Spanish wines know no bounds.


As you can guess, the London Wine Trade calendar is choc-a-block with tastings. If you went to them all you wouldn’t have time to work! So, selection is the name of the game. I recently received an invitation from Berry Bros & Rudd to a tasting in their historic St. James’s Street cellars; two words turned my head. Vega Sicilia. Three other words sealed it into my diary; vertical, tasting, Valbuena.
Vega Sicilia is one of Spain's most prestigious wine estates and is often referred to as Spain’s "first growth". Located in the ‘Valbuena del Duero’ south of the River Duero in the Ribera del Duero region of northern Spain, their celebrated hillside vineyards lie at about 650 – 900 metres above sea level and cover about 250 hectares.
As my anorak readers will know, Vega Sicilia’s portfolio is headed by Unico, (Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon), their flagship red, followed by Reserva Especial (a blend of top vintages) and Valbuena. Valbuena is generally made from younger vines (if 20-25 years can be classed as young) and in years when Unico is not produced, the grapes normally destined for Unico go to producing Valbuena.  
Many commentators refer to Valbuena as Vega Sicilia’s ‘second wine’. I can’t agree. This is   a first class wine that I often prefer to Unico. Valbuena 2012 has a bottle price tag of £130 ($200) … I rest my case.
Valbuena is Vega Sicilia’s ‘expression of Tempranillo’ as the wine is dominated by this famous Spanish variety. Merlot also plays a small part for depending on the vintage, between one and six per cent is added to give softness and roundness to the blend.   
Vega Sicilia was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who arrived from Bordeaux with cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec under his arm and planted them together with the local hero Tinto Fino, that’s Tempranillo to you and me. By 1903 under the ownership of Antonio Herrero the wines were gaining international recognition.

The estate changed hands several times before its acquisition by the present owners, the Alvarez family, in 1982. The family built Vega Sicilia’s global reputation throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when classic vintages of Unico (1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1975) were all readily available.
Back to St. James’s Street. The Valbuena tasting was hosted by Vega Sicilia’s winemaker Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan who is proudly carrying the Estate’s traditions into the new generation. In the vineyard, low yields, individual plot selection, clonal choice, canopy management, green and manual harvesting set the tone, “we started making our own compost 32 years ago. We have 55 different soils and Valbuena is taken from about 30 different plots – we work them all one by one”, Gonzalo explains.  For the mathematically minded, the vineyards have a 3,0 metre x 1,50 metre grid which means a total of 2,222 vines per hectare with an average yield of 1,0 - 1,50 kilograms of grapes per vine. That’ll impress your friends this weekend!
Vega Sicilia’s meticulous winemaking and unique ageing is also in safe hands with Gonzalo. In the bodega, following fermentation in stainless steel at a controlled maximum temperature of 28 degrees centigrade, the wines undertake a complicated series of rackings from large oak vats to new and old oak barriques. Valbuena is aged in large vats that vary from 8,000 -15,000 litres before being transferred to French and American oak 225 litre barrels, “American oak has always been popular at Vega Sicilia. Cooler vintages allow us to us a little more American but that said, we’re trying to reduce our use of oak”, Gonzalo reveals.   
Whereas Unico undertakes a long ageing process, (incredibly the celebrated 1970 was aged for 16 years), Valbuena is aged for a total of 5 years, (generally about three in oak, about two in bottle) hence the name ‘Valbuena No.5’. For me, the hallmark of the Vega Sicilia portfolio is that even with extended ageing the wines retain a wonderful, mouthwatering freshness; this touch of magic was evident in the Valbuena tasted across an array of vintages on that sunny spring morning in London S.W.1.  
It was interesting to note that the wines in the vertical tasting each reflected their own individual vintage - 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 1995.  “Unlike with Unico where it’s aged for longer and you lose the vintage a bit”, Gonzalo added.  
Like me, you probably start contemplating suicide when you see a long list of tasting notes so here are notes on my three top wines from the amazing tasting.
Valbuena 2011.  Lovely mouthfeel, mouth-watering, good fruit-acid balance, lovely purity of fruit with positive tannins and a gentle sheen of spicy oak, long layered finish. Depth and balance indicate long ageing potential – 20 years?

Valbuena 2010.  (“A legendary vintage following a near perfect growing season”); powerful yet crisp dark fruit with attractive toasty overtones, friendly tannins, cracking purity of fruit, happy lingering finish. Depth and balance indicate long ageing potential – 20 years?

Valbuena 2006.   (“From a very early vintage, one of the earliest”). Sunny, hot vintage reflected in spiced velvety, vibrant black fruit warmth balanced with mouth-watering freshness and integrated tannins. Lovely fruit purity, texture and mouthfeel. Very long. Very fine.

The invitation stood out. The wines stood out. It was a privilege to be there and taste such wonderful wines with the winemaker. ‘I’ve just been accused of sitting on the fence with regard to my favourite wine. “Was it 2011, 2010 or 2006?” ‘Just jumped off …. 2006! Wow!

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