Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Marques de Murrieta is rebuilt stone by stone

Evolution is the heart of all great wine: fine winemakers obsessively consider  the progression of their wines from vintage to vintage, from decade to decade, how they change in tune with the public’s perception of how a wine should taste. But fine wine is also about consistency: however much the wine evolves it must be recognisably of its terroir. The only proprietor I have ever met who has so comprehensively made concrete this tension between change and consistency is Vicente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga.

‘You see that building over there?’ The energetic owner of Marques de Murrieta points to a substantial, low dwelling 50 yards away. ‘In two weeks I’m going to pull that down.’ Indeed, he’s knocked down the entire estate and rebuilt it – almost exactly as it was before.

It is an extraordinary undertaking. The Castillo Ygay, the 160-year-old centrepiece, looks from the outside exactly as it did before. But since 2007 the castle - the main massing of the original stone – and its attendant buildings have been razed to the ground and rebuilt. The only part of the original estate that has survived is the 1852 bottle cellar. There are new tasting rooms, a museum, a dining room with a kitchen ‘identical to the one at El Bulli’, Cebrian says, namechecking the now-defunct Best Restaurant in the World, new cellars, a 70,000-bottle library of Murrieta vintages going back to 1852, and a shop with Enomatic machines for tasting.

And that is just the start. The next phase, starting in 2013, will be the rebuilding of the winemaking facilities, with new tanks and new equipment. The quantity of wine produced, delimited by the size of the estate, will not increase. The entire project, both castle and winery, will come in at some €20m.

It’s the kind of audacious and extravagant undertaking you’d expect to find in California. Sandstone blocks, each the size of a small car, are trucked in and hand-hewn by a team of Galician stonemasons who have been working on site for years. When cut to size, the stones are distressed by a mason with a cold-chisel – in order for them to look old. In the vast square-footage of the castle, and the hundreds of metres of pathway surrounding it, every pockmark on every stone has been chipped out by hand. I doubt Charles Foster Kane, dreaming of his Xanadu, would have gone that far. Cebrian says the stone accounted for some 20% of the cost of the project.

Why such an extraordinary undertaking? The old castillo desperately needed renovation – the foundations, they discovered, were less than a foot deep – but they wanted to preserve ‘with faithful accuracy its original shape, identity and architectural centennial beauty,’ as I’m told during one of our many email exchanges. Castillo Ygay was simply too much of an icon to change in even the smallest degree.

So it is new, but it is old. As such it’s the perfect metaphor for what Cebrian and his technical director Maria Vargas are trying to do at Murrieta. Indeed, it’s a handy metaphor for the process of change that is going on in the whole of Rioja, with bodegas teetering on that fine line between modernity and tradition.

Discussing the project, from the bricks-and-mortar rebuilding to the development of the wines, Cebrian’s conversation is littered with the language of evolution and preservation; the oxymoronic words ‘change’ and ‘maintain’ are used over and over again. ‘You can’t stop,’ he says. ‘You need always to be in evolution.’ And on the other hand, ‘Over 12 years I have been slowly defining the style of Murrieta while always trying to maintain the identity. It’s like the winery: we are balancing tradition and identity, youth and modernity.’

The Ygay estate, which Luciano, Marques de Murrieta founded in the mid-19th century (1852 was the date of the first official shipping of the wines), is the biggest single estate in Rioja. Its 300ha are wholly-owned – unusually for the region, where it is far more common for even the oldest estates to own few hectares but to buy in grapes from dozens of growers. The vineyards, composed of old alluvial soils, clay and limestone, with a warm surface of hefty river stones, give excellent drainage and are meticulously husbanded.

‘Everything starts in the vineyard,’ Cebrian says. Vine stress is controlled by ultra-modern infrared leaf imaging techniques by which water conductivity in the leaf is measured and vines irrigated accordingly. Parcels are separately vinified, and the team – led by Vargas – are constantly adjusting maceration times and the oak regime in search of the perfect balance of colour and fruit.

The flagship wine, the Gran Reserva Castillo Ygay – a Tempranillo/Mazuelo blend which Greg Sherwood MW of importer Handford Wines calls ‘One of the three most famous labels anywhere in the world’ – is undergoing a transformation as radical, and perhaps as invisible, as the castle itself.

‘We don’t want to lose the identity American oak gives the wine,’ Cebrian says, ‘but we want to offer  more fruit and a better balance between oak and fruit.’

From the 2000 vintage the oak regime (on both Ygay and Marques de Murrieta, the entry-level offering) has been overhauled. Whereas Ygay used to spend 50-60 months in 5-7-year-old barrels, Cebrian and Vargas have shortened and intensified the process. Now it spends 30 months in oak, the first year of which is new. ‘This is the first time Ygay has touched new oak at the beginning of its life.’

Fermentation and maceration is now far more controlled, Cebrian says, at lower temperatures, ‘for less extraction but more fruit’.

The aim, he says, is to turn back the clock: to return Murrieta to the glory days. ‘What we’re trying to achieve is to move into the era of Marques de Murrieta wines of 40 years ago – wines of elegance, femininity and power, with nice balance and a lot of colour.’

There are of course two Ygays: one that is bottled after 30 months and aged for three years in bottle; and the historic vintages, which are left in barrel for decades. The 1978 is in the market now (it sells for less than £100 a bottle, amazingly), and the next release will be the 1980, followed possibly by the 1982 and the 87.

‘We want to show the market how Ygay can age in oak and bottle,’ Cebrian says.

In the €15 Marques de Murrieta, there is also this adjustment, a throttling back of extraction here, a slight lowering of the fermentation temperature there.

‘In 2008 we are turning into something more delicate and feminine. It’s exactly the same basis but we’re moving into something more exclusive. Between 2007 and 2008 you can see another touch’ – but as always he stresses the delicacy of the adjustment – ‘there is no parabola.’

Vicente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga y Suarez-Llanos, Conde de Creixell, inherited one of the most venerable bodegas in Spain in 1996 at the age of 24, on the sudden death of his father, who was only 47. There was, he said, ‘a great emptiness’ in those months. He clarifies: ‘An emptiness in the sense of image. Who was the boss? What was going to happen to the winery?’

So he went to Ygay and ‘spent three years just looking. What was the new project? I knew I had to maintain the identity of the estate but at the same time add youth and modernity.’

It’s a powerful picture. A young man, a playboy (as he says he still is – ‘girlfriends, girlfriends, girlfriends’), literally at the centre of the great estate, trying to make sense of his sudden inheritance, keen to make a mark yet sensible of the weight of history and the responsibility that has landed on his shoulders.

I also get an idea that the Cebrian family – outsiders from Galicia (where the stonemasons come from) – took a while to adjust to Rioja. Cebrian’s father had bought the noble but run-down bodega in 1983 on the proceeds of the sale of TV company Antena 3, ‘but the Riojanas wouldn’t accept him. He was resented.’

The young heir had even more of a reason to stamp his authority on Murrieta: he was doing it for his father as well.

The result of his three-year contemplation of the estate was the hiring of ‘a new, young team’, with Vargas being appointed winemaker in 2000. ‘This was a new project inside the old. We began a different dialogue with the estate.’

As far as the wines were concerned, there was indeed a ‘new project within the old’. Cebrian’s father had died just as the drive to ‘modernity’ was kicking off. In Bordeaux this meant the Vins de Garage of the right bank; in Rioja a similar style – micro-cuvée, nano-yield, high extraction, fruit-layered wines – became known by the wonderfully pretentious moniker of Vinos de Autor.

‘I hate that – the concentration, the high-fruit nose, the high alcohol. But one of the first projects that Maria and I did was to make another red wine next to this new concept of Rioja. It would represent a very small percentage of our output, only 20,000 bottles, but it would be a chance for Marques de Murrieta to show this is what we feel is a modern wine.’

It would, Cebrian said, ‘send a message to the market that the son had taken over.’ Dalmau, Murrieta’s very own ‘Vino de Autor’,  led the charge. This is how Cebrian would ‘show the market how Marques de Murrieta understands the new era of winemaking in Rioja.’

He and Vargas were consciously breaking free of history. ‘With this wine we had no roots. We thought, “Let’s do something different”.’

They added Cabernet Sauvignon (the estate’s tiny Cabernet crop now goes entirely into Dalmau) to the 90%-plus Tempranillo, put it through malolactic fermentation in barrel (‘for a creamier feel’), and aged it for 20 months in 225-litre new French oak barrels.

The Tempranillo comes from the prized Canajas plot, 500m above sea level, where the vines are 50 years old – and they ramp up the concentration by green-harvesting an average of 50% of the fruit.

The resulting €80 wine is a dark, almost inky glassful, redolent of pencil shavings, eucalyptus, dark black cherry and blackberry, with tremendous potency, silky tannins and wonderful length. It is a delicious wine, made by a winemaker at the top of her game, with the best raw material and the most expensive technology available.

But, to paraphrase the French general, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Rioja.’ In Cebrian’s own phrase, it is a ‘concept wine’, and for all its sleekness it is about as Spanish as the glass elevators that swoosh up and down the outside of the Reina Sofia art gallery in Madrid.

I don’t share these thoughts during the tasting as we have already discussed modernity and internationalism in some detail. While we were looking at the Marques de Murrieta I had suggested the 2008 had a more ‘international’ feel than its predecessors. What did I mean, Cebrian asked. It was more to do with the quality of the tannins and the liftedness of the palate, I thought, but it was subtle. What I called international could be described as feminine – that is, more in tune with a worldwide movement towards lighter and more delicate wines. He was mollified. ‘I thought for a moment you were saying we had lost our Rioja character.’

Not a bit of it – the Marques de Murrieta is a wonderful, terroir-driven wine. But I simply can’t say the same for Dalmau, which I think is one of those toned, somewhat airbrushed beauties one finds from high-end wineries all over the world: wines designed to wow a tableful of Korean businessmen as effortlessly as a dinner party in Oslo.

There are many who disagree. Greg Sherwood reckons ‘they don’t lose their roots. You can definitely taste Spain – there’s that hint of classicism’ and veteran Spanish expert John Radford agrees. ‘Unmistakeably Rioja, and a fascinating combination of traditional and modern.’

Sherwood concedes however it isn’t in the same league as its sister wines, whose ‘huge recognition’ and reputation mean they fly off the shelves. ‘It’s a modern style and it’s just finding its feet. It never really got the traction the other wines have.’

After our morning of tasting at Murrieta, Cebrian, Vargas and I head off for a late lunch in Logroño. ‘I have a surprise for you,’ he says, pulling a Castillo Ygay 1959 out of his bag.

It was bottled in 1989 after 30 years in barrel, with no racking,  just topping up, and it is sublime. Sprightly, bright and clean, with an extraordinary flavour of sweet quince, prunes and pot pourri, and sweet refreshing tannins.

We taste it alongside the 2004 Ygay. ‘You can see the family resemblance. They have the same structure. They are brothers,’ Vargas says.

This, I think, is unmistakeably Rioja. The 2004 is a superb mouthful of black cherry, black pepper and silky tannins, but it is a mere child beside the aristocratic 1959. How do they see it evolving?

‘It’s going to be great,’ Cebrian says. Then he adds, swirling the 59 in his glass, ‘But with this in mind, it is quite a responsibility.’

Marques de Murrieta wines:

Pazo Barrantes Albariño, Rias Baixas, Galicia
100% Albariño produced at the Cebrian-Sagarriga family estate Pazo Barrantes in Galicia, vinified in stainless steel

La Comtessa Albariño, Pazo Barrantes, Rias Baixas, Galicia
Newly-released high-end Albariño from Pazo Barrantes. Single vineyard, aged 18 months in French oak and 12 months in bottle. 3800 bottles produced in 2009

Marques de Murrieta Capellania Viura, Rioja
100% Viura from parcels grown at 300m on the Ygay estate, aged 15 months in new French oak

Marques de Murrieta Reserva, Rioja
Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo, Graciano, all from the Ygay estate. Aged 20-22 months in American oak of which at least 8 months in new barrels. One year in bottle before release

Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, Rioja
Tempranillo and Mazuelo from the finest Ygay plots. Only produced in the best vintages. Up to 30 months years in American oak, of which at least 10 months in new barrels, and 3 years ageing in bottle.

In the very best years the wine is left in barrel of decades: the 1978 was bottled in 1998 and released in 2007. The next releases will be the 1980, followed possibly by the 1982 and the 87.  Since 2000, the Gran Reserva Especial has come exclusively from the La Plana vineyard on the estate

The ‘statement’ cuvée, a blend of Tempranillo with less than 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and Graciano, all from the estate. Aged for up to 20 months in new French oak. The first vintage was 1994.

This article was first published in Decanter magazine