GETTING INVITED to media wine events is fairly common for a writer like myself, but an invite for an afternoon tasting, and on a very busy working Monday, is normally an automatic “Hell No!” from me. But this invitation came from my good friend Damien Planchenault of the Okada Manila, and the winery being featured in the tasting just happened to be Vega Sicilia. This was more than enough incentive for me to ditch my afternoon office routine last Monday and to drive some 20 kilometers to make the 3 p.m. call time.
RIBERA DEL DUERO AND VEGA SICILIA
Ribera del Duero literally means “Duero riverbank” in English. It is a modest 21,000+ hectare vine-haven located in Spain’s autonomous region of Castile-Leon, in the north. The Duero river, as it is called in Spain, crosses from north central Spain to Porto in Portugal where it is called the “Douro.” This river, stretching almost 900 kilometers in length, provides the riverine influence that is so valuable to the overall terroir of the Ribera del Duero wine region.
The most legendary Spanish winery, Vega Sicilia, paved the way for the rise to fame of the Ribera del Duero region. Established in 1864, Vega Sicilia was not only one of the oldest recorded wineries in all of Spain, but it was also the pioneer in planting French Bordeaux varietals, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Malbec. These varietals blended with majority Tempranillo (known as either Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais in Spain) resulted in luscious wines with fantastic longevity. Since 1982 — the same year Ribera del Duero got granted its Denominación de Origen (DO) status — the winery has been under the very progressive ownership of the Álvarez family. Among hardcore Vega Sicilia fans are Prince Charles (the next King) of the British Royal Family and Hollywood star couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
The Álvarez family, with Pablo Álvarez at the helm, further expanded the company with the establishment of new wineries: Bodegas Alion (1992) from same Ribera del Duero, Tokaj-Oremus (1993) from Tokaji Hungary and the only non-Spanish estate of the company, Bodegas Pintia (2001) in nearby Toro region, west of Ribera del Duero, and Macan (2004) from Rioja, a partnership with no less than Bordeaux royalty, Benjamin de Rothschild.
AMAZING TASTING SESSION AT THE LA PIAZZA
While there was no amazing water fountain show to entertain us during the wine tasting session at Okada’s flagship fine-dining restaurant La Piazza, the wine line-up presented for us at the Vega Sicilia afternoon tasting session, done in collaboration with Terry’s Selection and Happy Living Corp., was as good as it gets. Below are my customary tasting notes in the correct sequence of tasting.
• Macan 2013 Rioja — This is the joint project between Vega Sicilia owner Pablo Alvarez and Benjamin de Rothschild entering the highly competitive Rioja region — arguably Spain’s preeminent wine region and the first region to get a DO status in 1925, and first DO to be promoted to DOC (“C” meaning Calificada) in 1991. Rioja is where Marques de Murrieta, Marques de Riscal, Bodegas Muga and even more upstarts like Roda and Altanza are all thriving in. Putting the two biggest names from Ribera del Duero and Bordeaux together will surely get attraction, and the Macan wines have done well since its inception. I am trying my Macan wine for the first time, and it was surely a very pleasant experience.
“This 100% Tempranillo wine is quite racy on the nose, very fresh with cut-grass notes, black currant, minerals, and peppercorn, it is quite dry, with very nice acidity, the body is supple, and the finish has charred wood with dried berries.”
• Alion 2014 Ribera del Duero — Bodegas Alion is Vega Sicilia’s second winery, and located just over 10 kilometers from Vega Sicilia. Alion has always been known as the kid brother of Vega Sicilia. For years, Alion has been the “go to” Ribera wine for those who can not afford Vega Sicilia. I am shamelessly and admittedly one of them. Unlike Vega Sicilia, Alion is made from 100% Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino).
“Inky, dark, herbaceous, cinnamon bark, very clean on the flavor, with crisp acid, bitter-charred peppery finish.”
• Pintia 2013 Toro — Bodegas Pintia is Vega Sicilia’s entry in the nearby Toro region. This is one region that Vega Sicilia has helped expand because of the immense popularity of Pintia. Pintia is made from 100% Tempranilla (in this region it is called Tinta de Toro). I have always loved Toro wine for its rawness, rustic-ness and power, and it can really age too as I drank some very nice Farina Campus Toro 2000 and 2003 vintages just a week ago.
“Earthy, mushroom, quite complex on the nose, but on the palate, the wine is amazingly soft, tannins still rigid but already approachable, rich in dark fruit flavors, long and lingering at the end.”
• Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2011 Ribera del Duero — The 5° refers to the five years the wine spent in both oak and bottle aging prior to its commercial release. Valbuena 5° is made from majority Tempranillo, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“Charming nose with so much happening as wine is being swirled, licorice, black currant, red cherries, violets, the texture is super silky, with ripe juicy round finish.”
I have tasted at the very least six different vintages of the Valbuena 5° and this 2011 is my favorite to date.
• Vega Sicilia Unico 2005 Ribera del Duero — This flagship wine also happens to be Spain’s most iconic wine. Unico is made from majority Tempranillo with a dose of Cabernet Sauvignon — this is the original blend that helped Vega Sicilia catapult Ribera del Duero wines into fame. Unico is released after 10 years, and is one of the few wineries in the world to have this discipline for still wines.
“The wine is still quite heady, with cedar, fresh forest nose, the plums and fruits started to beautifully surface after more aeration, licorice, orange peel, peppercorn, texture is grainy with lots of punch, still continues to evolve on the glass, full-bodied, rich and very long at the end.”
• Oremus Aszu 3 Puttonyos 2013 Tokaj — Tokaj, Tokaji, or Tokay is Hungary’s most popular region and home of the furmint grape. Oremus represents Vega Sicilia’s only foray into white wines. Puttonyos is a measurement of residual sugar, and 3 Puttonyos means 60 gms per liter.
“Plastic resin nose, white flower, marmalade, honeyed, very good acid backbone to make it very refreshing, sweet apricot taste, long and succulent finish.”
With these kinds of wines, I am now reconsidering my stance on afternoon wine tastings.
All of the above tasted wines are available for purchase at the Terry’s Selection gourmet shops.
The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.