The Modern Era of Marqués de Murrieta

In Spain’s premier wine region of Rioja, scion Vicente Dalmau Cébrian-Sagarriga steers one of the oldest bodegas to new heights

From the Oct. 15, 2020, issue

On a crisp February day, Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga stands on a promontory overlooking Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta, one of the founding wineries in Rioja, Spain’s premier wine region.

The old stone buildings resemble a medieval town—castle and all—nestled into the vine-covered hillside. But off to the side, there’s no missing the construction of a massive new winery. It’s been two decades since Cebrián-Sagarriga began to restore the nearly 150-year-old complex, arguably Rioja’s oldest winery, to its former glory. Now his master plan is coming to fruition.

“All our efforts over the past 20 years have been to go back,” remarks Cebrián-Sagarriga, 50, gazing over his kingdom.

Cebrián-Sagarriga, sporting custom suits, designer shoes and an eye-catching chain around his neck, is all polish. His intensity, which shines through piercing dark eyes, can be intimidating. But then, a broad smile and big laugh reveal the good humor of a man who understands and enjoys the wine life.

Patience has been hard-won for Cebrián-Sagarriga, but it has become the cornerstone of his leadership style. At Marqués de Murrieta, where some wines are released more than a decade after harvest, cellar time and grape quality are proven ingredients. To maintain the winery’s authenticity in a fast-paced world, Cebrián-Sagarriga must constantly work to ensure that Murrieta is firmly connected to its heritage.

Geographically speaking, Murrieta, located southeast of the wine-centric towns of Haro and Elciego, is an outlier compared with the other leading bodegas of Rioja Alta. “We try to do things differently compared to the rest,” Cebrián-Sagarriga reflects. “But if I think about it differently, sometimes I feel quite alone because we are outside of everything. Sometimes I feel outside of the group of my good friends; I feel like the black sheep.”

Marqués de Murrieta has played a key role in the development of Rioja since its birth as a modern wine region in the mid-19th century.

Murrieta founder Luciano de Murrieta, a Peru-born émigré to Spain, studied winemaking in Bordeaux while in exile during the Spanish civil war in the mid-1800s, bringing back French practices to Rioja and making his first bottlings there in 1852. Luciano was appointed Marqués de Murrieta in the 1870s, and grew his winemaking operation by purchasing the Castillo Ygay estate in 1872.

The winery remained in the Murrieta family until 1983, when Cebrián-Sagarriga’s father, also named Vicente Cebrián, Count of Creixell, purchased the by-then neglected estate.

“There were three important reasons why my father bought this winery,” Cebrián-Sagarriga explains. “First, he was a Marqués de Murrieta lover. He was always tasting and drinking the wines from this property. Second, he was already involved in wine in Galicia through the other winery that we own, Pazo de Barrantes, that has been in his family since 1511. And the third reason is because it was a good buy. It was a good brand that they were selling, and he realized it was a good business.”

The elder Vicente, a successful businessman in real estate and construction, moved his family from Madrid to live on the estate a few years after purchasing it. “[My father] fell in love with this project, Marqués de Murrieta,” Cebrián-Sagarriga says. “He invested a lot of money, beginning to transform the winery.”

The younger Cebrián-Sagarriga began working at the winery when he was 16, assisting with clients and managing international visitors. “I was the one from the family who really represented [my father] in this business,” he recalls.

While studying economics, business and law at the Universidad de Navarra, Cebrián-Sagarriga received a phone call from his father. “He said, ‘Vicente, I just fired the export manager. I want a new export manager, and I already decided it’s going to be you.’ So at 18, I became the export manager of both projects, Murrieta and Pazo de Barrantes.”

It wasn’t easy juggling university and his new job. But soon after graduating, Cebrián-Sagarriga’s already busy life was marked by an enormous loss. His father died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 47. Cebrián-Sagarriga, then 26, found himself in charge.

“Although I was very young, I was connected with Marqués de Murrieta, with the wines, with Pazo de Barrantes and with the wine world for many years. I was already in charge of my life,” he says. “At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I was able to be part of the history of this winery and follow what my father showed me and demonstrate to him that all of his efforts with me were for something.”

Cebrián-Sagarriga and his sister, Cristina, who took over the financial and administrative side of the operation, decided to focus solely on the wine business and leave the real estate and construction sectors of their father’s business behind.

“At that time, I had doubts about two very different directions my life was heading,” says Cristina Cebrián-Sagarriga, 49. “Either pursuing a thesis on mathematical models or entering the world of journalism, two opposite choices, both of which I loved. But life chose for me and for the better.”

“I decided to begin the new era of Marqués de Murrieta,” Vicente Cebrián-Sagarriga explains. Everything, from the people to the wines to the buildings, needed to be updated to achieve his goals. “I wanted to transform everything so that everything could stay the same. I wanted to update the philosophy of this winery, the wines of the winery and the people who worked here.”

“We knew the gigantic effort it would take,” Cristina adds. “But [my brother] could count on my full dedication to reach the set goal. Vicente has a special understanding for the market, and he never gives up.”

When deciding on a new head winemaker, Cebrián-Sagarriga approached then 24-year-old María Vargas, who had just graduated from university and was already working in the wine lab at Murrieta. “She said to me, ‘I am really happy and proud that you decided to offer me this, but I cannot do it,'” Cebrián-Sagarriga chuckles. “I asked her why she cannot be the winemaker at Murrieta. And she said, ‘I am not prepared for that.’ So I said, ‘I am 26! Do you think I’m prepared?'”

After a few years of working closely together, the young team began to find its footing, and Vargas was officially on board with Cebrián-Sagarriga’s vision.

Backed by a new team, Cebrián-Sagarriga turned his focus toward the wines. To guide his efforts, he developed a 15-year plan and began to cultivate patience.

“This was very difficult, and it needed time,” he says. “One of the tough things in Murrieta is that this is not a project where you’re selling young wines. You need time. And when you are very young, you are impatient; you want results immediately.”

Murrieta’s production comes entirely from fruit grown in the estate’s 740 acres of vineyards. This is rare in Rioja, where the traditional bodegas have normally purchased and blended fruit from all across the large region. Today, Murrieta produces a total of about 117,000 cases per year of five different wines.

The first wine they tweaked was the Marqués de Murrieta Reserva, which makes up about 80% of the production; at five years old when released, it is the youngest red in the portfolio. To give the wine more fresh fruit flavors and elegance, the number of years it spent in oak was reduced from five to two, followed by three years of aging in bottle. Cebrián-Sagarriga invested in new oak (something never before used in the reserva), with 30% of the reserva aged in new American oak barrels for seven months before being racked into older barrels. “I wanted the wine to offer a lot of balance between fruit and oak,” he says.

Almost immediately, wine lovers began noticing the changes. “They realized that something was happening inside of Marqués de Murrieta,” he says. “We started to become the new classic winery.”

Next up was the Reserva White, which they renamed Capellanía, after the vineyard it comes from, planted in 1945. They reduced the amount of time Capellanía spends in oak—currently 15 months total—and also moved from American to French oak barrels. The wine’s annual production is small, totaling 2,500 cases. Capellanía is one of only two whites made at Murrieta; the other, Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, is even rarer, with only 13 vintages released to date, the most recent of which is the 1986.

Around this time, in the 1990s, Rioja saw the emergence of a new style of red wine, with riper fruit flavors, more structure and greater French oak influence. Rioja’s other founding bodega, Marqués de Riscal, had led the way a decade earlier with its Baron de Chirel, which debuted with the 1986 vintage.

As this movement gained momentum, Cebrián-Sagarriga and Vargas explored the idea of a new red wine that would represent the modern era of Marqués de Murrieta. They decided that this wine would come from a small plot on the property called Canajas, which is located at 1,500 feet of elevation and planted to three grapes: Tempranillo and Graciano, with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. “I said to María, ‘Let’s create inside of this classic winery a modern wine with more concentration, more power and a lot of fruit and structure.'”

Initially, they experimented. The first two vintages, 1994 and 1995, were barrel selections from a mixture of American and French oak. But by the 1997 vintage, the now single-vineyard wine was aged in 100% new 225-liter French oak barrels for 18 months, followed by one year in bottle. They named the wine Dalmau.

“When we released this wine to the market, it was a huge surprise. It was really well-received. Why the name Dalmau? It’s my name. I needed people to talk about me. When my father died, there was emptiness in the winery, and nobody knew who I was. I was trying to send a message.”

Finally, Cebrián-Sagarriga and Vargas looked at the single-vineyard Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial. This is the flagship wine of the estate, sourced from La Plana, a 98-acre vineyard planted in 1950. Made only in select vintages, the wine is aged for a minimum of 10 years prior to release. Cebrián-Sagarriga and Vargas were careful not to transform the wine, only to give it more focus and depth.

“We harvest, we build the wine, we put the wine into barrels. After two years, we decide if it’s going to be Ygay or if it’s going into Marqués de Murrieta Reserva. If we decide it will be Ygay, we leave it for two more years in barrel, followed by a minimum of one year in concrete, with the grapes, mostly Tempranillo with some Mazuelo, already blended. Then it’s four years of aging in bottle.”

Starting with the 2001 vintage, they decided that for the first time in the wine’s history, they would integrate new oak into the process, with the Mazuelo and Tempranillo aged for 10 to 12 months in French and American oak, respectively. In comparison, older vintages, like the 1964, spent 266 months—a little over 22 years—in old American oak barrels prior to bottling.

The 2010 Ygay, which is the current release, earned 96 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale and retails for $139. “After 10 years, you can taste the fruits in this wine that’s wonderfully balanced, with subtle oak,” Cebrián-Sagarriga says. “It’s a wine that you could drink today. The tannins are very pleasant, but you can still see that the wine can be aged for decades.”

“At the end, the most important thing in our winery is the vineyard, the Ygay Estate,” Vargas stresses. “This is the beginning of our philosophy, our personality, our identity. With these different plots and with different altitudes and different soils, we build different personalities for the wines. But the key thing is the Ygay Estate, which is the umbrella of our identity.”

Perhaps the crown jewel of Murrieta’s transformation is its new winery, slated for completion later this year. Unsurprisingly, Cebrián-Sagarriga has been involved in every decision along the way. Features of the 377,000-square-foot facility include two separate fermentation areas (one for Marqués de Murrieta Reserva wines, the other for the single-vineyard wines), a 10,000-barrel aging room, a new bottling line, 53 concrete tanks, and a warehouse for aging with a 1-million-bottle capacity. The project came at price tag of $30 million.

“We are convinced that our father and mother, from wherever they are looking at us from above, are happy and proud of not only Murrieta but also for seeing that we never gave up,” says Cristina. “We worked with effort and honesty and continue to keep the family together. … [Our parents] were the best teachers we could have dreamt of.”

Despite the grandeur of Cebrián-Sagarriga’s vision for Murrieta, he is quick to show humility when discussing his role and what he has learned over the past 24 years. Just as time refines the wines of Marqués de Murrieta, it has also improved him as a leader. With experience, Cebrián-Sagarriga now knows to use time to his advantage, like a compass that always points to the past as the world around him accelerates forward.

“Being the owner of a winery doesn’t mean that you are the boss of the winery. The boss is the wine. You need to be respectful of that. And without Cristina and María—I’m going to be very clear to you—this dream would not be the same,” he reflects.

“In life, you really have to believe in what you are doing and have confidence in the things you are doing. I believe that all of our efforts in the things that we are doing will one day have big results, and we are in this moment now.”