Located on the outskirts of Logroño, this legendary Rioja winery has been closed to the public since 2005, immersed in a comprehensive renovation of its historic buildings. The spectacular Ygay estate and its sumptuous castle has finally reopened its doors to visitors.
The castle has been transformed into a delightful museum. It hosts the old oak vats that were used to ferment the first 19th century wines, as well as an impressive collection of roughly 70,000 bottles that includes every single vintage since 1877 (except the catastrophic 1972). Moreover, aging barrels containing the great Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva have returned to the location where they rested between 1877 to 1990.
Murrieta’s reopening will please many wine lovers, but it will not come close to what current owner and President Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga will feel after so many years of hard work. He has been talking about an “imminent inauguration” for the last two years, but anyone who knows him is aware of his deeply emotional commitment to the winery.
His father, also named Vicente, purchased the estate in 1983 and moved to Murrieta with his family, determined to turn the winery into their home. Sadly, he passed away 13 years later, leaving his widow and his very young children in charge of the estate. Vicente Dalmau, still in his early twenties, was the eldest, so he had to take over. Recalling those days, he talks about the “terrifying emptiness” left by his father’s death, both in the family and in the winery. Beyond Ygay gates, very few thought that he would be able to carry forward his father’s legacy.
Having worked at the company since 1989, Vicente Dalmau brought along a team of daring young professionals in which winemaker María Vargas would play a particularly important role. In 2002, when Murrieta celebrated its 150th anniversary, the average age of the management staff stood at 30.
Under Vicente Dalmau’s presidency, a full renovation took place starting with the modernisation of classic Marqués de Murrieta Reserva (€18.10 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher). The white winemaking tradition was redefined in a new brand called Capellanía (€19.50 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher); red Dalmau (€48.50 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), which was also new (bearing the name of the new President), proved that the winery was capable of making modern reds; and finally, Castillo Ygay (€74,90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) became the focus.
No doubt the castle is the jewel of Murrieta’s estate. But was it Castillo Ygay, the wine, the jewel of Murrieta’s portfolio at a time when powerful, extremely ripe mouth-filling reds were virtually the unique objects of desire in Rioja? Surely, it was not.
Ygay was the first venture that seriously embarked on the creation of a wine estate in Rioja, thus the wines reflected, vintage after vintage, the distinctive character of its terroir. Nobody in Rioja introduced the Bordelaise concept of château with the clarity and accuracy displayed by founder Luciano de Murrieta.
As aid de camp to General Espartero, Luciano de Murrieta held a privileged position, right in the core of the political and military spheres of his time. He served beside the military high commands and was able to witness the intrigues of the court. Those were times of upheaval and monarchic instability, Carlist Wars and rivalry between liberals and conservatives.
Troubled times sent his mentor and himself into exile to London, where Luciano took a great interest in Bordeaux crus. Despite political uncertainties and hazards, wine was perceived as a crucial social element and the future Marquis of Murrieta was sensitive enough to be aware of Rioja’s potential. Back in Spain, Luciano de Murrieta started his own wine adventure at General Espartero’s winery in Logroño, and 25 years later, in 1877, he purchased the Ygay estate.
Luciano de Murrieta’s wines stood out for the use of Bordelaise wine techniques as well as for their ability to age and travel. In those days, wineries usually kept their wines in oak and shipped them under request, most of the time in the very same barrels and later in bottles. The best wines would undergo aging for years and years. They remained in old barrels, which used to be completely covered by bitartrates (a kind of crystallization) on the inside. As opposed to the brand new oak barrels used nowadays, oxygenation was practically non-existent. Bitartrates didn’t allow oxygen to permeate the wood and prevented wines from acquiring an oak taste. In Marqués de Murrieta, there are records of some Castillo Ygay vintages being bottled after more than 40 years of oak aging.
Precisely, these old exhilarating reds, capable of graciously sustaining the test of time, have inspired Castillo Ygay in the 21st century. The wine has been carefully rethought by President Vicente Dalmau and oenologist María Vargas with the aim of recuperating the spirit of a fine collectible red.
In terms of style, it’s important to note that Murrieta’s wines were always deeper and fuller than those made at Haro's historic wineries. The estate's location, right in the middle of the appellation, determines a greater Mediterranean influence which often translates into wines with scrubland and herb nuances.
Now more than ever, Castillo Ygay (which in the past was sourced from the best wines) comes directly from the vineyard. As it is the case in all of Murrieta’s reds, Tempranillo forms the basis. It now comes from La Plana vineyard which spreads throughout the relatively vast plateau (34 hectares) that crowns the estate. This is Murrieta’s highest plot and the one where grapes ripen more slowly and evenly.
The other ingredient of the new Castillo Ygay is especially precious. Mazuelo (Carignan) is hard to work with but thanks to its structure, character and high acidity it gives powerful, austere, long reds, with high concentration of fruit. Too wild to be drunk on its own but perfect to achieve longevity, Mazuelo is the only element of Castillo Ygay that is aged in French oak. Due to its long growth cycle and the large amount of sun it needs to ripen thoroughly, it is grown in the lowest areas of the estate.
The last two vintages of Castillo Ygay that have reached the market, 2004 and 2005, follow these new directions although they differ considerably. While the former is already displaying a lovely bouquet of spices, red fruit and evocative tobacco nuances together with a silky texture, the 2005 feels more solid and concentrated, rather closed although full of energy. It definitely is a wine to wait for.
As you may have already imagined, Ygay’s new prominent position within Murrieta’s range has obviously brought a price increase. From the roughly €40 that used to cost in Spain to the current €60, the fabulous Castillo is not such a terrific bargain any more.
The Marquis of Murrieta died in 1911. He never married nor had children, so the winery was inherited by his closest relatives -the Olivares family- who were based in Madrid. They managed the estate from afar and were lucky enough to have the outstanding Jesús Marrodán as winemaker looking after the wines between 1952 and 1982.
Fortunately, the Cebrián-Sagarriga family passionately provided the dedication required to face the winemaking revolution that altered the state of things in Rioja during the 1980s and 1990s. For Vicente Dalmau the experience certainly was not a bed of roses but he eventually emerged as the perfect heir to Luciano de Murrieta. Even if the title of marquis stuck with the Olivares, he uses his own title inherited from his father’s side of the family. The Count of Creixell, as he often signs, is perfectly suited to a fabulous setting such as Ygay.
Today the estate is at its best with the largest area of vineyard ever under cultivation, an impressive collection of restored historic buildings and a range of wines suited to present times, with Castillo Ygay definitely back to the leading position.