Making a mark Vega Sicilia, in Ribera del Duero, is Spain's most famous winery, producing wines that are on a par with a Bordeaux first-growth. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who returned from Bordeaux with cuttings of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec, which he planted together with the indigenous grape variety, tempranillo. By the early 20th century, Vega Sicilia was carving out an international reputation as a top quality winemaker. One of its most famous fans was British statesman Winston Churchill. Legend has it that Churchill, having been served a glass of Vega Sicilia by the Spanish ambassador, mistook the wine for a Bordeaux.
Vega Sicilia has passed through several hands and its current chief executive and owner, Pablo Alvarez, whose family acquired the winery in 1982, believes consumers are unaware of the quality of Spanish wines compared with those of Italy and France. This is reflected, he says, in the prices, as current releases of Vega Sicilia Unico offer relative value compared with those of the top first-growth Bordeaux.
"Everyone knows French varieties. However, if Spain was France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the world would be planting tempranillo and not Bordeaux's cabernet sauvignon," says Alvarez.
Unico, Vega Sicilia's flagship wine, is produced only in the best years. No wines were made in 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001. Unico is famed for its extensive ageing in a variety of large and small French and American oak barrels. The norm is six years in wood and three in the bottle. Unico can age for decades, and the 1970 vintage is still fresh, vibrant and capable of maturing even longer.
Since acquiring the winery, the Alvarez family have expanded their horizons. Their portfolio now includes wines from Toro, Rioja and Hungary.
Vega Sicilia Tinto Valbuena 5° 2009
Tinto Valbuena, Vega Sicilia's second wine, is made from younger vines. A blend of predominantly tinto fino (tempranillo) and merlot. Aged for a period of five years, between wood and bottle, using French and American oak, from old and new 225-litre barriques and large used barrels.
Approachable, open, with black fruit and an earthy sweet vanilla nose. Full bodied and very well balanced, with ripe sweet tannins and soft acidity. Drinking well now and can keep for at least a further decade. HK$930
Pintia was created in 2001 in the Toro region. Made entirely from tinto de toro, the local clone of tempranillo. Aged in 70 per cent French oak with the remaining blend in American oak for 12 months. The wine style is characteristic of Toro, producing opulent, full-bodied red wines.
Rich intense black fruit with some savoury earthy notes. Powerful and concentrated with firm underlying tannins. Plush, modern and finishing very long. HK$330
Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia Macan 2011
A joint venture formed in 2003 between Alvarez and de Rothschild. Located in the cooler region of Rioja Alta, the vineyard is 80 hectares, an amalgamation from 70 owners.
Quite restrained with black cherries, herbal and licorice nose. Full bodied, some firm tannins, with spicy oak notes. Finishing very long. A modern-style Rioja expressing purity of fruit. HK$450
The wines are available from Altaya Wines altayawines.com.