Tenth in a series of posts about a recent trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada
After enjoying Javier’s breakfast spread of fruit, meats (ham of course), bread, pastries, orange juice, tea and coffee, we headed west toward Haro, thirty minutes away, on the northwestern edge of Rioja.
According to The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northern Spain (highly recommended), Haro has been considered the best place for producing quality wines in Rioja. The reason? The soils: “… a complementary combination of argilo-calcerous and ferruginous clays that is ideal for growing Temperanillo. The chalky soils bring acidity and elegance, clay gives body and power, while ferruginous clays contain a number of different trace elements that delivery complexity.” I didn’t understand much of that, but I can attest to the quality of Bodegas Muga.
At Bodegas Muga we would find out for ourselves why Rioja Alta (upper Rioja) is so known for its full bodied red wines.
We located the winery in the “barrio de estacion,” a cluster of historic wineries (known as bodegas) that benefitted from immediate access to the train station. The Muga family, which once also ran the town’s bull fights, moved to a historic building in the barrio and began producing fine wine here in the 1960s.
The winery is viewed as one of the most traditional winemakers within a group of traditionalists, fiercely protecting the craftsmanship that goes into every aspect, including making its own barrels, preserving old methods, and relying solely on locally-sourced grapes. There are no shining steel tanks here; long after most wineries forsook oak for steel, Bodegas Muga remained committed to wood.
Bodegas Muga, however, hasn’t ignored changing wine tastes. Twenty years after dedicating itself to fine wine, it made a “pioneering” decision to make a modern, more structured red: Torre Muga was released in 1991 and Aro (which sells for over $100 a bottle even in Spain) in 2000. Their roster of fine wines also includes Prado Enea Gran Reserva, made in a classical style.
Quoted in Wine Spectator in October 2012, Juan Muga explained, “We make our rosado the way our grandfather did. We used to make our whites the traditional way, too, until my father decided he didn’t like them. We’re always open to new ideas. With the reds it’s the same. We know that Prado Enea will age well. We don’t have enough experience with Torre Muga to know yet. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t.”
What came across loud and clear on our English-speaking tour led by the capable Berta, however, was tradition.
Meeting in the yard, she explained that the stacks and stacks of wood were for barrels. Jesus Azcarate, the winery’s cooper, is one of the few remaining masters of his trade. As commented in The Finest Wines of Rioja, “Along with his family, he is an integral part of the Muga story in his own right.” Bodegas Muga carefully selects the type of oak and level of toast to achieve the desired effect. Newer French and American oak is preferred for their imparted flavor characteristics, according to Berta. Fifty or sixty years ago, in contrast, old oak barrels were preferred.
The oak containers are something to behold, ranging from tanks holding 52,000 liters to barrels that hold 1,000. Last year, the master cooper and his assistant sawed, fitted, toasted and banged together 1,600 barrels. The largest tanks have to be made in place, where they will remain, since they are too large to pass through doorways.
Though Collette and I have both toured many wineries in America, we saw things that were completely new to us. At one point, Berta pointed out a see-saw metal contraption that is used to separate raw eggs; the whites are added to the wine in an early stage to help attract sediment. In the biggest tanks, 500 egg whites are added! As we strolled through the mostly subterranean facility, a worker removed bungs from a group of barrels and manually drained off wine that had settled, part of the racking process that relies on gravity.
We passed cava in the midst of its second fermentation (of nine months) in the bottle, although Berta acknowledged that “cava is a hobby.” In the bottling area, bottles of rosado were clinking their way around the moving belts. (The Bodegas Muga Rioja Rosado 2010 was rated 87 and named a Top Value Wine by Wine Spectator.)
At the end of the tour, we received our reward: two tastings. Berta poured the Rioja Blanco 2013 made from 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia grapes. Bright, with the right notes of acidity, I tasted a smidge of vanilla. Great wine for a hot Central Valley summer.
The Crianza 2009 was less exciting; made mostly from 70% Temperanillo and 20% Granache, it seemed a bit wimpy. Fine, but not memorable.
As a treat, I purchased a bottle of 2010 Torre Muga for 38,90 Euros (including 21% VAT). According to Berta, the winemaker says that the 2010 is the best vintage in memory. (The 2013 harvest was so poor, she said, that Muga didn’t even produce a Prado Enea.)
That night, we asked our gracious innkeeper, Javier, if he could come up with some cheese and fruit. Of course he could. Down he came to our room, Los Navegantes (The Sailors), with a gorgeous spread of ham, fruit, two different kinds of cheese and bread. And our wine. Made from old vines and a cuvee rather than largely Temperanillo, the Torre Muga was a beautiful red cherry color and it was both balanced and full bodied. Bodegas Muga made a strategic decision not to make it a Reserva, giving it the flexibility to blend grapes as the strictures of the Reserva designation would have prohibited.
As interesting as our visit was to Muga, a part of the story line was missing from Berta’s tour: the importance of Aurora Caño, who with her husband, Isaac, founded the company in 1932 and was instrumental in its relocation to the barrio. As quoted in The Finest Wines of Spain, Jorge Muga explained, “My grandmother Aurora, a woman of great character, was always the cellar’s alma mater. Besides that, she was a great taster. Until her very last day, aged 85, she tasted, organized and bossed about in her powerful voice.”
Muga is considered a mid-sized producer (with average production of 1.4 million bottles), and has distribution in most countries. It offers English tours Monday-Friday at 10 a.m. by prior appointment only. The 8 Euro fee includes two tastings; according to Maribel’s Guide, a premium tour – with more tastings – is also available for 20 Euros. Might be worth it. A tasting room is also open from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 4 – 7 pm., Monday through Friday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. (Fees are charged per taste.)