I’ve mentioned many times that even though Rioja is a big wine producing area, there are surprisingly few opportunities to learn about wine here, unless you go to a winery, where you take your chances running into a police checkpoint to get a breathalyzer test. What’s the fun in going to a winery if you can’t have a few glasses of wine?
One regular event within the Logroño city limits where there’s little or no risk of meeting the cops is the wine and food dinner organized by the Cofradía del Vino de Rioja (Rioja Wine Brotherhood) at the Kabanova restaurant. The December event was hosted by Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta.
Marqués de Murrieta is one of the historic Rioja bodegas, founded by Luciano de Murrieta in the early 1850s. According to the winemaker, the very talented María Vargas, in 1852 its wines were recognized in Cuba as coming from the Rioja region.
The winery is located in the middle of a 300 hectare estate just east of Logroño on the Zaragoza road. It’s been closed to visitors for several years while undergoing an extensive renovation and lots of people are excited about the bodegas’ reopening, according to María “some time in 2012”. Ah, the mystery…
I used to visit the winery all the time in the 1980s and vividly remember it as a place with bright yellow sand floors (bullfight fans call it albero), very old oak vats and barrels and row after row of cement niches holding ancient vintages, some of which dated back to the 19th century.
I hope you’ve learned by now that traditional Rioja was a blend of Rioja’s classic red grapes (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano), with a healthy dollop of viura and malvasía to increase the wine’s acidity to help it age more gracefully. The young wines were aged for years in old oak barrels which had long lost their ability to interact with the outside air, so it could be said that the barrel aging (very slow oxidation) and bottle aging (reduction, that is, no contact with air) processes took place in the same container. As a matter of fact, traditional Riojas were bottled just before shipment because they didn’t need time in the bottle to improve their drinkability.
Another characteristic of traditional Rioja was that reds and whites were made exactly the same way – with long aging in barrel. I remember being given two glasses of wine, one red and one white by Jesús Marrodán, Murrieta’s legendary winemaker, with instructions to taste each of them with my eyes closed. I was then asked which one was red and which white. I couldn’t tell them apart! It wasn’t me; nobody could!
The Murrieta family sold the winery to Vicente Cebrián, Count of Creixell, a Galician businessman, in 1983. He passed away suddenly in 1996, leaving the business to his widow and two twenty-something children.
The family began at once to redesign the wines. I remember attending a wine auction in London a short time later and was surprised by a new wine, Dalmau, a huge departure from the style the winery was known for. At that time I had my doubts about the direction the winery was taking. It was a time when ‘modern’ Riojas were all about power, defined by high alcohol, inky color, new oak and in most cases, overripe grapes. It was only later that winemakers began to give elegance more prominence in these modern wines.
The recent winemaker’s dinner showed that Murrieta had received the message loud and clear. It was one of the best wine and food events I had ever attended.
The menu was:
Shrimp croquettes and sautéed pineapples/Pazo de Barrantes 2010 (D.O. Rías Baixas)
→ the combination of acidity and sweetness of the pineapple was a perfect match for the elegant, complex fruit of the albariño grape.
Grilled scallops with wild mushrooms au gratin/Capellanía white reserva 2006, barrel fermented (D.O. Ca. Rioja)
→ the scallops and mushroom dish was full of flavor and texture that was complemented perfectly by both the fresh acidity and weight of the aged white Capellanía.
Cod brandade/Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2005
→ Cod and red Rioja is one of the most popular pairings in northern Spain. The reserva, which for me showed both traditional (a blend of several varieties, stewed fruit, American oak) and modern characteristics (firm, ripe tannins) stood up well to the hearty cod, potato and garlic dish.
Stewed Oxtail/Dalmau reserva 2005
→ Here we had a powerful rich meat dish that needed a powerful yet elegant wine to match. The Dalmau was perfect.
Entrecôte/Castillo de Ygay gran reserva 2004
→ After the oxtail, the steak was almost an anticlimax. I would have changed the order of the last two dishes The Ygay gran reserva was a classic, with subtle aromas of stewed fruit and high acidity that didn’t overpower the meat, which was served very rare.
When we left the dinner we agreed that we would remember these pairings when asked in the future about food and wine in Rioja.
I was talking about the dinner to a friend the other day. I mentioned that in a way it was a pity that Murrieta had decided to make more modern wines, in a sense walking away from 160 years of history. My friend pointed out that Rafael López de Heredia, the founder of Viña Tondonia, considered himself a revolutionary in his time and that it was always important to innovate.
In this context, Vicente Cebrián has done the right thing. As times change, so do wine styles. With Murrieta you can taste both the old and the new in the different wines made by the winery.