Although Isaac Muga Martinez had built an enviable Riojan wine business, he believed it wouldn’t be complete without the right building. When one became available, the family turned it into something remarkable.
The town of Haro, home to the Muga family for at least 300 years, lies at the heart of Rioja. Mugas have been involved in wine production for generations, but the story of the bodega that bears their name began relatively recently – in 1932. That was the year when Isaac Muga Martinez and his wife Aurora Caño, whose family also had roots in the region’s vineyards, decided to start their own wine business. It was a courageous step to take at a time when the world was at the low point of the Great Depression and Spain was going through its own period of financial and political turmoil.
Despite these challenges, the couple found underground cellars in the heart of the town and established their bodega. Over nearly four decades, they gradually built up a successful business. And yet every time he passed the old bodegas close to the railway station on the outskirts of Haro, Muga wistfully recalled that it had always been his ambition to produce and age his wine amongst them. Finally, in 1968, a fine 19th century building with a picturesque tower became available, and preparations were made to relocate the business. Sadly, Muga did not live to see how well the company would fit into its new home, because he died in the following year. The task of laying the foundations for the company that exists today passed to his sons Manuel and Isacín (short for Isaac).
The new bodega included modern winemaking facilities, barrel- and bottle-ageing areas and the cooperage, where three professional barrel-makers and a ‘cubero’ (who specializes in larger casks) still prepare the new oak barrels and regularly-replaced wooden vats that are part of the hallmark of the Muga style. Once, it was fairly commonplace for a Rioja bodega or a Bordeaux merchant to make and repair its own casks; today it is very rare, and Muga is the only substantial company in the region to do so.
As always, however splendid the winery, the most important part of the Bodegas Muga business lay – and still lies – in its vineyards. These are located on the foot of the Montes Obarenses range within the high quality sub-region of Rioja Alta, where the combined effects of Mediterranean, Atlantic and continental climates and widely varied clay and limestone soils contribute to the making of fine, complex wine.
The company actually has 250 ha of its own vineyards and directly controls another 150 ha that are under contract with individual farmers. This being Rioja, the majority of the vines are Tempranillo, with plots of Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano to add structure and complexity to the reds. For the whites, the two varieties are Viura and Malvasia. As for the annual production, this depends entirely on the quality of the weather, because several of the Muga wines are only produced when conditions have been ideal. For this reason the number of red bottles in any vintage can vary from 800,000 bottles to nearly 1.5 million.
While best known for its reds, Muga also produces a pair of very high quality Cava Conde de Haro sparkling wines. The fresh, floral white is primarily made from Viura grapes grown at relatively high altitude, while the elegant, peachy, pale-hued rosé shows how great a potential Grenache grape can have for this style when treated with care. The cask-fermented white is also Viura-based, but benefits from slow fermentation in new French oak and three months on its lees, making for fresh flavours that, while dry, are reminiscent of ripe pineapple, peaches and honey. The Muga Rosado also contains some Viura, but the keynote is of strawberry-and-cherryish Grenache, with more than a sprinkling of the black pepper that is associated with that variety.
Eneas follows the old Riojan – and northern Rhône – tradition of co-fermenting some white grapes, in this case 10% Viura, with the red, Tempranillo. This is the freshest and fruitest of the bodega’s reds, but it is still a very serious wine. Its characteristic fruitiness comes from a process of natural carbonic maceration: 15kg boxes of grapes are carefully carried down to the bottom of wooden vats by ladder and emptied by hand until the fruit reaches a metre in height. After a week, the juice and skins are drawn off and fermentation is completed in small vats.
The Reserva and Reserva Selección Especial, made in particularly fine vintages, both exploit all of the region’s red wine grapes – Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Graciano – and spend around two years in barrel, followed by at least a year in bottle before being released. These are classic, long-lived wines that are very much of the same family as Prado Enea, the incredibly complex, leathery-spicy wine that, for many people, is most closely associated with Muga. The extra quality of the latter wine comes from slightly later harvesting of specially selected grapes and ageing in 16,000-litre oak vats for 12 months, followed by at least 36 months in oak casks and bottle respectively. In other words, every bottle has had a minimum of seven years “polishing and smoothing” before its contents are ever poured into a glass.
The traditional Prado Enea style stands in contrast to the more modern and immediately intense Torre Muga and Aro which both spend six months in vat, 18 in new French oak barrels and at least 12 in bottle. These are very, very impressive wines that can both be enjoyed while relatively young, despite the presence of the vanilla oak, or allowed to develop myriad layers of flavour.
Today, Muga is still very much a family company, with Isaac Muga Caño, the founders’ son and Manuel Muga Peña, acting as president and vice president respectively while the next generation, is taking up the reins, with Juan Muga Peña handling marketing and communications, Jorge Muga Palacín holding the role of general manager and Isaac Muga Palacín serving as technical director. Eduardo Muga Peña has the essential role of finance director.
Sit down with any of the youngest Mugas in the family dining room and ask them to name their favourite among the wines in their portfolio, and they’ll almost certainly reply that it all depends on what one is eating. Then they might well point out that the delicious dish you are eating today is made from a recipe by their grandmother Aurora Caño, the joint founder of the bodega who was famous for her skills as a taster and matcher of wine and food as she was for the quality of her cooking.
Barrio de la Estación s/n
26200 Haro (La Rioja) Spain
Tel – (0034) 941 311825