Occasionally there is an exceptional event and earlier this year I was lucky to attend such an occasion. Close to the old palace of St James’s a tasting of the ‘royalty’ of Spanish wines was brought together for a fine celebratory dinner – Vega Sicilia, the first 150 years.
The History of a fine vineyard
The wine tasting dinner event, held in the esteemed cellars of Berry Brothers, (who are able to boast a history of some 300 years), was to celebrate 150 years of creating fine wines by the house of Vega Sicilia. The vineyard was founded by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves in the 1860s. Originally it was the only vineyard in Ribera del Duero located two hours by car from Madrid.
Chaves had the foresight to return from a visit to France with cuttings of Bordeaux vines which he planted amongst the indigenous variety of vines known today as Tinto Fino or Tempranillo. In the 1880s the vines were known as the Tinto del Pais or ‘Country Red’.
The Choice of a wine-maker
The Ribera de Duero has a terroir of schistous (a sub-soil of flakey micaceous mineral rocks in thin layers). The soils are complex with quartzite gravel and limestone fragments. Add to this a micro climate giving some 2,200 hours of sunshine a year and morning mists from the River Duero and a vineyard is born. It might sounds idyllic but there is a sting in the tail. The winters are hard (- 15 ˚C/5 ˚F) and the cold frosty mornings last until May. All that sunshine also brings heat and the long, hot summers can reach in excess of 40˚C/104˚F with the occasional interest created by hail storms and rain.
The vine combinations are also complex with Tempranillo covering 85% of the vineyard with the balance consisting of French Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and smaller amount of Merlot and Malbec. All of these varietals are used in the wine-making of the Valbuena and the famous Unico wines.
In 1982 the Álverez family bought the vineyard and has invested money, time and knowledge and a special dedication to perfectionism of Vega Sicilia. 1982 was also the year that the Ribera del Duero was granted the status of Denominción de Origen (DO). DO status can be compared to the French concept of appellations. In effect it is a system backed by Spanish law and designed to give purchasers the security of knowing the wine is from the region specified and within the quality terms required. The estate of Vega Sicilia comprises of some 200 hectares (494 acres) and produces Unico, Valbuena and Alión.
The Álverez family policy is that only the best grapes are used and grapes are only collected from vines which are over 10 years old. The average vine is over 30 years old, the purity of the grape is guaranteed as no pesticides or herbicides are used.
The Vega Sicilia Dinner
The dinner was hosted by Berry Bros. & Rudd and held in the 300 year old cellar at No.3 St James’s Street. The firm holds two Royal Warrants and has eight masters of wine, including Simon Field. Berry Bros. might be better known in America because of its links to Prohibition when the firm used to export products to the Bahamas, a popular destination of American smugglers, and the creation of Cutty Sark whiskey (Scotch).
You may imagine the anticipation of a dinner with two such esteemed houses meeting in one place. Representing Vega Sicilia was Pablo Álverez (M.D.) and Xavier Ausás López de Casto the Technical Director and hosting on behalf of Berry Bros. was Simon Field, MW.
The Wine List
2007 Valbuena, Bodegas Vega Sicilia
1994 Vega Sicilia, Unico
1986 Vega Sicilia, Unico
1976 Vega Sicilia, Unico
1966 Vega Sicilia, Unico
Vega Sicilia, reserve Especial (released in 2012)
2002 Oremus, Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos , Hungry
One of the keys to wine is the food which accompanies it and on this evening we were to be presented with a meal to fit the wine. Before I commence with food and wine, it is essential to say that Vegas Sicilia is a wine which becomes more delightful as it develops in the glass and the nuances of the wine can only be tasted over a period of time – aeration has a part to play.
Join us again next week to find out about the Vega Sicilia wine tasting itself.