Aging Report: Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva Ribero del Duero 1998

vegas siciliaThis is one of the world’s iconic wines, perhaps the most highly regarded Spanish wine, and mentioned in the same breath with Bordeaux Premier Crus and Napa cult wines. Will it stand up in that company?

After a sniff and an introductory sip, Springsteen pops into my head:

With her long hair falling
And her eyes that shine like a midnight sun
Oh she’s the one
She’s the one

It may be the best wine I’ve had the good fortune to consume. Gorgeous fruit, cassis and black cherries with subterranean raisin notes and freshly turned earth, very concentrated and energetic—an impressive introduction. But greatness in wine is not made with first impressions. Great wines evolve, they invite you on a journey, show a different aspect every time you enter their world, they become your friend and lover, a matter of character not appearance.

So it sits in the glass beckoning “with her killer graces and secret places” awaiting evolution. Right on cue, the dried flowers  and bacon appear and on the palate a seam of iron gives way to a long finish that reveals licorice and herbal notes, a sensuous orgy unfolding in the glass. Tannins are still prominent but light on their feet, not at all grippy, and the oak is now fully integrated, thankfully shifting away from overt vanilla and showing more savory notes.

A dense, powerful wine on the nose, sturdy but with lighthearted delicacy and refinement the palate, it is no cliché to say this indeed is an iron fist in a velvet glove, with many years of potential aging ahead. Great art is a marriage of opposites; this is no exception.

It not only stands up to the finest Bordeaux but really tastes like one. In a blind tasting, the earth and iron tones speak Bordeaux to me although the concentrated dry fruit, and sheer intensity suggests a warmer region, which Ribero del Duero is. The comparison with Bordeaux is not surprising given that the “Unico” typically includes about 20% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend with Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino as it is called in that part of Spain).

Vegs Sicilia is distinctive in that they do not release the “Unico” until 10 years after vintage, a rare practice that shows their dedication to quality over profit. The vineyards and winery are over 150 years old and their wines are historic although varying greatly in quality until purchased by the Alvarez family in 1982. Since then their reputation has been secure.

Vega Sicilia’s Unico certainly belongs in any conversation about the world’s great wines. I don’t have the world’s greatest wines lined up in front of me and memory is an unreliable guide. Is it really the best? That insistent Bo Diddley beat keeps banging in my brain:

Score: 98

Price: $390

Thanks to Wine Elite for securing the bottle.


  1. Interesting that this wine reached such greatness.

    As I was at the same tasting, I also felt is was not too far from perfection. But why?

    It didn’t have the characteristic aromas of Bordeaux or Barolo or Cote Rotie or Rioja; In a full blind tasting I would have been clueless about the origin and grape of this wine. Perhaps I would have thought it’s a Bordeaux.

    A remarkable flavor experience. Is that despite or because it didn’t reveal its heritage and nature so easily?

  2. This is a truly exceptional wine. You may also find it interesting that Vega Sicilia ages extremely well. During a Unico tasting at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival vintages from ’68, ’70, ’89, ’98, ’03, & ’04 were compared and the older vintages were beyond amazing. I think these wines would rival any Bordeaux.

    I have not seen the “Vegas” usage that you have in your article including the title. I’ve missed this spelling or it’s simply a typo.

    Love your blogs

    Best Regards

  3. Ken, I have heard that it ages extremely well. I hope to taste some earlier vintages at some point. I don’t doubt it given the freshness still apparent in the “98”.And thanks for picking up that typo–it has been corrected.

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