Her passion for photography runs in the family. Her father, a shutterbug, used to take her photo often, which is why, when young Estela started shooting photos with her own camera, she featured the people who were part of her life.
The oenologist of excellence
Thanks to the passion for the world of wine that her family instilled in her, oenologist María Vargas has managed to take the wines of Riojan winery Marqués de Murrieta to new heights. And it’s not only her wine; she’s recently been named the world’s best oenologist at the Women’s Wine & Spirits Awards. Behind this recognition is the enthusiastic talent of a discreet and approachable woman.
The wine landscape of La Rioja is magnified during the months of autumn and spring, when the more than 65,000 hectares of the entire region with the Qualified Designation of Origin are stained with hypnotising reds, greens, and ochres. María Vargas (Haro, 1971) takes her daily stroll here, specifically among the 300 hectares of the Ygay estate. “There’s one point where you can see the entire valley. I love stopping there because the greatness and beauty that can be admired are overwhelming.”
So is this woman’s ability, in her role as technical director, to let go of her ego and merge with the essence of a winery with more than 170 years of history. I am aware of the responsibility that producing for Marqués de Murrieta entails, and I can’t deny that I feel slightly light-headed about living up to expectations.” But more than pressure, what she feels is passion. “After 25 harvests, year after year I’m still fascinated by how the vineyard awakens in spring. Every season we start from scratch and write a new chapter, this is what makes me feel the same excitement today as I did in the beginning. My team and I work every day in the continuous pursuit of excellence.”
“Year after year I’m still fascinated by how the vineyard awakens in spring”
And gosh has she made it! Proof of this is María being named the world’s best oenologist at the Women’s Wine & Spirits Award 2021. Throughout this career of achievements and reputation, already in 2017 the prestigious wine guru, Tim Atkin, recognised her as the best oenologist of the year and in 2020 one of her great special reserves was chosen best wine in the world by Wine Spectator, María has always kept two values in mind: taking care of the brand and continuing a legacy based on quality. “My main aspiration is to contribute to the history of this winery and that one of my wines may spark an emotion in someone 100 years from now. Time will tell... Meanwhile, we must stay at the top and continue offering the best quality.”
The DNA of wine
María has learnt how to perfectly blend intuition and experience. “The most important thing is to listen to the wine and give it the time it needs to reveal its potential.” She steeps her work ethic in sacred values, among which she highlights patience. “Wine making is anything but an inflexible process. Each crop has its own personality, which is why we must listen to and interpret the rhythms of each wine with patience, sensitivity, and honesty; values that are imprinted throughout the entire process, as if they were its DNA.”
“We must interpret the rhythms of each wine with patience, sensitivity, and honesty”
Laughing, she assures us that she doesn’t secretly coach the grapes into taking the path that will lead to them becoming an excellent wine. However, there must be something special about the wine formula she designs to reap success after success. “It’s probably an array of factors. We pursue that perfection by observing, researching, learning from our mistakes, and analysing our good choices. For this, we use all the tools at our disposal and technology is indispensable, because it provides us with more information and greater control over each phase of the process, both in the vineyard and the winery.” This allows them to push the boundaries of fermentation temperatures, control the humidity at the bottle rack, or know what’s happening with each vine. “It’s fair to say that the best wine in the world is a balance between the most classic and the most cutting-edge technology.”
No room for error
Anyone who knows anything about wine would agree with María when she explains that the wines at Marqués de Murrieta have evolved by striking a balance between tradition and modernity, always with the same common thread, which is set in stone for her and the owners of the winery: the Ygay estate. “Our vineyard is a cornerstone; it has imprinted our wines with character since its origin until now. This is where they are defined and the reason we take care of these 300 hectares every day, so that they provide us with the best raw material.”
“It’s fair to say that the best wine in the world is a balance between the most classic and the most cutting-edge technology”
Within her modus operandi, her attention to detail is another of the oenologist’s greatest resources to work how she likes: preventively. “I firmly believe in working day-to-day, in giving the best of yourself every day, and trying to avoid mistakes that always take their toll in the end. Small mistakes in a wine translate into tasting shortcomings, and mistakes in the grapes, into quality shortcomings. For this reason, we have installed dendrometers which allow us to know if the vineyard is suffering from water stress, for example. Having access to this daily information about what’s happening in each plot allows us to anticipate potential issues. We have to always keep in mind that, given that we only make Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, there’s no room for error.”
The funny thing is that, after getting to know María a bit more, we realise that the self-discipline and meticulousness that she works with don’t even seem to take their toll on her emotionally. Day-to-day, she takes refuge in sports and music to recharge, and when on holiday, she’s fascinated by travelling and discovering different countries and cultures, always with wine in mind, though. “I enjoy discovering new wines and wineries. United States, Italy, or France? Yes, are destinations of great interest to wine lovers, and they all have really interesting varieties. But leaving here for other wineries? It isn’t something I’ve considered.” Her quarter of a century among the vineyards and barrels of such a distinguished winery haven’t robbed her of an ounce of the enthusiasm of her youth, or of the certainty that, even though she’s been granted the most well-regarded international awards, she can still aim higher. “We’re always thinking about new projects, but that’s what this winery is like: intense and full of energy.”