Wine built on Rioja of ages

Christine Austin goes in search of new flavours from an historic grape-producing region.


Said Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga, president of Marqués de Murrieta: “We will open for visitors in January with a new shop and of course we now have the castle.”

And the castle did appear to be from the 19th-century, beautifully restored, but how much of this is original and how much rebuilt was lost in translation as we toured its huge entertaining space overlooking big old fermentation vats on the floor below.

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Marqués de Murrieta is one of the grand old names of Rioja. Founded in 1852 by Luciano Murrieta, the Ygay estate remained in family hands for over a century. Bought by Vicente’s family in 1983 this 300-hectare estate and all its buildings have seen massive investment, while all the time the wines have steadily increased in quality.

The Murrieta style combines the traditional taste of Rioja, brought up to date by winemaker María Vargas, who has been in post for 13 years despite her youthful, straight from wine-school appearance. Unusually for Rioja, the vineyards are in one plot surrounding the winery, occupying a significant slope which gives variation in altitude and growing conditions. And because of the heritage of the site there are old vines which have put their roots deep into the well-drained alluvial soil.

Capellania 2008, Rioja Blanco Reserva (£18.99, Harrogate Fine Wine) is an example of how Murrieta has moved forward, while still keeping an eye on the past.

Made from low-yielding 65-year-old 100 per cent Viura vines, grown at 600 metres altitude the wine is aged in French oak for just 19 months compared with much longer ageing in the past. The result is a classic style of white Rioja, still with honey and almonds complexity backed by lemon curd on toast freshness. This is a fabulous wine to pair with hearty fish dishes, such as grilled fish with olives and tomatoes or mature cheese.

Comparing this wine with a barrel sample of 1986 Castillo Ygay Blanco, still in oak after 27 years and still in perfect condition with gloriously complex flavours, Capellania was fresher, less intense, yet still had the key flavours of top-notch white Rioja at an affordable price.

It was the same story with the reds. Marqués de Murrieta Ygay Reserva 2008 (£18.99, Harrogate Fine Wine for the 2007 vintage) is mainly Tempranillo grapes, with a splash of Garnacha, Mazuelo and just two per cent Graciano aged for 24 months in American oak. New barrels are used for the first six months, then older barrels so that the fruit flavours are not drowned out by wood. The result is a mellow, silky wine with red berry fruit and layers of flavour that still manage to be refreshing rather than oaky. This is perfect teamed with roast lamb.

Stepping up to Castillo Ygay 2005 Gran Reserva (£45, The Wine Society) shows again how low yields and careful winemaking produce wines with intensity and complexity. The Tempranillo grapes come from a single plot of old vines while the Mazuelo in the blend is harvested at a yield of just one bunch per vine.

As a special treat, and to show how this property has been making fine wines that age for decades, Vicente opened a bottle of 1985 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva. This was astonishingly fresh and vibrant with crushed raspberry fruit layered with truffles and hints of forest floor. Then came the 1968 which had spent 13 years in oak yet still the fruit was to the fore, silky, vibrant and full of life, with sweet red berries, toasted nuts and earthy tones. There are just 200 bottles of this wine left, or rather 199 after my visit. Even the 1959 vintage of Castillo Ygay was still astonishingly fresh with flavour and fruit after spending over 20 years in barrel and another 3 decades in bottle.

Marqués de Murrieta has been making quality Rioja for well over a century and looks set to continue. For sheer elegant, silky flavours, it is hard to beat.

Miguel Angel de Gregorio is a relative newcomer having founded Finca Allende less than 20 years ago, but he does have a long connection with Rioja. He grew up surrounded by the vines of Marqués de Murrieta where his father was vineyard manager. After qualifying as a winemaker he set up his own company and piece by piece assembled 35 hectares of vines around Briones in the heart of Rioja Alta.

Poor soils make the very best wines, although the work is much harder and that was the quality Miguel was looking for when he bought his vineyards.

“The soils vary from deep clay mixed with gravel to predominantly stone,” said Miguel, “and they produce wines with great character and depth.”

Winemaking techniques are designed to extract the best from the grapes, using small boxes for harvesting and hand-plunging the cap of skins in the vat. The result is a deeply concentrated wine, combined with fresh fruit flavours and ageing is done in mainly French oak small barrels instead of American oak casks.

Finca Allende’s wines are not graded according to the standard age classifications of Rioja such as Crianza and Reserva. Instead they are selected according to the quality of the grapes and the intensity of flavour. The standard Allende Rioja 2008 (around £15, Berry Bros, London) is 100 per cent Tempranillo aged 13 months in barrel and as such could be classified as Reserva. The flavours of this wine shine out with bright, powerful damson fruit backed by supple elegant tannins. The range swiftly moves up the price scale with Calvario 2007 (around £70, Berry Bros) demonstrating deep, powerful ripe red fruit flavours with pure, silky elegance while Aurus 2010, not yet available but probably in excess of the £115 being charged for the 2007 vintage, was declared by Miguel as the best wine he has ever made. It slides over the palate with fruit, spice and liquorice.

Glorious as they are, the top Allende wines challenge the wallet, but the regular wine is extremely good and it would be nice to see this available locally. Miguel also has another youthful, fresh style of Riojas called Finca Nueva. When they get to Yorkshire I’ll let you know.