1. New World beginnings
Luciano de Murrieta, who was to give his name (and subsequently acquired aristocratic title) to one of Rioja’s most famous and historic bodegas, was born in 1822 in what was then the disintegrating Spanish colony of Peru. At the age of two, following the decisive victory of Simon Bolívar’s pro-independence forces, his family left for London. His sojourn in the New World had been brief.
2. A general lends a hand
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One of the key figures in Murrieta’s life – and, indirectly, the history of Rioja – was the general and politician, Baldomero Espartero. Murrieta enlisted in the army at the tender age of 16 and fought under Espartero in the First Carlist War (1833-39), becoming his aide-de-camp. The general subsequently ruled Spain as regent from 1840 to 1843, but when he was deposed, he and his assistant fled to London. It was becoming something of a pattern in the latter’s life.
It was in London that Murrieta developed the idea of going into the wine business. He continued his military career until 1860, but after his return to Spain in 1848, he was increasingly interested in producing wine. Murrieta made a number of visits to Bordeaux to learn his new craft. But where would he practice it? Once again, Espartero – now bearing the title Duke of la Victoria – came to his aid. He had moved to Logroño after his marriage to a wealthy heiress and lent Murrieta his grapes and the use of his cellar. The first vintage, in 1852 – the date of which appears on Marqués de Murrieta’s barrels to this day – was made at the Duke’s facilities.
3. A winery of one’s own
Murrieta was something of an innovator from the start. In Bordeaux, he had seen the importance of aging top red wines in oak barrels and was the first person to use the process in Rioja, at a time when most local wines were made and sold in the year of production. Murrieta also pioneered exports to the rest of the world. His initial overseas shipment of 1852s was divided equally between Cuba and Mexico, although the casks destined for the Mexican market never made it, disappearing in a storm off the port of Veracruz.
Despite such setbacks, Murrieta’s career change was increasingly successful. By 1860, he was ready to give up his military day job and become a full-time winemaker. Coincidentally, he set up his own winery at the same time as another pioneering bodega, Marqués de Riscal. Two even more significant developments occurred in 1872, when Murrieta acquired the Ygay estate east of Logroño and moved his facilities to the site they have occupied ever since. In the same year, he was named Marqués de Murrieta by King Amadeo I, becoming part of the landed gentry at the age of 50. At Ygay he made olive oil and honey and grew hops as well as grapes, enjoying considerable and continued recognition for his wines.
4. The Galician connection
The Marqués died without direct descendants in 1911, leaving the estate to a second nephew, called José Manuel Olivares Bruguera. Marqués de Murrieta remained in the hands of his and another branch of the same family until 1983. The wines were still well respected, but Murrieta entered a period of relative decline after World War II, partly due to lack of investment.
The winery’s fortunes began to improve in 1983, when the dynamic, cigar-smoking Vicente Cebrián-Sagarriga, also known as the Count of Creixell, bought the estate. The count owned a winery in Galicia – Pazo Barrantes in Rías Baixas – and wanted to expand his interests. Run-down but historic Murrieta was the perfect choice. Cebrián-Sagarriaga, a brilliant marketeer as well as a seemingly unstoppable force of nature, set about restoring Murrieta’s luster, updating the cellars, renewing barrels and equipment and, most crucially of all, planting new vineyards to make the bodega self-sufficient in grapes.
Don Vicente died in 1996 at the age of 48, but was succeeded by his equally dedicated, visionary son, Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga y Suárez-Llanos, who has, in turn, helped to restore Murrieta to the front rank of Rioja’s producers, culminating last year in the stone-by-stone restoration of the old winery by master mason, José Alvarez.
5. All their own grapes
Today, Murrieta is the largest single estate in the region. It is still comparatively rare for a top Rioja producer, especially one of a certain size, to grow all its own grapes, but Vicente Cebrían believes that this gives Murrieta added control over the quality of its wines. The estate’s 300 hectares (750 acres) are divided into 28 separate plots, ranging from 400 to 485 meters (1310 to 1590 feet) in altitude and split into two unequal parts (of 100ha and 200ha) by the Logroño to Zaragoza road. The varieties grown are mainly Tempranillo, with lesser amounts of Garnacha, Viura, Mazuelo, Graciano and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some vines date back to 1950, although the majority have been replanted since 1983.
6. Traditional and not so traditional whites
Maybe it was the historic connection with Albariño in Rías Baixas, sourced from an estate that has been in the family since 1511, but the Cebrián-Sagarrigas have a particular fondness for white wines. As well as the straight Pazo Barrantes, there is also a barrel-fermented, old-vine Albariño called La Comtesse, which was made for the first time in 2009.
In Rioja, Murrieta makes two whites: Capellanía, which replaced the more old-fashioned Murrieta Blanco in 2001, but is still a complex, savory, oxidative, barrel-fermented style, and the top-of-the-line, umami-rich Castillo Ygay Blanco, the next release of which will be the 1986 (yes, 1986!) in two years’ time. Alongside López de Heredia’s Tondonia, it is one of the two great traditional Rioja whites. This incredible wine has been aged for nearly 30 years in used barrels before release and has a long life ahead of it, such is its freshness.
7. Dalmau enters the frame
Murrieta isn’t exclusively focused on tradition. Since 1994, it has made a so-called "alta espresión" red, called Dalmau. This is a blend of mostly Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon and Graciano, sourced from a single plot of vines called "Canajas". Fermented and aged in French oak, it’s very much a modern style Rioja, complete with a bicep-challenging heavy bottle and picked later than the bodega’s other reds to achieve higher alcohol levels. Cabernet Sauvignon, incidentally, is comparatively traditional here, as it was planted 56 years ago. Think of this wine as Murrieta’s Saint-Estèphe, a dense, oaky, flavor- and tannin-packed red that needs time to show at its best. The current vintage is the 2009.
8. All about Reserva
The main focus at Murrieta, however, is on its Reserva, which accounts for 85 percent of production. This is, typically, a blend of 86 percent Tempranillo, 8 percent Garnacha, 4 percent Mazuelo and 2 percent Graciano. Some purists argue that the style has shown more color and extraction in recent years, moving towards a more modern expression of Rioja, and I think there is some truth in this. It is partly because the wine has included Graciano since 2007, although the blend has always shown a degree of structure and acidity in its youth as well as aging potential. What’s certain is that the quality is as good as it has ever been, and arguably even better. The 2008 is a particularly good Reserva, made in a tricky, late-picked vintage.
9. A woman’s touch
María Vargas is one of the highest-profile female winemakers in Rioja, and very much a part of Murrieta’s transformation. She joined the winery as assistant winemaker in 1995, and took over the top job in 2000. Vargas is a brilliant blender as well as a sensitive winemaker, adept at combining the different plots of Murrieta’s 300 hectares of vineyards.
10. The best Castillo Ygay ever?
Murrieta has always prided itself on its ability to make wines that age. It has been the subject of three separate sales at London auction houses in the last two decades. There are even, it is rumored, one or two bottles of its first vintage (1852) in its cellars. In fact, the only vintage that doesn’t feature in its cellars is 1972, which was entirely sold off in bulk.
The peak of the bodega’s production is Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, a blend of Tempranillo sourced from three plots planted in the 1960s: Plana Sur, Plana Norte and La Plana. Tasting old vintages of Murrieta is one of the wine world’s greatest pleasures – the 1985, 1968 and 1959 are all legendary Riojas – but the 2005 may prove to be its greatest ever release. It needs another 20-30 years in bottle, but as María Vargas puts it, 2005 was "a spectacular year". Luciano de Murrieta would drink to that.