Sunday, 2 May 2010

Vega Sicilia tasting and tour

Before setting off for Fine Wine 2010, I was told there would be a tasting at Vega Sicilia. Excited by the prospect, I dug up an article by Serena Sutcliffe on the icon estate from the Decanter archives that incluced Unico tasting notes going back to 1924.

My anticipation grew as I read through the notes on the plane - the '85 had 'vibrant chocolate and dates on the finish', the '73 a 'heavenly spice-drenched taste' and the '64 'sweet, melting, violetty fruit', while the '51 was 'like orange caramel' and the '24 'like old, pale Madeira'. By the time I touched down in Madrid I was salivating. Sutcliffe had painted such a vivid picture in her notes of a wine with multiple personalities; a wine never the same twice. She described Unico's unpredictable nature as being more 'Dolce e Gabanna than Ferragamo - cutting edge rather than couture'.

Owner Pablo Alvarez, whose family bought the estate in 1982 - the same year Ribera del Duero became a DO, is notoriously private and rarely opens his doors to guests. Wine Intelligence, the conference organizers, managed to bag us a tasting and tour of the cellars. Alvarez's heart must have leapt when he saw our coach career up the gravel drive and 30 thirsty guests jump out.

I sat next to the legenday Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Chateau Musar on the ride up, who told me proudly he was Decanter's first 'Man of the Year'. He then talked me through his diary for the next month, which took in trips to China, Hong Kong and Japan, with a pit stop in Lourdes. 'I'll try and walk the Great Wall if I have a spare five minutes', he quipped.

Stepping out of the coach into the afternoon sun, it quickly became apparent that they do things differently at Vega Sicilia. The vines are cordened off by barbed-wire fences and the estate patrolled by stern men in khaki green armed with truncheons. We took our places around a series of tasting tables on the decking next to an in-built waterfall. I was beside Hunter Valley Semillon pioneer Bruce Tyrrell.

Four wines were brought out: Alion 2007, Valbuena 2006, released five years after the harvest with an average vine age of 25 years, and Unico 2002 and 1995, only made in great years and usually released after ten years. Valbuena is made almost entirely from Tinto Fino, (Tempranillo), while in Unico the Tinto Fino is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.

Among our group were Olivier Krug, former Duckhorn director of winemaking Mark Beringer, Catavino's Ryan Opaz and Canadian consultant sommelier John Szabo. Aged in 100% new French oak, the Alion was the most Bordeaux-like of the four wines. Although slightly overpowered by the oak, it was elegant and opulent. Balsamic vinegar dominated the Valbuena in a pleasant way, mixing with chewy red and black fruit, violets and licquorice.

Moving onto the Unico, my heart started beating a little faster. I was about to taste what many would describe as the greatest wine made in Spain. But would it live up to its name? Our table had a bad experience with the 2002 - Bruce Tyrrell declared it corked and we all solemnly nodded in agreement. A second bottle was summoned. I found it closed on the nose and struggled with fitting descriptors. A masculine, direct wine with good length and grip, it didn't live up to my high expectations.

Fortunately the 1995 did. It had a lovely developed nose that could only be Spanish, of game, meat and hints of dried fruit. A more feminie wine, it was silky, supple and rounded with excellent body, weight and depth. Opening up further in the glass, its savoury finish was exquisite. I was happy to have been given a second bite of the apple, and for it to have delivered. After the tasting I took myself off from the group and looked out onto the vines, watching the sun slowly dip towards the horizon, turning the sky conch shell pink.

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