Vega Sicilia: when the taste lives up to the hype

Peter Ranscombe is careful not to get carried away with the excitement of trying Spain’s undisputed top wine and is relieved when the liquid matches its reputation.

YOU know a wine is special when it gets its own mention in your old course textbook.

The entry for Vega Sicilia in the Oxford Companion to Wine – Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding’s best-seller and the standard tome for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s level four diploma – runs to a whole four paragraphs, marking it out as among the world’s top wines.

The Oxford Companion to Wine – or the “OCW” to its friends – recounts the winery’s story from its foundation in 1864, through its growing reputation in the 20th century as the producer of Spain’s best red wine and on to its purchase in 1982 by its current owner, the Alvarez family, which cemented its status for quality and consistency.

Master of wine Greg Sherwood’s recent blog entry captures the excitement that surrounds the release of each vintage of Vega Sicilia’s wines.

Hence it was a real treat to try the latest wines at Berry Bros & Rudd’s recent tasting at London’s Lanesborough Hotel.

What struck me most about the 2006 Unico (£367.95), Vega Sicilia’s flagship wine, was how approachable it was, with warm aromas of wood smoke, heavier cigar smoke and cedar on the nose, leading into well-integrated tannins and fresh acidity on the palate, along with bright redcurrant, blackcurrant and blackberry fruit and sweet vanilla.

Its big brother, the Reserva Especial (£441.95), had more grip to its tannins, along with thinner and tarter redcurrant and blackcurrant flavours. The family resemblance was all there on the nose, with black fruits, wood smoke and vanilla.

The third wine produced on Vega Sicilia’s estate in the Ribera del Duero region is Valbuena, which is aged in American oak. The 2013 Valbuena (£136.95) opens with a really complex nose, boasting cedar, cigar, wood smoke, vanilla and a whole array of dark fruit, before peaking with red fruit on the palate as redcurrant, cranberry and raspberry join the blackcurrant, blackberry and sweet vanilla.

Berry Bros is also re-releasing three of its older vintages of Valbuena; the 2009 displayed aromas of smoky bacon crisps, black fruit and wood smoke, while the 2008 offered heavier smoke on the nose and more dark fruit and the 2007 had more grip to its tannins.

What delighted me most about all three vintages was the continuing freshness of their acidity and the lively red fruit flavours coming through on the palate.

While Vega Sicilia uses a combination of Bordeaux and local varieties in its estate wines, its 2014 Alion (£78.95) from the nearby Liceo winery uses solely tempranillo. It’s a much lighter and more modern style, with more redcurrant, raspberry and strawberry flavours alongside the vanilla.

As well as its properties in Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia has invested in the Toro region, where it makes the 2013 Pintia (£52.95), which has a deliciously-dark chocolatey nose to accompany the smoke and black fruit. The palate is full of much fresher fruit, with blackcurrant and redcurrant, alongside lusher blackberry and vanilla.

Rioja is also in the company’s inventory and the 2014 Macan Clasico (£42.95) is a suitably complex addition to the range. Lots of heavy smoke and smoky bacon crisps on the nose but then a much fresher palate consisting of cranberry and raspberry beside the blackberry and blackcurrant, with a silky mouthfeel and a twist of acidity.

Tasting famous wines is always a challenge; the rule of thumb is to leave preconceptions at the door and judge the bottle on its contents, not its label. Fortunately, the latest releases from Vega Sicilia lived up to the hype – after all, wines tend to be famous for a good reason.