Although the Live-Ex classification of brands outside Bordeaux lists Pingus as first growth and Vega Sicilia Único as second growth, the latter is still Spain’s best known red. The weight of its long, legendary history since its creation at the beginning of the 20th century still makes a difference.
Made from Ribera del Duero’s powerful grapes, its winemaking style sets Único apart. Ageing times are long, both in oak (a combination of wood casks and barrels) and bottle and, as a general rule, the wine is released 10 years after the harvest date.
Unless you’re a big fan of Único, keeping abreast of the brand’s recent releases hasn’t been easy as Vega Sicilia has not followed a chronological order. Two climatically challenging vintages (2007 and 2008) were preceded by the powerful 2005 whose market debut was postponed to 2017. This meant that the 2007 vintage was released in 2015; 2008 in 2016 and 2005 in 2017; the 2006 is set to be on the market in February. So while 2007 and 2008 were aged two years less than usual, 2005 and 2006 exceeded standard aging times by two years.
Good things come to those who wait: 2006 Vega Sicilia Único is ready after almost 12 years of aging. Compared to previously released vintages (rain and frost in 2007; low temperatures in 2008 and the ripeness of 2005), 2006 displays the complexity and the mature profile expected from a wine with such a long ageing.
Official vintage ratings are less than reliable these days but it is significant to see that 2007 and 2008 were rated “very good” by Ribera’s Regulatory Board while 2006 was just “good”. This apparent paradox is explained by the fact that 2006 came after the extraordinarily balanced 2004 (rated “excellent”) and the ripe, powerful 2005 at a time when opulent fruit bombs were still a hot trend –for many wineries in the area 2005 outperformed 2004. I remember Xavier Ausàs, Vega Sicilia’s former winemaker, saying that 2007 and 2008 “had lifted 2006 to be a great vintage”.
Despite the challenging climate in Ribera del Duero, the 2006 harvest came early and easily at Vega Sicilia resulting in beautifully ripe grapes. Following a cold winter with some snow, spring was abnormally mild leading to an early flowering. High temperatures in late August and September brought the harvest forward with the first grapes being picked 9th September. Rain halted the picking for a short time but the overall impression was of very healthy, balanced grapes.
The wine somehow reflects this tranquility. Intense, deep and complex aromas (red and black fruit jam, liquorice and dark chocolate) evolve towards fascinating and inviting notes of dry flowers and rare spices. There’s nothing excessive in the way Único 2006 fills the palate with its elegant, velvety texture and bright acidity adding juiciness to a long finish. It has all the elements present in an outstanding fine wine.
Comparing Único’s three latest vintages was really interesting. The three bottles, opened with Coravin after being stored in a wine fridge, were samples provided by Vega Sicilia a few months before their commercial release.
With a clearly Atlantic profile, 2008 was one of the coolest and delayed harvests in Spain during that decade. When frost hit Ribera del Duero in September, Vega Sicilia turned on their anti-frost towers. Less new oak was used for Único and the wine spent less time than usual in wooden tanks. Even today it feels a bit closed and less expressive. It is concentrated and a bit austere and fails to fill the palate like 2006 does but it could provide pleasant surprises in the future. My tasting notes haven’t changed much from the ones I wrote down two years ago: it shows less evolution than 2006 and has remained pretty much the same. It will be interesting to learn how it develops in 10, 15 or 20 years.
In contrast, 2005 was ripe, fruit-driven and powerful, the kind of vintage that usually results in high quality reds throughout the area as it allows gentle extraction and there’s usually plenty of fruit and alcohol to wrap tannins and offset the oak. On its release after 12 years of cellaring, it seemed one of the youngest, most modern versions of Único so far. One year later it remains more or less the same, so those looking for Vega Sicilia’s classic edge should give it further aging.
Ironically, 2006 is the vintage to drink now given its complex aromatics, finesse and texture, but it also has the balance and acidity to age gracefully. After 2004 (remember that Único wasn’t made in 2001) and pending what 2009 and 2010 may bring (expectations are very high for both years), there’s no doubt that 2006 is one of the best Únicos of the 2000s.
Incidentally, these three vintages support the claim that there are various “Riberas” within this well-known Castilla y León appellation as they reflect three different climate profiles in the area: the austerity of cool vintages; the ripe, powerful reds that put the region on the wine map; and the balance and finesse sought by demanding wine lovers. These three styles must of course be seen through the experienced lens of Ribera del Duero’s most legendary producer.