This remodelling entailed the construction of modern fermentation facilities centralizing all the processes between grape reception and the wine being poured over into barrels, the alteration and enlargement of the ageing area, a new in-house cooperage and other buildings for cooling and fire-fighting systems, cleaning and recycling, etc. All this was done in adherence to the strict environmental standards of ISO 14001 - although the winery's own requirements are in many ways even tougher than the international specifications.
The new wine fermentation building has been designed from the most practical perspective conceivable and is equipped with state-of-the-art technical devices, albeit in line with Vega Sicilia's particular way of doing things. Following a careful pre-selection in the vineyard, the fresh grapes are collected in shallow plastic crates and immediately taken to the six cold storage rooms geared to the purpose of ensuring consistent, gentle cooling, thus keeping the berries under ideal conditions and preserving the primary aromas of the grapes.
From there they go onto the first sorting belt where any remaining twigs or leaves are removed and those which are not good enough to be used for these superb wines are discarded. Then the finally selected bunches are run through the de-stemmer and once the grapes have been separated, they are put onto another conveyor belt for berry-by-berry selection. This process guarantees that only perfect fruit is used.
Following this meticulous procedure the grapes are crushed and the different batches are placed into moveable 500 kg (1.100 lb) tanks, which are then emptied into the final fermentation stainless steel tanks for Valbuena and oak casks for Único.
The winery: mirror of the vineyard
In 1998, Vega Sicilia began an in-depth study of the edaphological characteristics of the different kinds of soil on the estate. It consists of 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of land, divided into stone pine woodland (650 ha/1,606 acres), irrigated fields of herbaceous crops like maize and alfalfa, as well as cork, oak and walnut plantations for the production of high quality wood (150 ha/371 acres) and around 200 ha (494 acres) of vines for Vega Sicilia (70%) and Alión (30%).
The varieties of grapes grown are Tempranillo, locally referred to as "Tinto Fino”, occupying about 85% of the vineyard, together with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and a negligible quantity of Malbec, used in different proportions, for both Valbuena and Único, all vines of an average age of around 35 years. It is important to highlight that, true to the principles of Vega Sicilia, all grapes used by the Group for wine production come from vines that are at least 10 years old.
The plant material used at Vega Sicilia is from the estate itself and is the result of vegetative propagation based on mass selection of the best plants. This is done according to empirical and analytical quality parameters originating from the results obtained from the wines and their production. This historic selection of Vega Sicilia's own plant material is the foundation of the clonal selection studies currently being conducted.
Through edaphological research the vines are divided into 52 viticulture management sections, depending on the variety and age of the plant as well as the kind of ground. The soil has been has been classified into 19 types according to their taxonomical characteristics. This study of the soil in which the vines used for Vega Sicilia wines are cultivated, allows production to be correlated to the peculiarities of each parcel. Thus the grapes can be controlled from their budding phase on the rootstock to their sorting into lots of similar features depending on their origin.
The arrangement of the fermentation tanks is partly in accordance with the classification of the parcels. There are 62 stainless steel tanks in the fermentation building, each with a capacity of either 6,000 kg (13,230 lb) or 8,000 kg (17,637 lb) of grapes in which the wine destined for Valbuena is fermented and where its malolactic conversion takes place. Separated by huge sliding doors is a semi-circular shaped room housing the 19 oak vats, all of the same capacity, in which the wine earmarked for Único is fermented.
Once both fermentations- alcoholic and malolactic- have been completed, the wine is ready to begin its ageing process.
AGEING: TANKS AND BARRELS
The ageing phase in wood is one of the most complex processes in winemaking at Vega Sicilia. Here ageing is dynamic, as the wine is poured from one recipient into another and in the case of Único, the ageing process is probably the longest in the world.
4 Phases can clearly be distinguished.
Settling. Following their malolactic conversion, the different lots of wine go into huge vats. There they settle, blend and reveal their ageing capacity.
Development. This phase takes place in 225 litre barrels, 50% of American oak and 50% of French oak. During this phase the wine takes on aromas from the wood and gains structure - all and all, it becomes more multifaceted.
Integration. Everything that the barrel contributed to the wine in the previous phase needs to be integrated during this phase. For this the wine is poured into used American Oak barrels that allow the wine to develop to their full.
Recovery. The wine is returned to large vats to recover after its development and rest before its final assemblage.
The length of each phase will depend on the characteristics of each wine and each harvest.
By and large:
• Valbuena: 3 years in wooden casks.
• Único: 6-9 years in wooden casks.
The barrels used at Vega Sicilia originate from two sources.
On the one hand French oak barrels (Nevers) are bought from the best cooperages in France. These barrels are used for one year only and then resold to other wineries for re-use.
On the other hand, American wood (from Kentucky and Indiana) is bought for the making of barrels by the cooperage on the winery's premises. The American wooden barrels are used on the winery for a maximum period of 6 years, and then resold to others for their further utilization.
The American wood reaches the winery in the form of strips which are put through a double curing and drying process over 3 years. The wood is left out in the open, exposed to sun and wind, for two years so the cold, heat, rain, etc., are part and parcel of the treatment. The third year they are kept under cover in order for them to dry out completely for the manufacturing of the barrels.
Together with the drying out of the strips, one of the most important processes in the manufacturing of the barrel is the toasting of the wood. In the case of Vega Sicilia barrels, the toasting is long and intense, thus obtaining a wood that adds aromas rich in elegance and complexity to the wines. Here it must be noted that in spite of the uniformity of the nomenclature, Medium Plus (M+) Toasting, each cooperage has its own toasting techniques and the results are very varied.
Over 3,000 barrels slumber peacefully in a building designed for calm and perfect harmony: red-clay floors and red-clay walls reach up to the ceiling, made of impeccably joined wooden slats, resembling a huge barrel. The lighting can be regulated from a warm, golden glow enhancing the atmosphere, to an intense cold light when needed for work indoors. The barrels stand in perfect alignment and one breathes a subtle air of oak blended with pleasing, spicy, toasted scents and the fresh bouquet of the wine sleeping expectantly in their innards.
Once a perfect balance has been attained between wine and wood, the wines finally rest in their large wooden casks, awaiting their subsequent bottling.
MATURING IN THE BOTTLE
After the ageing cycle, the wines are bottled for their maturing in the bottle: precisely 2 years for Valbuena to accentuate the vintage effect on the wine and at least 3 years for Único in pursuit of a clearly defined style that will prevail over and above the vintage effect. Therefore it will be the wine and only the wine that will decide how long each of the phases should last.
In the bottle an added critical point in the process of winemaking emerges: the cork. Vega Sicilia deals with the best wine bottle cork manufacturers in the world (the same corks are used for all red wines produced throughout the Group). They are ordered in batches of 50,000 and subjected to a thorough analysis by an independent laboratory. It should be mentioned that only a third of the batches of corks analysed pass the test.
Once this analysis has been done, the manufacturers are requested to store the corks until they are needed. At the same time they are notified which wines the corks are earmarked for so that they can be imprinted with the relevant names, vintages, etc. Subsequently they are delivered to the winery and a representative sample is sent to the same independent laboratory again. The results of this second scrutiny will determine whether the corks belong to the original batch and can be accepted for use, otherwise they are rejected.
In this facility all three of the winery's wines mature: Valbuena, Único and Reserva Especial - each of them entirely different from the others.
Valbuena is the purest expression of Tempranillo at Vega Sicilia. In the assemblage of the varieties used for this magnificent wine, the Tinto Fino grape is predominant and makes up the biggest proportion thereof by far. The Tempranillo grapes for Valbuena come from parcels situated on the gentle concave slopes rolling down from the bleak plateau. These soils originate from the material accumulated at the foothills due to erosion and colluvium, which developed into a supremely rich soil and the formation of a limestone landscape of considerable depth.
This wine is intended to depict the features of an austere, solemn, harsh soil in each vintage. It has the most candid and expressive character of the three. It is a wine that is easy to identify with, yet versatile, in which the variables in production and ageing are maintained stable, so that it will be the climatic inconsistencies and the vintage effect that will dictate the qualities of the wine. Valbuena offers a direct and comprehensible insight into the grandeur of this "terroir”; its pleasantness portrays its poise and it is unctuous on the tongue, enveloped by a distinctive elegance and very long ageing capacity.
This is the myth, the signature wine of Vega Sicilia - a wine in which the intrinsic qualities of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec come together in a blend of perfection in different proportions. In every harvest, each one of them contributes a distinguishing element that elevates the legend to pure excellence. The vines are grown on parcels situated right where the alluvial plain and the streams flowing down from the plateau meet. The surface soils are formed by fine colluvium from the slopes with tiny fragments of limestone. Deeper down quartz gravel is abundant amid a sandy matter.
With Único nothing is predetermined. It is the influence of the harvest, therefore the features of the grapes obtained, that will define its making and ageing. Year after year Único endeavours to remain true to its own style, a particular way of understanding and living wine, epitomizing the hallmark personality of Vega Sicilia. This personality will manifest itself sooner or later - or never, in which case the wine will not be produced and there will be no Único for that year, something which happens once or twice every 10 years.
Único possesses an infinite complexity which unfurls little by little, with each sip, extraordinarily silky and elegant and with an ageing capacity beyond the grasp of the majority of wines in the world.
This is Vega Sicilia's tribute to the traditions that have shaped the wine culture in Spain. The Reserva Especial is a type of wine which is not of any particular vintage, but results from the blending of wines of several vintages. In days gone by all Spanish wineries produced such wines, but due to the momentum the vintage factor has gained in the marketplace under the influence of the French wine-growing culture, they no longer do. At Vega Sicilia, not only is this tradition upheld, but it is also the most expensive of the wines produced by this winery.
The Reserva Especial is the wine with most personality, there to please the most discerning palate. It combines the complexity of Único, multiplied by several vintages, offering a vast range of aromas - pure elegance on a never-ending journey through the magic of the myth. Only the finest Único wines are good enough for the production of Reserva Especial, a mixture of vintages, virtues, experiences and emotions whose prime purpose is to give shape to the most profound essence of a distinctive, one and only style, the "Vega Sicilia” style.
Winemaking - Recent innovations
With the almost obsessive and constant aim to continue researching all the different elements which might allow their wines to be improved even more, Vega Sicilia took a further step in 2009 and carried out its greatest renovations to date.