Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’
An Icon because...
Vega Sicilia is unquestionably Spain’s most iconic estate, and it is universally considered Spain’s First Growth. Unico, a mythical wine with over a century of history and tradition, is the estate’s flagship wine. It is produced from the estate’s best parcels and released only after an extensive aging process that provides a distinctive identity to the wine and its legendary aging potential. Unico is, without doubt, one of the world’s greatest reds. Not surprisingly, Unico means “unique” or “the only one.”
The estate Vega Sicilia is located in the Ribera del Duero DO, within the province of Valladolid in the region of Castilla y León, in the northern part of the Meseta Central. It was established in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves. At that time, the area was virtually isolated and unknown for wine production. After a trip to Bordeaux, Don Eloy Lecanda brought cuttings of Bordeaux grapes (notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec) and planted them alongside Tinto Fino, a local clone of Tempranillo.
The estate was later acquired by the Herrero family, who, in the early 1900s, leased the property to Rioja grower and negotiant Cosme Palacio. Palacio hired the winemaker Domingo Garramiola Txomin, who significantly contributed to define the Vega Sicilia wine style. He introduced Bordeaux winemaking techniques such as extended maturation in small oak barrels and the practice of estate bottling. Domingo produced the first vintage of Unico in 1915 from a blend of Tempranillo and Bordeaux grapes. In the following decades, Unico gradually became Spain’s most celebrated wine… one of the world’s wine legends was born.
Despite the prestige acquired, Vega Sicilia went through some difficult times during the second half of the 20th century. The estate changed hands between the 1950s and the 1960s, and ultimately wine quality suffered. Thankfully, in 1982, the Alvarez family bought the property and made significant investments, restoring and improving the quality and consistency of the wines of Vega Sicilia.
The origin of the estate’s name remains somehow uncertain. It is believed to derive from the combination of the word ‘vega’ (the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero River) and the name of Saint Cecilia.
The wines of Vega Sicilia are made from estate-grown grapes. The property has more than 500 ac cultivated to vines located at an altitude of 2,300-2,900 ft above sea level. The soils are diverse and primarily composed of limestone. The combination of elevation, continental climate (hot summers and cold winters), and marked diurnal temperature variation result in grapes achieving high ripeness levels while maintaining high acidity.
Bush-trained (en vaso) Tempranillo vines are the dominant variety and account for about 80% of the vineyards. Bordeaux grapes account for about 20%. Approximately 100 ac of vines are dedicated to Unico, and they include the oldest, lower-yielding vines (60-65 years old). The fruit from the younger vines (25-35 years old) is used for the estate’s outstanding second wine, Valbuena 5°.
Unico’s style has remained essentially the same since its creation, and the wine has been produced following almost the same production method it always has been. However, in the last 20 years, the proportion of Bordeaux grapes was reduced, and oak aging shortened in favor of bottle aging.
Recent vintages of Unico are mainly based on Tempranillo (90-97%) with a small proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon (3-10%). The exact proportions vary from year to year. The grapes for Unico go through a very stringent selection process. They are destemmed and fermented with indigenous yeast in wooden vats. The grapes and must are moved into the vessels by gravity.
What defines Unico’s style is the long and complex maturation process. Unico used to be mainly bottled to order; thus, aging times varied depending on sales. Some vintages were released only after 15-20 years in the cellar and sometimes for even longer than that! However, since the 1980s, the aging period has become more uniform and usually lasts for about ten years (six of which are spent in oak and four in bottle).
After fermentation, the wine is transferred into small oak barrels (50% new French oak and 50% one to four years old American oak) for 12 to 24 months, depending on the vintage. After the maturation in small oak barrels, the wine is transferred into large (22,000-liter) old oak vats for four to five years before being bottled and aged for a further three to five years before release.
It is often said that Unico is impossible to describe and that one just has to taste it. The wine is considered a compelling benchmark of elegance, nuance, complexity, and tradition. Unico manages the difficult task of combining finesse with opulence, displaying alluring perfume, refined concentration, purity, silky texture, and smooth tannins. It combines multiple layers of flavors ranging from violet and ripe black fruit to anise, earth, mushrooms, leather, and delicate oak notes. Often, the deep color and the still youthful aromas and taste make it very difficult to guess the age of the wine. Unico is regarded as one of the world’s longest-lived red wines. According to Vega Sicilia, Unico has an aging potential of 40-60 years if properly stored!
Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial
Unico is also produced in an even more legendary and rarer version, the Unico Reserva Especial, which follows the historic Spanish tradition of producing multi-vintage blends. The Reserva Especial is a non-vintage wine made from a blend of two to three different vintages of Unico. It is the rarest (only 15,000 bottles released every year), and the most expensive wine (600+$) produced at Vega Sicilia.ds).
Before 2010, Unico was fermented in 40,000-liter vats, the only available size at the winery. If there was not enough wine volume of the quality deemed worthy of Unico, the wine was not produced (such as in the vintages 1963, 1971, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1997, and 2001). After 2010 however, smaller fermentation vessels were introduced, allowing the estate to produce Unico more consistently throughout the years. Some of the best vintages of Unico are 1953, 1962, 1964, 1970, 1994, 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
The Wine Facts
* DO Designation: Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva
* Alcohol: 14-14.5%
* Production volume: ~ 40,000-100,000 (depending on the vintage)
* Price: ~400-450$