish for Unico. Has the trademark savoury floral mineral chalky style but it lacks the real core power and linearity of the more recent vintages. Just a notch below others: doesn’t quite hang together as well as eg 1989 or 1994. Lacks the stuffing but has the spice. Perhaps the result of the warm vintage.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1987, Ribera del Duero, 14% (8.5-9/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Notes of torrefaction and dried grass. Nice tense core. Mineral. Linear. Still lots to give. Yes there is tension here but it works well in the style. Tannin not totally resolved. Floral, lifted. Can see how this would be overlooked in youth (as Javier says it was), still chalky and tight. But it will age very well. Perhaps the nose is more evolved than palate. But I can’t see it falling down at all. Very good. A leaner style, but still very engaging.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1983, Ribera del Duero, 13% (8-7.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – the first bum note of the line-up. Seems a bit baked and flabby, within the context. A bit volatile and quite evolved. Yes it has some mineral density but it’s a bit bitter and worked, lacks the trademark cogency. Not a bad wine in the grand scheme of things but underwhelming in this context. Javier laments that, ‘the tragedy of 1983 is 1982’ but really they’re very different wines.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1982, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (9.5-10/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Delightful, floral mineral chalky nose, complex and refined, utterly inviting. Lovely lovely lovely wine. Just superb balance of acidity and resolving tannins. Cries out for meat. Beautiful wine. So long and just keeps giving. Could get better yet too.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1980, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Slightly muddy, mute nose. Nice mineral gritty palate. Not great but at least has that acidity and balance. Less concentration than other wines here. Somehow less ambitious. But OK. Clearly a lesser vintage but it works well within this context. Nice savoury finish, not out of kilter really.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1979, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (9/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Nice! Old school but super elegant, mocha and torrefaction, linear, foodie. Good red fruit and chalky definition. Focused in its presence and persistence. Fine and long, great nobility here. Love it.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1976, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13.5% (8.5-9/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Not dissimilar to 1979 in style – red fruit, mineral, aged but not in any way getting OLD. Tight, taut, long, dense, mineral, oh this is just lovely wine. And it’s still pretty young and vibrant! Maybe just lacks the extra layers of the more recent vintages. But it’s beautiful wine, a real taste of history, and a showcase for the nobility of the Unico terroir. Leathery notes. Trademark spicy robust finish. Maybe a bit more raw than the 1979, slightly rougher round the edges, but still a potent glass.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1973, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Lovely evolved nose: leather, dried fruit, dried flowers, coffee notes. Dense mineral coffee palate, bittersweet, lovely stuff. Still dense and chewy. Vibrant acidity. Maybe verging a bit too much into austerity here as body falls away, so not top drawer in the context. Needs food.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1972, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13.5% (9-9.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Stunning! Really complete and harmonious and vivid and lucid and cogent. Very long and really dynamic. Love this. Totally respectful of the house style – mineral, grippy, taut. But wonderfully evolved. Lovely oxidative evolution. Slips down beautifully, with that hallmark spice, but very self-contained. Just beautiful.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1969, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13% (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Pleasant dried fruit aromas. Bit of green pepper that’s been aged – cool year? Quite a fresh feel, verging on under-ripe, but good acid and freshness. Bit maderised. Good but not great.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1967, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13.5% (9-9.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Nicely evolved aromas. Lithe, graceful. Grippy and vibrant. The bright acidity just grabs you by the lapels and demands a response. Difficult not to drink this one. Spicy, classic, grounded, mineral, lovely lovely wine.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1965, Ribera del Duero, 13.5% (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Earthy dried fruit. Fluid; some fatness here. Decent but lacks the thrill of the core that others here have. It’s a bit broad and lacking conviction. Some minty notes. But still good, robust, savoury, very nice wine. Finishes a little bit raw.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1964, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13.5% (9-8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – a wine that comes with a vaunted reputation attached. So does it live up to the hype? Nose is quite restrained, actually. Dried fruit and flowers. On the palate it’s immediately engaging: fluid, grippy, spicy. A bit big actually. Doesn’t quite do it for me. Almost too much. A bit too hot on the finish, not quite as elegant or cogent as some other vintages here. Surprising, but far from my favourite today.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1960, Vino Fino de Mesa, 13.5% (8.5-8/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – beautifully open and engaging scent of dried flowers, fruit, warm earth. Vivid and engaging. But the palate is less impressive. Still fine, drinking well, that acid sustains it so well. Tannin quite resolved. But it lacks the layers and dense repleteness of younger vintages. Very good but not great. A bit lean.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1957, Vino Fino (7.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Toffee apple aromas. Good grip but a bit faded now. All that’s left really is the acidity and some tannins and not too much else.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1953, Vino Fino, 14% (7.5-8/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – smells of furniture polish and dried plums. Decent core, some nice juice here. Still that firmness of character here, that gritty resolve that so defines this wine. Good but not amazing in the context.
Vega Sicilia Unico 1942, Vino Fino (8.5-8/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Somewhat murky first impression. Nice toffee apple and dried fruit hints. Somewhat maderised. But with vibrant acidity. The modern wines will be so much better in 60 years time. But this is still impressive, very nice.
Vega Sicilia Único 1925, Vino Fino (7.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – the first bottle of this is pretty maderised but still cogent, like a nice old Amontillado. The second bottle is better, with a bit more ruby to the hue and a sweetness as well as profoundly savoury, malty character. A lovely taste of history that’s not quite over the hill, but not far off. ‘It’s proof even Vega Sicilia wines can die,’ comments Ausas, somewhat uncharitably. ‘It’s like seeing your grandfather. Even if he’s repeating himself, going slightly dotty, he’s still your grandpa.’
Vega Sicilia Único 1920, Vino Fino (8.5/10, PR, 19 June 2012) – Finishing on a high note! Still has impressive colour. Interesting nose, somewhat unsettling – vegetal elements as well as cheese rind, chalk…. but still that amazing acid and firm dense savoury tannin. Remarkably alive in its structure, if not maybe its aromatics. Still a privilege to taste and drink. Proof of the nobility of this terroir – but also its rusticity. Yes it’s more an exercise in tasting history than delicious wine but it’s remarkably alive and impressive for its age.