Unraveling a Legend

Vega Sicilia’s Enigmatic Único Reserva Especial, from the 1970s to the present

While today Vega Sicilia enjoys a unique status in the realm of Spanish wine, it was not always so. Founded in the 1860s, most of the early wines were sold in barrel. It was not until World War I, when estate-bottling began, that Vega Sicilia began to gain the reputation it has today.

Initially, its legend grew not just because of the wine's quality, but because one had to have the right connections to acquire it. As recently as fifty years ago, the name "Vega Sicilia" was little-known outside a relatively small circle of wealthy Spaniards and Spanish ex-patriates.

Finally, once British merchants and journalists began to celebrate it in the 1970s, Vega Sicilia began to slowly evolve into an international icon. Incredibly, as recently as 1982, when the Alvarez family bought the estate and all its wines, they paid what's reported to have been a mere 3.5 million euros!

Today, when we think of Vega Sicilia, we think of one wine: the vintage-dated Único. But for the better part of a century, another Vega Sicilia wine was held in even higher regard: the mythic and historically more expensive Único Reserva Especial, a multi-vintage blend of the winery's best lots.

Único Reserva Especial was (and continues to be) a blend of vintages, with each new release created from a different assemblage of wines. In a sense, it is much more "classic" than the vintage Único, mirroring how things were done throughout Spain before French winemaking consultants introduced the idea of single vintage wines in the mid- to late-1800s.

Unraveling the Legend 

Like other great multi-vintage wines, Único Reserva Especial has always been challenging to collect, since it hasn't always been clear what's in the bottle. It wasn't until twenty years ago that the estate began to consistently note both the release date and the component vintages on the label.

Between 1981 and 2000, only the year of release, and possibly a lot number, were noted on the label. Only since 2001 have the labels indicated which vintages are in the blend. And there have never been many sources of independent information for fact-checking.

The estate itself rarely informed consumers of what was in the bottle. In September, 1990, Christie's London auctioned a slate of Vega Sicilia wines dating back to 1941, all from the estate's cellar. The 18 bottles of Reserva Especial were described as "the Pinnacle of Vega-Sicilia," but the components of the wine were left a mystery, described simply as "a blend of several vintages, some of considerable age." 

Obviously incorrect information has circulated over the years, sometimes ending up in articles and reviews. In 1989, Robert Parker relied on the information given to him to describe the current Reserva Especial release as "a blend of the best lots of wine made between 1949 and 1955," when in truth it was made up wine from the 1960s and early 1970s. Five years later, both Parker and Steve Tanzer attended a massive Vega Sicilia tasting in New York, which each reported in their newsletters. The writers were told that the current release of Reserva Especial was a blend of 1959, 1960 and 1961, when it was almost certainly from the 1970s. 

Since we began collecting Único Reserva Especial in the early 1990s, we've managed to acquire more than 200 bottles, representing more than 25 different releases. Our earliest acquisitions have the release dates of 1978 and 1979. Starting about a decade ago, we tried to learn what was in each of them. The biggest help was a private 2004 fax from the estate revealing the blend components back to 1990. Several years ago, Vega Sicilia also posted some very helpful information on its website, though much of it seems to have since been taken down.   

We've tried to make up for this scarcity of information by assembling all we've learned about the past four decades of Único Reserva Especials. Our two most important sources of information have been the labels themselves and what we've been able to learn directly from the estate. But over the years, we've picked up further details from articles and tasting notes, filtering out information we believe to be incorrect. And we've photographed each release in our library.

Throughout the period of our research, all labels have included a box with a few key bits of information. Since 2001, that information has included the vintages in the blend. And on many (but not all) labels, the box has included the year of release. But all information boxes we’ve seen have indicated the number of barrels (barricas) used and the number of bottles produced; a unique serial number for the bottle, and the facsimile signature of Vega Sicilia's presidente, which since 2011 has been Marta Alvarez.

And on many labels you can find the year of release and/or lot number in the lower left-hand corner of the label, just outside the information box. 

Finally, the label itself has undergone some design changes over the years. Through 1987, the words “Vino Fino de Mesa” were featured prominently at the top of the label. But those words were removed entirely in 1988. Since then, the most significant design change happened in 2014, when the word “Unico” was given even greater prominence.


The Chart

In the chart at the bottom of this article, we’ve done the best we could to insure the accuracy of the information. But given the complexity of the task, disagreements and errors are inevitable.  If you have information that is different, or can supplement what we know, we encourage you to write us.


Origins of an Iconic Wine

Único Reserva Especial's story begins in 1862, the year when Don Eloy Lecanda Chaves brought vine shoots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Carmenère from Bordeaux to plant alongside the area's indigenous Tinto Fino, the local name for the noble Tempranillo.

This marriage of varieties, once adapted to the limestone soils and fierce continental climate, proved ideal for producing a great red wine. Located high up on the plain of Castile in the Valbuena del Duero, the vines experience cool nights during the growing season. This provides the essential bright acidity to balance the wine's sun-driven power and concentration.

Yet, wine wasn't Lecanda's aim in planting this mix of vines; his original intention was to make brandy and ratafia. It wasn't until the property's acquisition by the Herrero family and arrival of Domingo Garramiola in 1904, the first in the succession of great Vega Sicilia winemakers, that the estate's ultimate grandeur was revealed.

Garramiola adapted Bordeaux winemaking techniques and the lengthy wood aging of Rioja to the estate's fruit, resulting in the birth of Vega Sicilia in 1915. And the greatest wines that went into bottle at this time were, of course, the Único Reserva Especial.

An Unbroken Thread

Domingo Garramiola passed away in 1933, but this marked the beginning of an unbroken succession of great Vega Sicilia winemakers. The first was Garramiola's closest associate, Martiniano Renedo, responsible for such legendary wines as the 1942 and 1953 Unicos.

The 1956 vintage marked the arrival of Jesús Anadón, who directed Vega Sicilia for the next three decades. His tenure saw some of the greatest vintage Únicos, such as the 1962, 1968 and 1970. His successor was the brilliant Mariano García, Anadón's assistant since joining the bodega in 1968 while still in his teens. Among García's greatest vintages were the 1987 and the 1994.

In 1998, Garcia was replaced by Xavier Ausás, who remained until 2015, when the current winemaker, Gonzalo Iturriaga, arrived. Like Ausás, Iturriage is responsible not only for making the great great vintage-dated Único when the year demands. He also has to have the blending skill to create the extraordinary balance of power, complexity and elegance found in the Reserva Especial.

Speaking for a century's worth of Vega Sicilia winemakers, Ausás once told the Wine Advocate's Luis Gutierrez, "The Reserva Especial is a tradition that should not be lost … it is a special wine, as the name implies."

Vega Sicilia Único Reserva Especial Releases 1978-2019

Release

Contains Labels Show Photo Source
1978

Believed to be 60-62-68

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1979

Believed to be 62-64-68

Nothing

Rare Wine Co.

1980

Believed to be 60-62-722

Unknown

 

1981

Believed to be 60-62-68

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1982

Unknown

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1983

68-70-72

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1984

Believed to be 70-72-73

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1985

Believed to be 72-73-763

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1986

Believed to be 74-75-804

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1987

Believed to be 65-73-754

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1988

Believed to be 60-65-72

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1989

Believed to be 65-67-72

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1990

68 & 701

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1991

68-70-721

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1992

70 & 721

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1993

70 & 721

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1994

70-72-741

Unknown

 

1995

73 & 741

Unknown

 

1996

73 & 811

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1997

81-86-901

Unknown

 

1998

81 & 901

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

1999

81 & 901

Unknown

 

2000

81-90-941

Release Year

Rare Wine Co.

2001

85-90-942

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2002

85-86-90

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2003

85-90-91

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2004

85-90-91

Release Year/Vintages

CellarTracker

2005

85-91-96

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2006

89-90-94

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2007

90-91-94

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2008

90-91-96

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2009

90-94-96

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2010

91-94-95

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2011

91-94-98

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2012

91-94-99

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2013

94-99-00

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2014

94-95-00

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2015

94-96-00

Release Year/Vintages

Web

2016

96-98-02

Release Year/Vintages

Web

2017

03-04-06

Release Year/Vintages

Rare Wine Co.

2018

05-06-07

Release Year/Vintages

Web

2019

06-07-09

Release Year/Vintages

SpanishWineLover

Sources:
1Vega Sicilia (October 2004)
2CellarTracker (January 2020)
3WineBuff.Com (July 2013)
4Sotheby’s (November 2009)
5John Gilman, View From the Cellar

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