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Vega Sicilia Unico: 35-vintages Ex-Cellars Tasting (1999-1941) with Pablo Alvarez
|Date:||23rd May 2014|
|Venue:||The Grand Hyatt Hotel|
DINNER REVIEW © Linden Wilkie
Vega-Sicilia has stood alone – like Yquem in Sauternes, and DRC in Burgundy – at the very top of the Spanish wine hierarchy for many decades.
The estate sits on a very special clay-limestone terroir, on a gentle slope between woodland and the Ribera del Duero, at Valbuena, about a 45 minute drive from Valladolid Airport in Castile and Leon.
The continental climate is low in rainfall, bountiful in sunshine, but also – critically, a good diurnal range providing cool nights (this is a plateau high above sea level), allows for a gradual, long growing season, delivering fruit with good ripeness, intensity, complexity and freshness potential.
At the 250 hectare estate you see gnarled ancient vines pruned tight and low to a thin alluvial layer of poor topsoil. The traditional local variety of Tempranillo – Tinto Fino, constitutes around 85% (today) of the blend, and the balance is Cabernet Sauvignon, brought to Spain’s aristocratic estates in the 19th century.
If you visit, you will also now see one of the most sophisticated, high tech wineries in the world – all in aid of preserving the potential quality of a wine ‘made in the vineyard’. The maturation process of “Unico” is worth noting however, as it contributes to the wine’s special character. Alcoholic fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled wooden vats, followed by malolactic fermentation in cask. American oak is used (they have their own cooperage), the wines are transferred from new oak to older casks to achieve the desired balance. “Unico” used to spend often in excess of a decade in wood, but this has been reduced to five years for recent vintages. It is still typically released long after the vintage – the 2004 being the current release – but now a greater proportion of that ageing takes place in bottle rather than cask.
Vega Sicilia also produce a well worth seeking out wine from this estate called “Valbuena No.5” – which has more Merlot than Cabernet in the Tinto Fino blend, and receives winemaking, and wood ageing aimed at delivering a more fruit forward earlier drinking expression of Vega-Sicilia, (though I have tasted examples 20 and even 30 years of age which have been still fresh and delicious). It is a fine wine bargain.
The opportunity for this event arose when Sotheby’s auctioned off a single lot Vega Sicilia “Unico” comprising a single bottle each of 35 vintages spanning 1941 to 1999. A key attraction for this lot was that it has been consigned by Vega-Sicilia directly from their own cellars, all the bottles signed by Pablo, and the bottles packed up into new wooden cases. The perfect vertical really. Indeed, Pablo confirmed during our event that the corks were original – these bottles had not been ‘reconditioned’. All the fill levels were around very top shoulder or better. The corks were in very good shape.
We elected to structure the event as two consecutive meals – a dinner on Friday followed by a lunch on Monday, with 15 of us sharing the 35 bottles (actually 36 as the 2004 slipped in at the last minute thanks to Pablo. On the Friday we tasted, not blind, all the even numbered vintages, and on Saturday all the odd numbered vintages (plus the ’04). All the bottles were double decanted youngest to oldest with the work taking an hour or so before the event, and then the wines were served in flights from oldest to youngest.
The Grand Hyatt has, for all our events to date, done an amazing job on the food. (Richard Geoffroy was gushing at the beginning of last week at our Dom Perignon Rosé dinner that the pigeon that night was “3 star! 3 star!”). Sadly, the seafood Cantonese menu devised for the Saturday lunch, while of good quality and well executed, was a terrible match to the wines. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as the odds were against it, but the rabbit remained in its hat. In contrast, the western menu on the Friday evening was a dream run. The langoustine was a close call, but the Bayonne ham carried it. If you are looking for menu inspiration for the your bottles of “Unico”, I reprint the remaining menu savoury courses below – these three dishes were “Unico” matching stars!
Pan Fried Lightly Smoked Bresse Pigeon Breast and Filo Baked Pigeon Leg, Celeriac Mousseline, Beetroot, Black Lentils, Celery Leaves
Braised Veal Shank Ravioli, Topinambur Cream, Morel Mushrooms, Black Truffle
Char Grilled Lamb Loin with Pancetta, Homemade Lamb Sausage, Pomme Chateau, Parsnip, Young Carrots, Eggplant, Lamb Jus with a Touch of Dark Chocolate
Wines were all served in our Zalto Bordeaux glasses. The shape – relatively tall, more vertical than the Burgundy version, but with a wide base, worked extremely well.
Here is my experience of these 36 bottles…
Fine garnet with a tawny edge to the rim – great colour and still so bright and limpid in the glass; a sweet, forthcoming nose of toffee, dates. Figs, earth that is generous, there is some oxidation, but it is more an oxidative note. The sense of long ageing in old wood is very present. Old school VA lift gives the nose punch; bright, lively palate impression, with lots intense dried fruit character, VA, a rounded, ripe impression. The ’42 turned out to be one of the most intense, potent and generous of the old wines, lying in style somewhere between aged red wine and the acidity and VA you might find in an old vintage Terrantez Madeira. In any case, a success, and a pleasing wine to drink, and seemingly unmoved since I last tasted it in 2003. (Pablo Alvarez also says that the wine has hardly changed since he first had it in the ‘80s). 93.
Image: 1942 on the left, 1948 on the right.
Fine garnet with a lively rim, a touch lighter in shade and depth than the ’42. Earthy and discrete, and low key to smell after the big expansive ’42. This is more shy, less VA-lifted. A touch of old wood marzipan and toffee, but also more red fruit character to the fore. Elegant and refined on the palate, this has nuance. Delicious. Long sweet finish. 92
Fine garnet, with a fine garnet-brick rim – the lightest depth of colour of this flight of four wines; the nose is a cooler expression of Unico – herbal, with freshness and complexity. The Tempranillo tobacco leaf varietal notes are to the fore. Old oak toffee and vanilla. It is quite Rioja-like. Refined and elegant on the palate, with a super fine acid line running through an olive oil-like texture. This is fresh, harmonious and attractive. It was fully mature, and of the four in the flight, it was the first to begin to fade, and fray at the edges. A very good if not great Unico in my view. 91
Noticeably deeper than the ’42, ’48 and ’60 – and also some of the younger wines that followed. Still ruby at the core, with a bricked rim; an instantly glorious nose, ripe fruit, a touch of volatile acidity providing lift, earthy, smoky and intense, with real intensity of dark fruit, this is still so fresh and youthful; terrific presence of fruit still on the palate, the primary energy of fruit is still very much to the core of this, very harmonious with a rounded texture, layered, with wild raspberry flavor and bittersweet tannins which are completely glycerin-covered in that olive oil-like way. This is an impressive, large scaled Unico, bursting with vitality, and a seemingly endless future ahead of it. 96
Fine mature garnet, bricked rim; sweet marzipan nose, toffee (licorice allsorts), spicy and exuberantly opulent nose; sweet, exuberant, energetic palate, toffee-edged fruit, hedonistic in style, this vintage is all about sunshine. Lovely glycerin bright acid balance, long earthy-edged sweet finish. The overall impression is very direct, candied and hedonistic. It is a little simpler and less layered than the top examples, and less intensity or detail than, say, ’68 or ’70. But completely enjoyable now. 92
Evolved in colour with a distinctly browned rim, healthy clarity; earthy and subdued nose, touch of coffee and orange rind indicating advanced evolution; sweetness on the palate, with a chicory note, plush texture, the flavours are dull, this lacks vibrancy of fruit, and a coffee/mocha note in the flavor, it is kept going by fine, lively acidity. This is over-mature now and in decline (this bottle at least, anyway). Seems to be on a downward slope, though still enjoyable – it just had very tough company. 87
Good depth of colour and vitality, and little more opacity than ’64 and ’66 too; lovely expression, spicy and earthy on the nose, perfumed; vibrant dark fruit flavours, inner mouth perfume expression, really quite seductive, and a velvet, creamy texture to match. It reminded me a little of a great Clos de la Roche. Of all the Unicos at tonight’s dinner, this is a choice for drinking now (that great ’70 is still to hit its peak). A fantastic Unico. 96
Vibrant clear ruby with a garnet rim – pretty astonishing at 44; a sweet soaring nose of raspberry and perfume, herb and mineral notes; super extract on the palate, gorgeous fruit that gushes, such amplitude, there is complexity in the fruit, and a melting, oozing, endlessly layered flavor-packed texture that envelopes the whole palate and lasts and lasts on the finish. That olive oil texture here again. Utterly seamless and refined. But this still feels so young. Other vintages, like ’68, will offer more reward for the decades of cellaring to drink now, but there is no doubting the ’70 hits the peak in quality for Unico and is a monumental wine by any comparison. I don’t think it has reach its true potential yet. 98
Mid depth of colour, mature garnet, bricked rim; a low key mature nose, toffee, a touch of coffee, some fruit, earth and sweetness on the attractive complex nose; more vibrant on the palate, sweet, candied red and dark fruit, piquant acidity which sits at the core of the structure, but well rounded out by supple fruit and olive oil texture. There is not much amplitude here – this is a touch lean –
but the flavours are attractive, and there is a nice delicacy to the expression. This is a stylish Unico. 91
A shade deeper than the ’72; sweet fruit and some earthiness on the nose; vibrant, taut, still some youthfulness to the fruit, and still some tannin here. Grippy texture. There is potency to this, but it dips on the finish, before delivering an attractive aftertaste. Lacks a little harmony. Good fruit and flavor however. 90
Garnet with a mature rim; sweet fruit nose, though there is a plastic aroma that is a little off; juicy red and dark fruit on the palate; bright acid-driven palate, some VA, and an odd flavor note again from the palate. Fleshy and fruity. Perhaps a non-representative bottle? 88?
Fleshy dark fruit, raspberry nose – ’70-like, but not as intense; really fleshy in style, the acidity a notch lower though still lively, this is so melting and velvet in texture. Great complexity and a real sense of completeness. This has another level in perfume. So harmonius. Just terrific! Competes with the ’68 for my favourite tonight. I love this wine. 96
Ripe, intense, sweet, an almost cherry-like juiciness on the nose and palate, lots of perfume and exuberance still. The fruit here tips over from fresh to confit in expression, this is decadent and delicious. An exuberant, fleshy Unico. Lots of perfume too. Very good. 94
Fine garnet, bricked edge; earthy, clarety sweet, deep-set nose, dark fruit and cedar; ripe, potent, with sweet fruit and an attractively bittersweet edge, fleshy, rounded, quite punchy, flighty even. 92
Quite mature in appearance, garnet with a bricked rim, lighter intensity of colour and depth; a sweet, ripe, biscuit nose; spicy, wild and sweet fruit, fudge-edged, this is like the ’64, but softer, more open in texture and expression, great acidity keeps the decadence flowing. Despite the fine acidity, the overall impression is soft, pillowy, enveloping, and the flavours are decadent and sweet and evolved. I found this an idiosyncratic Unico, quite exotic in the way that many 1990 clarets can be. If you like those, you will love this. 94
Deep and youthful appearance; still so fresh and youthful. This has terrific fruit and harmony and a wild herb edginess. Real precision and balance. Blackberry fruit and a Northern Rhone syrah-like bacon fat, glucerin and piquant acid element in the mix. This is complex, and very complete. It is also still very young. A terrific Unico for further cellaring, though it already offers a lot and can be enjoyed now. But, I’d wait. One of the best for sure. 95
Sweet, decadent, more mature than ’94, and spicier; intense and a slightly sweet and sour way, balanced by a really savoury morishness. This is a very gourmand Unico, demanding a some juicy grilled meat. Drink this now while you wait for the ’94. 92
Deep colour still; sweet, with a blue-fruit edge and still a whiff of oak sitting out as a distinct aromatic note; complex, fresh, lovely fruit, tangy tobacco leaf note, sweet tannins and fine acidity. Rounded, and the more it opened in the glass, the better it got. Superb quality. 94
Bright mature garnet tawny, bright and limpid in the glass; sweet toffee nougat nose, combined with earth, dried red fruit and dried blue and red flowers – an attractive and expressive nose; sweet attack, lovely fruit, very rounded, old wood flavor, smoky, with a fine long finish. Duty old wood notes (like old wooden furniture). Sweet, with elevated acidity. Unlike the ’42 which seemed permanently stable, this ’41 began to fade a little after 20 minutes in the wide-bottomed glass, though it still held and had not collapsed after 2 hours in the glass. 91
Clear bright tawny, mid to light depth of colour; lovely nose, toffee-fudge, complex dried fruits and perfume; taut acidity on the palate providing a fine spine to the very elegant and perfumed fruit. This has terrific haromony and presence, with such grace and elegance. One of the most refined and beautiful Unicos. Very coherent and detailed. It held in the glass until I finished it two hours later. Sublime. 96
Clear, bright light tawny; and earthy nose, red fruit, real Tempranillo to the fore with tabocco leaf and red currant, expressive and nuanced nose; fresh, lively on the palate, some VA, olive oil and fine acidity, but this is not “sweet and sour”, it is clear, fresh and nuanced in flavor, earthy edged, elegant and long. My only criticism is that it is a touch lean and slim-middled. Very good though, and very healthy and vital condition. 92
Clear garnet-tawny; gorgeous nose of plum and dark cherry, smoke and earth, the wood sits more to the background here. Despite the fruit notes, there is an attractive coolness, expressed through a cooked beetroot-like note; plush-fruited and textured palate, beetrooty fruit, a touch of olive oil, taut fresh acidity, which is elevated. There is a slight touch of greenness, but it is without bitterness or astringency, and so I think it is more of an attractive aromatic component here. This is complex, fleshy, yet savoury, with fully resolved tannin. Refined, elegant and complete, it continued to improve in the glass throughout the lunch. 94
Bright and clear, garnet core with a broad tawny rim; fragrant, freshm detailed nose, tobacco leaf note; freshness and brightness on the palate, firmly structured by the acidity, it feels a bit firm and closed, a little mute. Crisp and slender, with very good flavor, it held in the glass but never fully opened. 90
Fine clear tawny, mature rim; sweet nose, a touch of chicory, candied raspberry, a touch of toffee and citrus rind; fleshy, sweet, moderate weight, initially a littke prickly in the VA-edged acidity, but this came together wonderfully in the glass over the lunch. Lovely, lovely fruit, with a candied, decadent edge, it really blossomed with great complexity and perfume. It is so gently enveloping on the palate, really sedutive, and with good acid-drive to a long finish. One of my favourites. I suspect only pristine bottles will show this well, as the citrus rind and chicory notes on the nose suggest. This bottle was flat out terrific though. 95
Clear garnet-tawny; sweet leafy nose, quite savoury, a touch floral – the aroma of a garden, with damp earth, fresh greenness, and floral notes; good fruit and velvet texture initially, but the expression dulled and diminished in the glass. A bit insubstantial and lean, though still very decent. Disappointing therefore, as I recall a very good wine last time I had a ’73 Unico. This bottle 87
Garnet with a bit of opacity – one of the deeper looking Unicos; sweet fruit on the nose, confit-roasted fruit character, a sweet and exuberant nose; real depth of fruit on the palate, sits behind the ’62 and ’70 but emulates that style and power and depth of fruit. Really harmonious, plush and fleshy still. This is a concentrated and impressive Unico, statuesque in style. There is a slight pinch, a slight tart edge that is not there in the ’62 or ’70 however. That caveat aside, this is a super impressive, terrific Unico, and I feel it is still on an upward trajectory if this bottle is representative. One of the surprise Unicos. 95
Fine garnet, clear and a mid-depth of colour; lovely fragrance and freshness Super clarity of expression, smoke tar, mineral, olives, dates and dark fruit; a lovely fleshy Unico, pristine, with super clarity and detail, confit raspberry, beautiful fruit that retains some freshness. Fine acidity. A fleshy but elegant style. To me this is classic, quintessential Unico. 94
Clearly powerful and youthful still, but this bottle marred by TCA.
Clear, bright garnet, with a touch of development on the rim; a very good nose, deep, dark and fruity with a charred wood note; concentrated on the palate with a taut, crisp core of fruit and a slightly fudgy edge. Smoky, sweet vanillin old oak note prominent. Ripe, in a slightly scorched way. Impressively rich and fruity, pleasurable and decadent, but lacks the extra dimension of nuance and perfume. 92
Fine, still youthful and deep in appearance, transparent and fresh; ripe on the nose with a smoky salty-umami edge to the attractive dark fruit, as well as a nutty oak note; concentrated on the palate, very fleshy, round, and, opulent weight – indeed there is a sense of alcohol here, quite open-textured and mouthfillingly fleshy and exuberant. A real pleaser – this is one of those Unicos that would unite tasters. After 30 minutes in the glass, it became even more open and expressive; melting and sumptuous in texture, harmonious and lovely. A terrific Unico. 95
Bright clear garnet; a really intriguing nose, quite floral – and stands out for it – vanilla American oak quite prominent also; super bright lifted acidity marks the palate style, this reminded me more of a crisp but concentrated Chevalier-Montrachet than any other red wine anology. Red fruit notes overlaying a fine white wine structure and palate feel. Smoky, nutty toffeed oak notes on the finish. This is a highly individual Unico – an Unico-Unico perhaps. A number of people loved this style. I found it intriguing but not as attractive as other vintages. 91
Full garnet; sweet fruit and a touch of banana cake on the nose; this is sweet and cuddly after the powerful and crisp ’87. Sweet lush fruit, still youthful, woodspice and cake flavours, really harmonious, refined and rounded, luminous and effortless. Fragrant and fine. This is quintessential Unico, and one of my favourites this weekend. 96
Clear garnet with a touch of development at the edge; sweet and savoury nose, really fragrant and expressive nuanced nose; fleshy, taut, totally classic fruit and spice profile, drinking really well. This has more energy, sinew and complexity than the ’89, but is less relaxed and cuddly. Take your pick – both are superb. 95
Friday Dinner Session (Even Numbered Vintages) – 18 wines
Vega Sicilia Unico 1942, 1948, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972,
Saturday Lunch Session (Odd Number Vintages) – 17 wines
Vega Sicilia Unico 1941, 1953, 1957, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1999