Rioja: Combining the Old and the New

The distance from Madrid to Logrono, the principal town in La Rioja is approximately five hours by car and centuries in wine time. Monastery documents date the existence of wine in La Rioja in 873; however, we know La Rijoa’€™s unwritten wine history extends to the Phoenicians who brought their winemaking skills to the Iberian Peninsula.

Over the course of centuries, La Rioja became the most prestigious wine region in Spain. It was the wine source for French consumers when Bordeaux’€™s vineyards were devastated by Phylloxera in the 19th century. Eclipsed by the New World wine styles of the late 20th century from neighboring Ribera del Duero and Priorat, it is responding in the 21st century with modern wine styles while retaining its classic Rioja wines.

Rioja’€™s modern foundation was laid by a most traditional winery and man, Marquis de Murrieta. In 1822, Francisco Ramon de Murrieta was born in Peru. Two years later, his family moved to England when the Peruvians overthrew the Spanish colonialist.

In 1844, after service in the Spanish army, Murrieta moved to Logrono and began a life dedicated to making outstanding wine.

Observing the inferior quality of Rioja wines compared to the French wines he experienced in London, Murrieta went to Bordeaux to learn winemaking in 1848. He returned four years later, and began producing wines that earned him international awards, commercial success and the title Marques de Murrieta from Queen Isabel II. In 1878, he purchased the Ygay estate.

Murrieta died childless in 1911. His nephew, Julian de Olivares, inherited the winery and maintained its status until his death in 1977. The estate was purchased in 1983 by Count Vicente Cebrian Sagarriga and is currently under the direction of his 40-year old son, Vicente Dalmau Cebrian Sagarriga, and daughter, Christina.

There are more than 700 acres of vineyards at Marques de Murrieta planted primarily with tempranillo, Rioja’€™s main red grape, as well as the other traditional red wine grapes mazuelo, garnacha and graciano. The Cebrian Sagarriga family added a plot of cabernet sauvignon.

Murrieta is renowned for its long wine aging process and the current vintage, 2004 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, spent four years in new and used American oak barrels and four years in bottle before it was released to the market. This is three years longer than required by Rioja’€™s regulations for wines designated Gran Reserva. Its 1978 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, which is available through its importer, Maisons Marques & Domaines, spent 18 years in barrel and 10 years in bottle before it was offered to the market. The 1982 vintage is still barrel aging in the cellars of Marquis de Murrieta. Its market debut is unknown.

With the 1994 vintage, the Cebrian Sagarriga family introduced a New World-styled wine, Dalmau, to Marquis de Murietta’€™s classic wines. It is produced from tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and graciano grapes of the single-vineyard Canajas at the Ygay Estate.

The cabernet sauvignon and graciano are fermented in oak barrels and the entire blend is aged in new French oak barrels for two and a half years. Dalmau’€™s black ink color and noticeable oak aroma and flavor is Marquis de Murietta’€™s acknowledgment that Rioja’€™s most historic winery recognizes the palate preference of many contemporary consumers. The 2004 Dalmau is the current vintage.

Bodegas Luis Canas is the other bookend of Rioja winemaking. In 1989, the then 33-year old Juan Luis Canas took command of the family winery and began a process of modernization that stretched from vineyard to winemaking to a new winery. Its three reservas, gran reserva, and special bottling, Hiru 3 Racimos illustrate Canas’€™ modern wine style of up-front fruit and oak accents. Its reservas La Familia and Amaren, Gran Reserva, and Hiru 3 Racimos are all aged in new French and American oak barrels.

They have the DNA of New World wines: Opaque purple to blackish-red hues; a polished, velvety texture; an aroma spectrum of burnt wood, cinnamon, licorice, and black fruits; and flavors ranging from blackberry marmalade, plum, black olive, raisin, to chocolate. The tannins and acidity of these wines have been subdued by winemaking techniques unknown a quarter-century ago. While they have the structure for aging, they need only a glass.

These two styles are the contrasts of Rioja today. They are not in conflict. One is anchored in time; the other reflects our moment.

Between the two bookends is the winery that brought Rioja into the modern era: Marques de Caceres.

In 1970, Enrique Forner, who left Spain as a child during the Spanish Civil War, returned as a successful Bordeaux chateaux owner.

With the financial resources from reestablishing chateaux Camensac and Larose-Trintaudon, and a relationship with Bordeaux’€™s preeminent enologist Emile Peynaud, Forner built the first new winery in 50 years in Rioja.

They introduced the revolutionary idea of using new French oak barrels for aging in a region that used American oak. They reduced the barrel aging time to a year or two in a region that aged wines for years, and sometimes decades. And they disposed of barrels within 10 years where the tradition was to employ the barrels for a generation or more.

Stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation tanks were installed in a land where ancient casks were normally used. And Bordeaux methods of racking, fining, filtering, and winery cleanliness were introduced. And last, but certainly not least, the Forner family brought to Rioja the Bordeaux expertise in marketing.

And they kept their eyes focused on the market, introducing two wines in this decade to supplement the classic selection of Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.

Gaudium was created in 1994 and brought to market in 1999. Classified Reserva, Gaudium is a special selection of grapes with a longer maceration, and fermentation and aging for 2 years in new French oak barrels. It has all the 21st century touchstones of black ink color, toasted new oak, jammy fruit flavors and plush tannins.

The second wine, MC was developed in 2001 and made its market debut in 2003. It doesn’€™t carry a classification, but it does reflect its kinship to Gaudium. It, too, is a special selection of grapes aged in new French oak for 15 months and is committed to a New World style. Both are priced substantially above the traditional Reserva and Gran Reserva and reflect the style of Michel Rolland, wine consultant to Marques de Caceres.

Marques de Caceres showed Rioja that its wines needed to be fresher, cleaner, and ready to meet the modern palate and contemporary standards. Its classic wines remain some of the best values in Rioja.

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