Rioja’s iconic Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta reopens after nine years of remodeling

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Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, one of Rioja’s most iconic 19th century wineries, recently reopened after nine years of much-needed renovation. It was well worth the wait.

The Cebrián family, owner of the property since 1983, put a lot of thought into both the renovation of the winery and its wine tourism package. Although from the outside, the winery, with its stone façade, looked fine, the inside was in dire need of repair. I remember visiting in the mid-1980s and vividly remember the vast underground cellars with their sand-covered floor filled with old barriques, huge wooden fermentation and storage vats and endless dusty and mold-filled niches for bottle aging.  It was as if time had stopped in the early 20th century.

One of Murrieta's vineyards

One of Murrieta’s vineyards

Murrieta’s approach to wine tourism is a refreshing change from most wineries where visitors are led through a vinification and aging cellar where the history of the company and winemaking practices are explained and a quick tasting is given, followed by a visit to the winery shop. Murrieta entertains small groups and spends lots of time with them. I’m sure this personal touch will pay off.

Here, the visit starts in the vineyard, highlighting the ‘château’ philosophy brought to Rioja by Luciano de Murrieta from Bordeaux. The original 168 hectares planted by Murrieta were added to by Vicente Cebrián, who planted 132 hectares on property adjacent to the already existing vineyards. The winery’s vineyards provide 90% of the its needs, with the remaining 10% purchased from suppliers with whom the winery has worked for years. Murrieta remains faithful to the traditional Riojan varietals of tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo for reds and viura for white. There is, however, a little cabernet sauvignon in their brand Dalmau, according to the tasting sheet provided by the winery.

The visit then moves to the inside of the original winery, a lodge-like structure about 90 meters long. This is the visitors’ center. On the left side, there are two tasting rooms, one at each end of the building, with a glass wall that overlooks several restored wooden fermentation vats in the first underground level.

Restored fermentation vats as seen from one of the tasting rooms

Restored fermentation vats as seen from one of the tasting rooms

Downstairs, the visit highlights the history of the winery with several displays showing documents such as deeds to the property, brand registrations, letters written to and by Murrieta, newspaper clippings from our local newspaper LA RIOJA with the Marquis’ obituary as well as photographs from the 19th and early 20th century.

an early 20th century stand at a wine fair

an early 20th century stand at a wine fair

Other displays showed bottles from significant vintages in Spanish history including the first wine bottled by Murrieta in 1852, a collection of labels dating from the late 19th century, filters, bottling and corking machines and other memorabilia.

an 1852 Murrieta

an 1852 Murrieta

We also saw, behind an iron gate, niches filled with historical vintages including all bottlings of Castillo de Ygay from 1892 to the present.

one of Murrieta's 'sacristies' with old vintages

one of Murrieta’s ‘sacristies’ with old vintages

At the end of the visit we were shown a room with pictures of the remodeling process as well as a video interview with the foreman of the crew of Galician stonemasons hired to rebuild the winery.

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Following the visit to the cellars we were led to one of the tasting rooms, where Miryam Ochoa, the winery’s PR director, explained at great length Murrieta’s winemaking philosophy in Rioja, based on long periods of aging in oak and bottle followed by a tasting of three wines: Pazo Barrantes, a 100% albariño from a property owned by the Cebrián family in Rías Baixas, Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009 and Dalmau reserva 2009. My tasting notes follow.

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Pazo Barrantes 2013. D.O. Rías Baixas. 100% albariño. 13,5% abv. 13,95€ /bottle RRP in Spain.

Brilliant straw yellow. Closed on the nose at first but soon opening up to aromas of wildflowers and baked bread. Silky texture, balanced acidity, longlasting on the palate. I thought it was really good, without the overpowering tropical fruit aromas present in many other whites from Rías Baixas.

Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 90% tempranillo, 4% mazuelo, 3% red garnacha, 3% graciano. 14% abv. 1.000.000 bottles produced. RRP 19,95€ in Spain.

Medium black cherry. An aroma that reminded me of cherry liqueur, well-integrated oak and some spicy notes. Round, ripe tannin, medium mouthfeel, persistent.

The Cebrián family’s philosophy has always been to make ‘modern classics’ at Murrieta and this reserva is a good example. It reminded me of the Murrieta wines of the past with understated elegance but without the stewed fruit and pronounced dry, iodine-like nose that I always used to unfailingly identify as Murrieta.

I thought it was excellent.

Dalmau reserva 2009. D.O. Ca. Rioja. 74% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 11% graciano. A single vineyard wine from the Canajas estate.

19.000 bottles produced. 45€ RRP in Spain.

Intense black cherry. Minty and floral nose, powerful but at the same time elegant. Juicy, elegant, longlasting.

Dalmau was created by Vicente Cebrián Jr. (whose middle name is Dalmau) soon after taking over the winery when his father died unexpectedly. This was in the midst of the market’s reaction to traditional Rioja led by the Parkerites. Dalmau, like other ‘modern’ Riojas produced around this time (the early 1990s), tried to express fresh, ripe fruit, high alcohol and powerful tannins but were criticized both in Spain and abroad for being unbalanced. The 2009 Dalmau was still juicy and powerful but with much better balance than the wine I first tasted in London twenty years ago. Not my style but very well made and surely with a big following among fans of modern Rioja.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit and tasting. We spent three and a half hours there, an unheard-of amount of time compared with visits to other Rioja wineries.

Rather than give visitors and extensive tour of the winery, Murrieta has wisely decided to concentrate on its history and a detailed tasting that could have served as an introductory tasting course. Even though our group was made up of locals along with several people with extensive experience in the Rioja wine business, both the visit and the tasting were extremely enjoyable and informative.

Murrieta has an attractive wine shop on the premises as well as a wine club whose members regularly receive special offers.

I encourage you to plan a visit to this winery. You can request a booking at the following website:

http://www.marquesdemurrieta.com/

Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta

Carretera de Logroño-Zaragoza km. 5

26006 Logroño (La Rioja)

T-941 27 13 70

(All photos by Tom Perry)

Marqués de Murrieta – the old and the new

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.

Gerry Dawes: “The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

After several attempts I’ve finally gotten my interview with good friend, eating, drinking and bullfighting buddy Gerry Dawes, who I’ve said many times is one of the two guys with the most comprehensive knowledge of Rioja.

Here are my questions and his answers, which I have copied verbatim. Hold on to your hats.  This is vintage Gerry, once again pulling no punches.

When did you first taste a Rioja? Do you remember what brand and vintage it was? What were your impressions?

Back in the late 1960s, like everyone else who visited (or in my case lived in) Spain, I drank Federico Paternina Banda Azul. Rioja wines were Spain’s best red wines and I developed a taste for them over a period of several years. I thought many Rioja were great. Marqués de Riscal was a bit of a luxury and so was Cune Imperial and Cune Viña Real, but once in awhile I got to drink them. I still remember finding Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 on the shelf of a Costa del Sol shop for 225 pesetas a bottle when I lived in Mijas overlooking the Costa del Sol. I grabbed all three bottles.

Believe it or not, I still have a bottle of Imperial Gran Reserva 1959 left, a bottle of Cune Viña Real Gran Reserva Oro 1962, a Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay 1942, a Viña Tondonia 1947 and a few other assorted treasures. Early this year I opened a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 1922 that was still magnificent.

During the early 1970s, when I was living in Mijas, through a wealthy acquaintance, I got to drink the R. López de Heredia Viña Bosconia 1942 and 1947. I had the 1942 two or three times, but I have drunk about six bottles of the 1947 Bosconia and I am still convinced that it is the best red wine I have ever drunk. I don’t say this lightly, since from 1975 to 1996 I sold great Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhone Valley red wines and the top wines of California (Duckhorn, Ridge, Caymus, Shafer, Pine Ridge, etc.) to the best restaurants in New York.

I have a reputation among some writers and wine aficionados in Spain as being a “Taliban,” as a couple have called me in print. They think because I have defended the classic wines of La Rioja that I have an old-fashioned franquista palate. They are full of shit. Few of them have traveled the wine roads of Spain tasting wines in bodega after bodega like I have.  And I have done it, not from a base in Spain, but from the United States.  Between 2000 and 2010, there was a four year stretch when I averaged EIGHT trips to Spain a year and another four years when I averaged six trips per year. I have been in at least 600 bodegas in Spain, some of them multiple times, re-visiting some of them as many as a dozen times or more.  Has anyone else in Spain–besides the owner Juan Gil, the Marqués de Figueroa, been in vertical tastings of Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariños six times?

My experience is not based on tasting wines by the dozens in sit-down or walk around tastings in Madrid, in Barcelona or in New York, it based on winery visits and long lunches, dinners and private tastings with the likes of such bodegueros as Mariano García, Basilio Izquierdo, Isaacin Muga, Javier Hidalgo, Miguel Torres, Carlos Falcó, the Chivite brothers (before they split), the Pérez Pascuas family, Raul Pérez, Ricardo Pérez, Gregory Pérez, Carles Pastrana, Agustí Torelló, Juan Gil of Palacio de Fefiñanes, Gerardo Méndez and with hundreds of other bodegueros, from bodegas both big and tiny.

For the last several years, I have focused on Galicia, where I have visited and tasted in literally scores of bodegas, say 30 in Rías Baixas, a dozen in Ribeiro, 20-25 in Ribeira Sacra, perhaps 20 in Valdeorras and a couple in Monterrei. And just outside the gates of

Galicia, I have visited and tasted in some 20 bodegas in Bierzo. I have returned to a number of these bodegas as many as 5-10 times!!

And I have worn out many pairs of road warrior shoes walking in the vineyards of Spain with the viticulturists and winemakers. One Spanish wine figure accused me of not knowing anything about Spanish vineyards. I had albariza dust on my shoes before that pompous jerk was born.

Pepe Peñin likes to characterize me as “a wine romantic.”  He has told me that on a few occasions. When it comes to Spain, I still confess after all these years to still being somewhat of a passionate, enthusiastic romantic about certain aspects of the country and its people and I hope I never lose that, but I am out there in the trenches with the real artisan winemakers on most trips and I am just not into wineries so commercial that they could just as well be making athletic shoes. In fact, some of them would better serve the world if they did make shoes instead of the type of wines they are making, as I have heard so often, “wines the market is asking for.” 

I can’t wait to see what kind of wines some of these bodegas are going to make for what the Chinese market is going to be asking for.  I once had a misguided American lawyer ask me to taste a wine blind at his home.  It was awful.  He delighted in showing me a Chinese wine that had a serpent in the bottle.  This could augur well for Extremadura, because there is a wine or liqueur from there with a snake in the bottle. 

When was your first visit to Rioja?

During the 1970s when I lived in the south of Spain, La Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my adopted home.

By early July, as you know, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain.  The sun bears down relentlessly, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts.  Coinciding with this time of year is the annual trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway’s lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermin.  Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Ernest’s fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way.  On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, weeklong San Fermífestivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities, and not even particularly desirable ones at that.  We looked forward to La Rioja, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

To avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain over-looking the Costa del Sol, in late afternoon.  We would usually drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of maniacal North African drivers hellbent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. This was before the construction of Spain’s system of autopistas, so we were driving on two-lane roads.  Apart from diminishing one’s chances of being maimed by a Peugeot, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of slow, laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos – the terrain of El Cid – by midday.  From there we headed East towards the Rioja.  In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler.  The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away.  The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

On one occasion, we had written the venerable firm of R. López de Heredia in Haro, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega.  The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age.  It went something like, “…We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega.  It would be our great pleasure to receive you.”

We had arranged for two old friends, the late Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados, from Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona.  By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche in the Café Suizo in La Plaza de la Paz in Haro, the four of us were down in the centenarian bodegas of R. Lopez de Heredia for our “second breakfast”– a wine tasting.  Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm’s export manager, let us taste some of the firm’s twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteeth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux– the winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do.  In time-honored fashion, barrels were (and still are today) crafted in the winery’s own cooperage.  We saw workers cracking eggs from the bodega’s chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines.  Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device.

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega – – the room known at R. López de Heredia as the cementerio–the cemetery.  The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877.  This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain.  Bin after bin was filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past.  At one end of the room, a large round wooden table’s centerpiece was a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine.

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste.  The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity.  The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine – – aterciopelado (velvety).  The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, an English banker a bullfight aficionado, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, “Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don’t you think?”

These wines did indeed have “a nice bloom” on them.  They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking that I have ever heard.

 First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega’s “bread and butter” – the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage.  Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing.

In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life.  Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine’s “education.”

“You see,” he began, “in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man.  He gets a proper `education’ here in the bodega, then is bottled and becomes a young caballero.  At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off.  However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty.  A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration.  The second bottle was in fine condition.”

It would be a day to remember – Anastasio’s wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning.  We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta.  At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of Rioja tinto. 

After lunch, with a tape playing the wonderful jotas of the Basque country, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for the splendid view of the entire Rioja valley.  Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners – Alice a septuagenarian at that  – performing the regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

What was Rioja like back then and how has it changed?

I think my previous answer describes a little of what it was like back then, but one can still have those kinds of experiences since many of them are so often people based.  Corrida days in Haro, the Battle of Wine outside Haro, Logroño’s San Mateo fiesta and numerous experiences that can be had in La Rioja–in Ezcaray and the southern mountains, Santo Domingo and in wine towns such as Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and many other places–still make the region a magical place for those who know the area, its history, its bodegas and its wonderful restaurants and tapas bars. 

Some people see the changes that modernity has wrought and lament the days of the past, but I have seen Spain grow and modernize over a period of more than forty years and I have come to realize that the question should not be about whether traditional or modern is best, it should be about what is really good.   For too long, the priority of modern Spaniards was to throw off the shackles of the Franco era and plant both feet in the modern era.  This caused the criteria to be skewed.  There was a general feeling that anything new, modern, innovative had to be good by definition and therefore most relics of the past must not be so good, when the real criteria should be: What is based on quality is good, what is not, is not.  Just being new, modern and innovative is not all necessarily good.  Some innovation turns out to be quite bad and sometimes it is in bad taste. 

The same goes for some traditions, which often are used to keep people anchored in the past–the status quo is more to the point–though the best of customs, which were at sometime in history, new, modern and innovative, tend to survive and for good reason.

In wine and gastronomy, I have long maintained that it is not tradition nor innovation that is the question.  The question is: Is it good?  For instance, I believe that Spanish modernized traditional cuisine is some of the best food on the planet.  There are great traditional cuisine restaurants in Spain and also some very bad ones.  And as we know, there are a number of exceptional Spanish, Basque and Catalan cocina de vanguardia restaurants, many inspired by elBulli, but I think it is telling that many of the vanguardia maestros are opening tapas bars and restaurants with modernized and evolved traditional dishes on the menu.

As far as modern Rioja wines go, it is the same.  There are great tradition-based, evolved wines in la Rioja and there are good modern wines, but too many of the modern wines seem to be imitating wines from such places as Napa Valley or even nearby Ribera del Duero, making a style of wines that they think the market is asking for.  Now wine drinkers in droves are turning against overripe, overly alcoholic, overoaked and over-manipulated wines, which for the last decade or so have bordered on religion for most modern wine writers.  Now, that change is in the air and Parkerismo is on the wane, it will be interesting to see how all those who have steadfastly been proselytizing for such wines will change their deeply held beliefs about how such manipulated wines are actually superior to honest wines that taste like the place from which they come and that drink very well with the food of that region. 

Wines with a true sense of place–it can be terroir or it can be a style of wine like Sherry or Champagne or like La Rioja wines used to be–are unique, not copies.  And when unique wines find a successful place in markets outside their regions, their long-term success is dependent on that uniqueness that sets them apart, not a sameness which makes them as generic as Brand X and thus much more sensitive to price competition.

You have always said that your favorite Riojas are from the ‘Barrio de la Estación’ in Haro. What do you like about them?

The great gran reservas like Cune Imperial, Cune Viña Real, Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Muga Prado Enea, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza, ‘904′ and ‘890′ and, outside the Barrio de la Estación, Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina and the great Monte Real, Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Igay were fabulous wines, each distinctly different from one another, but all long-lived (I have had many that were from 40-70 years of age and still vibrant and delicious).  These were remarkable wines by any discerning wine lover’s standards.  And as recently as October 7th, at Arzak, Mariano, Arzak’s sommelier found a wonderful Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Pomal 1962, which he served us in honor of the birth year of American Iron Chef Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley).

Do you think it’s been a mistake for Rioja winemakers to follow the new world trends of high alcohol and a meaty structure? Have they dialed this back or are a lot of wines still too modern?

Now that we are in very tough economic times both in Europe and the United States, this approach to winemaking can be disastrous for all but a few who can pull it off.  And anyone who wants to sell such wines in the future had better brush up on their Chinese, because Western markets are turning against such excesses big time.  The market is also   turning against wines in heavy bottles, which are very expensive to make and transport,  ecologically unwise,  and, more often than not, have been shown to hold wines that are not only expensive, they are usually not very much fun to drink and are often the opposite of what a wine with charm, grace, harmony and balance should be. 

In my estimation, it is not the time-honored wines of La Rioja that the Barrio de la Estacion, Riscal, Bodegas Riojanas and Murrieta were once known for that will be considered the greatest dinosaurs in the near future, it will be the overwrought, Parkerized, monster wines that never really existed a decade or so ago.  (By the way, what do the makers of such wines not understand about the value of second glass and second bottle sales, which are much more likely to happen–by multiples of multiples–with wines that have 12% – 13%, are not fat and overripe or overoaked?)

Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with tempranillo. What has garnacha contributed historically to our wines and can Rioja reds make it as single varietal tempranillos?

More to the point, “Most of the garnacha here has been grubbed up and replaced with a clone of tempranillo that is prolific and produces insipid wines that need over-ripeness and new oak flavors to make their point, are getting less and less palatable by the day to the broad market out there and for which a lot of marketing dollars have to be spend to sell such wines.

Garnacha was an essential component in a number of great Rioja wines such as Cune Viña Real.  Garnacha and mazuelo added to Tempranillo made many Rioja wines great, complex, multi-faceted and delicious.  Who decided that monovarietalism was a virtue?  The press, who are not winemakers, nor the real consumers of wines?  Oh, well, as Navarra has realized since they ripped out a lot of their exceptional garnacha vines, Aragón, now dubbing itself as the Kingdom of Garnacha, is not that far away.  And should Rioja’s bodegueros change their minds about blending other grapes into the increasingly uninterested tempranillo clone now planted in so much of the region, perhaps a pipeline to Campo de Borja, Cariñena or Calatayud should be considered.

Is there any hope for white Rioja?

The future for Rioja white wines, which I view as extremely dim, will probably have to have its roots in the past.  Viura is an insipid grape.  Among the many wines that I have sampled that were made from that grape from across Spain (counting those that go under the name Macabeo, Macabeu), I have yet to encounter a great one.  (I don’t count the aged R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blancos, which owe as much to winemaking technique and to the blend of other grapes as to Viura itself.) 

Basilio Izquierdo’s B. de Basilio Blancos are the best white wines that I have tasted in La Rioja, but the true base for those wines is Garnacha Blanca.   Any future hope for white wines in La Rioja should be based on the blends prevalent in the past: Viura with Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia. 

And rather than planting Chardonnay and trying to make more insipid, copy-cat white wine that has to be manipulated in the cellars to have any interest at all, I would strongly consider planting good clones of Godello in the higher elevations.  Now, there, in my humble opinion, is a grape with a future.

Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 ‘Early release’

Luciano de Murrieta

Luciano de Murrieta

After a hard week at the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in Bordeaux, we decided to spend a relaxing weekend at our summer house near Santander.  However, gale force winds and driving rain made us miserable so we decided to leave early for Logroño, a nice Sunday lunch and a warm, dry house.

While Toñica prepared a dish of hake fillets in white wine sauce, I went to the cellar in the basement to find an appropriate wine for the meal.  My eyes landed on a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay gran reserva 1989 which ended up on the dinner table.  Not only did it go really well with the fish, it brought back memories of how Rioja used to be made.

I remember my first visit to the winery in the mid-1980s. Winemaker Alfonso Troya, who learned his trade from the great Jesús Marrodán, explained that traditional houses like Murrieta didn’t need to age their wines in bottle before release – they were aged for years in old barrels that had lost most of their capacity to microoxigenate the wine inside, so consequently, were ready to drink when bottled.

In the late 1980s the winery decided to release some of the Castillo de Ygay vintages with less barrel age than usual, holding back the rest for a further 10 to 20 years.  These were the ‘early release’ Ygays, the first of which, 1985, was released in 1994. 

Murrieta wines are produced exclusively from the winery’s extensive vineyards just outside Logroño and are blends of tempranillo and a generous amount of mazuelo, along with some garnacha and graciano.  The percentages weren’t on the back label but most of the vintages favor the first two varieties.

The wine showed a medium brick color with no hint of brown, a  nose that reminded me of spice and a cedar chest with hints of oak and a light, elegant mouthfeel.  I thought it was at the top of its game.  Perfect with Toñica’s fish.

Murrieta was always easy for me to recognize at tastings because of its distinctive spicy nose with just a hint of oak and the 1989 early release took me back 20 years, before the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s influence was as overpowering as it is today and fine, old Riojas were in great demand.

At the time this wine was made, the owner, Vicente Cebrián, a businessman with interests in newspaper publishing (he was one of the owners of the now-defunct newspaper YA), wanted to restore the estate to its original late 19th century splendor but suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving the property in the hands of his teenaged children Vicente and Cristina.  They have continued their father’s plans but have, unfortunately in my opinion, given the wines a more modern style that may not be appreciated by the winery’s loyal fans.

The gran reserva 1989, however, was made before this change came about and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Call me a traditionalist, but wines like this are a treat!