Jonathan Ray looks back on a fine Spectator Winemaker Lunch with Vega Sicilia.
An excellent lunch in the Spectator boardroom today as Antonio Menéndez, managing director (sales and marketing) of mighty Vega Sicilia hosted the latest in our series of Spectator Winemaker Lunches.
Vega Sicilia in Spain’s Ribera del Duero has an extraordinary reputation and is regarded as Spain’s one and only ‘first growth’. It’s most celebrated wine is its ‘Unico’ which can sell for hundreds of pounds a bottle although the Vega Sicilia group also owns four other wineries and produces 13 different wines. Today we were treated to a perfect snapshot of the range with five wines.
We started with the 2014 Oremus ‘Mandolás’ Tokaji Dry Furmint, a deliciously creamy and well balanced white from Hungary (Vega Sicilia’s only non-Spanish operation). Antonio explained that nearly all Tokaji is sweet, sumptuously so. Indeed, Oremus (bought in 1993 by a Spanish consortium headed by David Álvarez, Vega Sicilia’s owner) was the first winery to start producing dry whites in the region in 2001. Today there are over twenty wineries making dry whites.
I adore the sweet wines of Tokaji – who doesn’t? – and only the other day tried some exquisite Tokaji Essensia from the Royal Tokaji Company. Apparently it had taken some ten years to ferment (to a paltry 2%vol) and was so thick and viscous and outrageously sweet that one is expected to sup it from a small crystal spoon. It was fabulous and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Tokaji Essensia is deemed so efficacious that it might even raise one from the dead. I’ve made a mental note to keep a bottle by the bed just in case.
But back to the Oremus ‘Mandolás’ which was dry, balanced and complex with lemon, lime and orange notes, almonds, and a great freshness and a vibrant acidity. And it’s this acidity that Furmint has that makes it perfect for a dry white as refreshing as this as well as the great sweet wines. For unlike a Sauternes, say, or a Trockenbeerenauslese, both so richly sweet they need to be chilled, sweet Tokaji can be enjoyed at room temperature, the zingy acidity combating the extraordinary sweetness and keeping it vibrant and lively in the mouth without cloying.
We then moved onto four reds served side by side in two pairs. First: the 2011 Pintia alongside the 2012 Macán Clásico Rioja. The Pintia comes from Toro and was a big, butch and bold 15%vol. Not that it seemed headily alcoholic. On the contrary it was beautifully balanced.
Antonio explained that Pintia is 100% Tempranillo and that in Toro the vines have to dig deep through 80cm of stones, then through clay to get to water. The heat of the day is reflected back on the vines from the stones at night and there is a very real risk of over-maturation. The result is hardy, thick-skinned grapes which give big, explosive wines of intense concentration and alcohol.
The 2011 Pintia is no exception and it was nothing if not mouth-filling. It was smooth and gentle on the palate, though, with rich dark fruit, a touch of spice and even some very dark chocolate. All of us round the table loved it.
Next was the 2012 Macán Clásico Rioja. In Rioja, Tempranillo grows with much thinner skins which leads to lighter, more delicate wines. Unlike in Toro, here Tempranillo can’t cope with new oak, so a blend of new and old oak is used in its maturation. As a result it was wonderfully soft and smooth with a gentle mellowness to it.
As we moved onto the next two red wines, Antonio explained that in Toro Tempranillo gives rustic and big-boned wines; in Rioja it gives wines with mineral, earthy notes and in Ribera del Duero it gives the most elegant examples of all.
And so on to the 2009 Vega Sicilia Valbuena, served alongside the 2007 Vega Sicilia Unico. Antonio was at pains to point out that Valbuena is not the second wine of Vega Sicilia as is sometimes assumed. It’s a different blend, has a different maturation and a different personality, he told us.
The 2009 that we drank was made up of 90 per cent Tempranillo and 10 per cent of Merlot and Malbec. (Incidentally, we learned that the 2010 is 95 per cent Tempranillo and 5 per cent Merlot whilst the 2011 and all vintages thereafter are 100 per cent Tempranillo.)
The 2009 Valbuena was soft, smooth and richly flavoured, with baked, stewed fruits such as plums and prunes and barely a whisper of tannin. A fine acidity lifted it beautifully. The 2007 Unico beside it had been oak-fermented and aged for ten years in barrel and bottle before release. Despite being nine years old we all agreed it seemed remarkably youthful.
“That’s because it’s built to age,” explained Antonio. “We recommend keeping these wines for 30, maybe 40 years. Drinking the 2007 now is like going to a movie and leaving 20 minutes before the end. The best is yet to come.”
It was beguilingly soft and smooth and with extraordinary depth of flavour, full of raspberries, mulberries, red and dark cherries and, yes, chocolate and even – did I imagine it? – coffee. And it kept changing in the glass, too, especially as we switched between it and the Valbuena.
“I liken the Unico to an English gentleman in his club or office,” said Antonio. “He’s in his beautiful Savile Row suit and polished shoes and a furled umbrella. The Valbuena is the same gentleman relaxing at home in his open neck shirt and chinos.”
We all agreed that Vega Siclia Unico is without doubt one of the great wines of the world. The demand for it far outstrips supply and it’s little wonder to hear that it’s sold on allocation only.
Those of us in the boardroom today were indeed fortunate to be drinking it and the other four excellent wines. Indeed, I can’t believe there’s a better value lunch in London at the moment than the Spectator Winemaker Lunches. For £70 you get to meet and chat to the folk who make or market these fabulous wines (previous lunches have featured Domaine Chanson, Hamilton Russell, Seresin Estate, Cakebread Cellars, Zind-Humbrecht and so on) whilst enjoying a fine four course cold lunch from Forman & Field and pretty much all you can drink.
Do come and join us next time! You can find out about all of our events here.