Vega Sicilia: a truly special dinner

The following is an account of a dinner organised by Vega Sicilia and Altaya Wines, Hong Kong and Macao’s official importer of Spain’s most famous and long-lived wine.

“Follow me please, sir”.

I am led through the bustling restaurant and into a private room. The door is slid closed behind me; formal introductions are made. This will be an evening full of surprises.

Overlooking glistening Victoria Harbour, eight of us take our seats around a large round table in Lung King Heen, the Four Seasons’ famous Chinese restaurant. Holding court at the 12 o’clock position is Señor Pablo Alvarez, CEO and patriarch of “Spain’s Château Lafite”, Vega Sicilia.

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The next three hours would be spent on a quite remarkable vinous journey. All bottles had been decanted an hour before we arrived, with Pablo adamant he would not tell us the identity of any wine until we had all taken a sufficient sample.

Flying blind, we start with Champagne.

2002 Salon “S” Blanc de Blancs

“Chardonnay heavy”, we say. The consensus across the table is that we are drinking a Blanc de Blancs (that is, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay, as opposed to the traditional blend of Pinots Noir and Meunier, and Chardonnay). More straw-yellow than gold, it was light with a super-soft mousse; refreshing but with lovely depth of mouthfeel. Not overly complex, although served a little too cold so much of the nose seemed slightly suppressed. Baked apple and white flowers started to come through as it hit its stride. Still very youthful.

2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet

A shimmering rose gold colour with a slight coppery hue. Inviting and interesting. A haunting nose, making me ponder, and then ponder some more. I can’t recall such a complex set of aromas as this, immediately knowing it was unique, and certainly something I have not tasted before. Beguiling and truly ethereal, it danced between flinty/granite mineral, soft citrus and stone fruit, wild flowers and a perfect level of vanilla and toast from the oak. On the palate it was structurally perfect, delicate yet powerful, rich yet understated, it had an almost impossible-to-fathom finesse and subtlety.

Our host is enjoying watching us trying to figure this one out. The reveal: it is a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, from the most famous white grape vineyard in the world. The production of this wine is just 250 cases per year. Hours later, when I am lying in bed, I am convinced I can still taste it; like it has somehow been imprinted on my subconscious. Simply the finest white wine I have ever been fortunate enough to taste.

“Normally”, Pablo says matter-of-factly, “we would serve this at the end of the meal with a simple piece of Comté cheese”. Vega Sicilia also happen to be the Spanish importer of Burgundy’s most famous label.

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Appetiser selection with 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet

2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5°

With heads still spinning from the above wine, we move on to the reds. This will be the youngest wine we try, and the first from the Vega Sicilia estate, located in Spain’s Ribero del Duero region. Named 5º after its five-year maturation period, it is a pure expression of the Tinto Fino grape, or Tempranillo. Fresh dark fruit leads, plum especially, but a savoury note was already starting to emerge. Very early in its life cycle, rich vanilla jumps out of the glass, and the palate is almost creamy. The tannins are already very soft. Later, when I return to it, a note of pure mocha attacks my senses.

2004 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5°

The seven-year difference to the above is stark; this one is a lot more reserved, almost in a closed period. Initially, it was clear it needed more time in decanter or glass. Upon trying later in the evening, it started to introduce itself with a notable – and curious – menthol character. Savoury and sweet rustic red fruit (dried strawberries?) came through.

Although the number four is not synonomous with good fortune in Chinese culture (quite the opposite, in fact), “the 1954 vintage of this wine was great”, a fellow guest comments.

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Hot and sour soup with shrimp wontons, with 2004 and 2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5deg

2000 Château Haut-Brion

Pablo’s first trick of the evening arrives, but the audience isn’t being fooled. The table instantly recognises that this is not from Spain, but from Bordeaux’s Left Bank, with its trademark Cabernet-led nose. Herbal, cedary and dusty, a slight metallic cue joins the expected blackcurrant leaf. So elegant. Clean and linear on the palate, nothing out of place. Powdery tannins and precise acidity means this perfectly-executed Claret, with its long finish of soft dark fruit, is simply a delight.

2003 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

Vega’s flagship red, very few wines spend this long maturing before release. Most vintages, Pablo explains, spend at least a decade in oak and bottle before hitting the market, and then a generation is often needed to hit their peak. “The 70s and 80s are drinking very well now”, he says when I ask him where the sweet spot for his wines are.

This is a beautiful wine: plenty of fruit on the nose from the Tempranillo, but wonderful floral and brooding smokiness, and what appeared to be black tea, made for an initial sensory overload. With perfect balance, not in any way heavy, it was a terrific accompaniment to the Wagyu beef.

1996 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

As with the Valbeunas, we taste a second iteration, seven years older. Idiosynchratically, although it is in the minority, the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the nose (usually, Unico is made up of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cab). Lovely blackcurrant wafts after that initial swirl. Like the 2003, the balance on the palate strikes you most, but it is the extra age which adds an extra dimension to this complex and layered wine. The finish goes on and on.

1996 Château Cheval Blanc

As with the Haut-Brion, this seems out of place, but in a wonderfully good way. More rustic and powerful though, the Cabernet Franc and Merlot deliver hedonistic but savoury fruit, along with a marked graphite note. So much quality to the taste. For me, this one took the prize for best Bordeaux of the evening.

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2000 Ch. Haut-Brion, 2003 & 1996 Vega Sicilia “Unico”, 1996 Ch. Cheval Blanc

1968 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

Our final wine of the evening is a third Unico, and it is stunning. In an example of take-it-to-the-extreme maturation, this was not released to market until 1991. For a 48-year-old wine, the table could hardly believe its freshness (in my notes, I use an expletive to describe my initial reaction): with a remarkably similar fruit profile to the Valbuena 5º, it showed soft smokiness and sweet spice, but perfectly ripe dark fruit led the way. And as the below picture shows, it showed hardly any tawny-brown colour, a key indicator of age. The finish, rich and satisfying, lasted for even longer than the 1996.

It feels like this wine will live as long as its lucky owners resist the temptation to open it.

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Lobster fried rice with 1968 Vega Sicilia “Unico”

It is often said that people don’t like surprises; not being in the know can often be a disconcerting experience. After a fascinating journey through this series of truly special wines though, all which were not revealed until after we’d taken our initial sips, I’m not sure I subscribe to this idea anymore. It was a pleasure to attempt to decode what we were tasting, concurrent to actually enjoying them.

Away from the feeling of good fortune in being able to taste these wonderful bottles, special evenings like this can affirm that when done right, wine can produce some truly glorious and profound moments.

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The complete line-up
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David Rogers and Snr. Pablo Alvarez of Vega Sicilia

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Sincere thanks to Mr. Paulo Pong, Managing Director of Altaya Group, as well as Snr. Pablo Alvarez, for arranging, and allowing me to participate in, such an incredible evening. You can find out more about Vega Sicilia, as well as purchase the wines themselves, by going to Altaya’s listing page here.

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Wine: how do you actually make the stuff?

Via a trip behind the scenes to the Deep Woods winery in Margaret River, I walk through how our favourite drink is made. Huge thanks to chief winemaker Julian Langworthy for allowing me to be a pain, asking him questions all morning, and generally following him around.

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The journey from vine to bottle – and our subsequent enjoyment, reflection and in many cases, hangover – is an interesting and long one indeed.

First up, what do we understand about wine? Well, we know that grapes are the magic ingredient; they ultimately get converted to the good stuff by, most importantly, the process of alcoholic fermentation, a chemical reaction that is bought about by the action of yeast. This reaction converts naturally-occuring sugars in the grape into alcohol, carbon dioxide, heat and flavour compounds.

Science part over. Well, nearly: to wind the clock back, the process to produce the various components of a vine comes from a combination of heat and sunlight from the air, and water and nutrients in the soil. Things don’t end well if any of these factors fall down: for example if the temperature around the vine is below 10ºC, it is too cold for the vine to function (…and this is why they’re dormant in the Winter, and the reason wine is only produced between certain parallels of latitude).

Science part definitely over. Now to Deep Woods in sunny Margaret River.

The first job of the day is not with the grapes, but in “the lab”. Every day Julian (below right) and Dan Stocker (left) – “the architect and the builder” respectively, as one of the guys on the winery called them – assess the state of the wines that are currently in the fermentation process. Some are as young as two days old; some are over two weeks.

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We start by tasting two Riesling flights (below). We’re attempting to blend a dry style for a major international supermarket. The first glass is sour as hell with a very short finish [that is, the residual taste sensation after spitting it out]; the second has a lot more about it, good citrus, bracing acidity and a finish that lasted nicely. “I’m thinking at the moment, 85-90% of the second one will make up the blend”, says Julian.

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With the reds, there is a lot of them. The numbers on the side of the bottles refers to the fermentation tank from which the samples have been taken:

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“At this stage all we care about is structure”, Dan says. “Fruit and alcohol haven’t fully formed yet, so acidity and tannin are our main indicators” [tannin: a funky chemical found in the grape’s skins, stalks and pips; we detect it as a drying sensation on the gums. It gives structure to red wine and acts as a preservative, essential for ageing] The lads mechanically move through the wines, as I try to keep up, with no more than one or two lines of commentary for each sample. It’s a quick and efficient process.

A lot of the Cabernet samples take me back to my childhood, when my sister and I would be treated to Ribena: that cloyingly sugar-sweet, blackcurrant juice only drinkable in small quantities. My palate feels flattened by the end of the 21 samples.

We then head out to the yard to see how you actually make this stuff.

The fruit has already been picked, so the main job of the day – and the first one in the winery itself – is crushing and destemming nine tonnes of machine-harvested Malbec, and three tonnes of hand-picked Cabernet. Here’s the Malbec:

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And this is the machine that does it:

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Why crush and destem to start? This is the winemaker’s choice (some wines are made by chucking whole bunches straight into a fermentation tank), but most will carry this stage out because if the grapes have been hand-picked, the bunches will have stems and other leaf material still attached. The crushing, which gently splits the grape’s skin, initially helps the fermentation process.

The appliance, the centre of which is very similar to the drum of a washing machine, breaks the skins and liberates what is known as free run juice, without impacting the pips, which if broken can release bitter and astringent oils – which will almost certainly affect the ferment, and therefore the finished product.

Once they’ve been through the spin cycle, this is them making their way to the next stage:

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Apart from the free run juice produced, here’s what the grapes now look like…note the split skins with still a lot of juice in them:

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At this stage the winemaker may choose to allow the grapes to macerate at cool temperatures, something that allows the greater extraction of colour and flavour. Once the fermentation process is to kicked off though, the grapes (with the juice) are fed through a pipe, from the crusher, and into the fermentation tank:

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And here they are, stewing away at the start of the primary fermentation process. It is here the yeast is added. Approach can vary, as yeast naturally occurs in the air, so the winemaker may choose to leave the tank open and expose the must [unfermented grape juice] to the elements, but nowadays the winemaker will choose a particular strain of yeast in order to have a greater degree of control over the outcome of the fermentation.

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Another important element to modern winemaking is the addition of sulphur dioxide (SO2). In all but the final stages of producing wine, oxygen is a producer’s worst enemy: because just like that bunch of bananas sitting in your fruit bowl at home, leaving out anything organic that has been detached from its host can soon lead to overripness and hence spoiling. It is for this reason that an antiseptic/antioxidant is needed. As soon as the grapes have been picked off the vine, SO2 is used throughout the process.

Depending on the colour and style of wine the winemaker is going for (hence all that constant tasting in the lab), the ferment can last from a few weeks to several months. White wines are usually fermented between 12°C and 22°C, reds 30-32°C. The process of converting that sugar into alcohol maxes out at around 15%abv (i.e. once the sugar has been exhausted).

Skin contact is the key choice for the winemaker: this is where the majority of the flavour and aroma is derived from. In whites, once the crusher has done its thing, often the free run juice is separated off and the remaining grape mass is sent to a press. In reds though, in addition to any cold maceration, a decision needs to be made about how much time the juice of the grapes spends in contact with the skins during fermentation. The longer the time on skins, the fuller the body, the bigger the tannins and the punchier the fruit profile. The result is a “big wine”, often associated with hot climate, high alcohol reds.

Once the ferment is done, the juice is drawn off, and the skins pressed separately (to extract more juice). The SO2 is still never far away. Before clarification, filtering and/or fining – which removes any nasties such as dead yeast cells – one of the final stages of the game is the strange-sounding malolactic fermentation. All red wine goes through this, and some (again, depending on required style) whites do. It is a secondary ferment where tart malic acids (what you get when biting into an apple) are converted into softer lactic acids, which are found in dairy products. This is the process that produces flavours such as butter and nuttiness in your wine.

Then we mature. Barrel-ageing wine, especially red, allows the key elements of wine – fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin – to integrate and produce what tasters often refer to as balance. For the first time, oxygen is helpful; the oak allows it to gradually seep through and alter – in a good way, hopefully – the flavour of the wine. Here’s the barrel hall at Deep Woods:

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The months (and often years) tick by and the winemaker will taste at regular intervals to see how their embroyonic product is developing. Once they’re happy, and it is of the style they’re aiming for, it’s off to the bottling line:

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And here’s the finished product (Julian kindly gave me this bottle…yet to be drunk):

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So there you have it. The wine will then continue to develop and evolve over time in the bottle, in the hope the drinker picks exactly the right time to unscrew or pop the cork for maximum enjoyment. In the case of high-quality red wine from Bordeaux, this can often take 15-20 years; for commercial, lower price point Pinot Noir, drinking it after just 2-3 years will find it at its peak.

Mother Nature plays the biggest part in the production of wine, but without those important human interventions in the winery – like a controlled alcoholic fermentation, skin contact and that SO2 – your favourite red or white (or rosé, if you’re of that disposition) could not be the drink you know and love. An incredible process which requires a lot of skill and appreciation of the elements. Thank goodness for winemakers and the product they produce.

Which makes me think, what are we going to open this evening..?

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To learn more about Deep Woods, give their website a go.

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