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Murrieta illustrates ‘new era’

Marqués de Murrieta used this week’s launch of its Castillo Ygay 2005 Gran Reserva Especial to highlight the modern side of a company which claims to be the oldest wine brand in Rioja.

In keeping with the estate’s new direction under current president Vicente Dalmau, whose family bought Murrieta in 1983, the 2005 vintage illustrates a wider shift towards shorter ageing and more new oak.

In order to mark a contrast with the estate’s previous style, Dalmau showed the 1970 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, which spent 312 months in 40 to 50-year-old barrels until it was bottled in 1998. The older wine also included a small proportion of Garnacha and Graciano, which have been cut from the modern wine in favour of more Tempranillo and Mazuelo.

Despite acknowledging Mazuelo’s tendency towards high yields, Dalmau noted that, with the help of a green harvest, the estate picks just one bunch from each of the 60-year-old vines. The Mazuelo is then fermented in 4,000-litre new French oak vats, remaining in these for a further 30 months maturation.

Meanwhile the Tempranillo, which makes up the remaining 89% of the blend, is fermented in stainless steel before spending at least 10 of the next 30 months in 225-litre new American oak barrels.

Revealing that the estate would not release an Ygay Gran Reserva 2006, 2008 or 2009, Dalmau confirmed that the next launch would be the 2007 vintage in two years time. Although a wine is made each year, those not deemed of sufficient quality for this top wine are incorporated into the Murrieta Reserva.

Although Murrieta has been owned by his family for 30 years, Dalmau pinpointed the beginning of what he called its “new era” as 2000, when the arrival of winemaker Maria Vargas set in motion his extensive project to “update” this historic property and its wines.

After his father died suddenly in 1996 at the age of just 47, Dalmau took over. Then aged just 24, he recalled: “For the first three years I did nothing, just looking and talking to the market and winemakers.”

By 1999 however, he began to implement changes in earnest, beginning with the introduction of a new, younger winemaking team. With an average age of just 28 years old, Dalmau highlighted a deliberate contrast with the long history of the estate, saying: “I think it’s important for a winery like this to have young blood inside.”

Other steps saw the end of Murrieta’s crianza production and the renaming of its white wine as Capellanía, which like the modern Ygay Gran Reserva also now matures for a shorter time in a higher proportion of new oak.

Meanwhile, 1998 saw the launch of an entirely new red wine, named Dalmau after its owner. Describing this wine as “our concept of a modern style of Rioja,” Dalmau told the drinks business: “It was going to take many years to update Murrieta and 10 years minimum to update Ygay so I thought let’s make a modern style that I could show to the market after three or four years.”

Controversial with the Rioja authorities for its inclusion of Cabernet Sauvignon – althought as Dalmau notes, the 55-year-old vines existed before the DOC – Dalmau is produced from a vineyard in the higher part of the Ygay estate.

“In the beginning it was a wine selection not a grape selection,” admitted Dalmau. However, he stressed: “Since 2000 it has been a grape selection.”

With the main changes to the wines now in place, the end of this year will see the completion of an eight-year project to rebuild the castle which gives Castillo Ygay its name.

Although the Murrieta white has changed its name, the Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Blanco remains as traditional as ever. Next month will see the bottling of the 1986 vintage after 23 years maturation in 40-year-old American oak barrels. It will then spend a further three years in bottle before being released.

“It’s the most expensive wine for Marqués de Murrieta and it’s really difficult to sell it,” admitted Dalmau. “This is not for white wine drinkers, it is for red wine drinkers – and you need to explain it.”

Nevertheless, he noted that, in addition to a good following in the UK market, his US importer has overcome initial concerns to the extent that “we have problems with allocation because sommeliers want this style of wine.”

Dalmau has also added some modern tweaks to the family’s other estate, Pazo Barrantes in Rias Baixas, which it has owned since 1511. In 2009 he produced the first vintage of La Comtesse de Pazo Barrantes, the culmination of a seven-year project to extend Murrieta’s tradition of oaked white wines to the Albariño of Galicia.

“Albariño hates oak,” he remarked. “We were trying year after year with different oak, different sizes of barrel and different plots from our estate. The challenge was to balance the oak and the fruit.”

The final result saw grapes from 50-year-old vines on the Cacheiro vineyard fermented in 3,000-litre new French oak vats with three months lees contact before being aged in the same vats for 12 months and matured a further year in bottle before release.

Naming the wine after his Galician mother (the Spanish word ‘La Condesa’ was already in use as a brand name by another company), Dalmau explained what drove him to persevere with his pursuit of this challenging style. “We had reached the roof with Albariño,” he remarked, “but Marqués de Murrieta is really known around the world for how it ages white wine in barrel – could we not move that knowledge to Galicia?”

A more detailed look at Rioja’s fine wine market, together with updates from other Spanish wine regions, will appear in the drinks business Spain Report, which is due out with the December issue.

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