f3_muga_estepal_02.jpgThe small town of Haro sits comfortably upon a natural dais, flanked by the very rugged Sierra de Cantabria to the north and the Sierra de la Demanda in the south.  The patchwork green that spreads out from the town beneath the rocky backdrop is the clearest signifier that one is now in the beating heart of Rioja country.

The main town square is the place to head to in order to sample tapas and wine. There are traditional bars on all sides and more still that feed into the surrounding cobbled streets.  We tried to drop in on as many bars as our capacity would allow, afterall this is a Rioja aficionado’s paradise. The tapas on offer is great; jamon on toast, spicy potatas bravas, meatballs and stuffed peppers and much more, all washed down with glass after glass of different Rioja tintos, all wonderfully priced at under €2 a glass.  Eating and drinking here should comprise the summary of all expected events as, lets face it, one is in the very ancient town that has, for centuries, enthralled locals and foreigners alike with the smooth, red, fruity vanilla taste of world class wines.
f3_muga_tinos_pequenos_02.jpg On the Friday morning I had prearranged a visit to one of my most coveted Rioja wines, that of Bodegas Muga.  It is not that easy to buy in the UK but can be found in many Spanish restaurants and at Majestic.  I was introduced to this wine many moons ago by Tony Cotello at the Chelsea Arts Club who sells a good quantity from his wine list.

Bodegas Muga is famous for its unflinching adherence to traditional methods of  production including fermentation in wooden vats, filtration through vine prunings and fining with egg whites (more on this in a moment).  The results speak for themselves offering an elegant honeyed nose and a ravishing flavour of wild strawberries. These are wines that for me always instigate a good kink of the lips and a “cat that got the cream” smugness.

We strode out of Haro’s main square, down the hill, out of town and into the Bodega district.  As we crossed the bridge over the perambulating rivulet we could see the Muga tower erect in the not-too-far distance and trotted on in the warm morning sunshine.

On our arrival we were greeted by Jesus, the manager of the bodega, who very generously gave up his morning to take us around the winery.

f3_muga_19.jpg Our first stop was at the cooperage where in the course of a year 1500 barrels are made.  It is rare for wineries to have their own coopers on site and Muga is one of the only 4 in the whole of Spain.  Making barrels is an ancient and fascinating process requiring skill and patience.  Beyond just making the barrels, there is the additional process of toasting the wood.  This practice is a “complexing” factor, giving the wine specific flavours and aromas, and is stringently controlled in order to give us great pleasure in the end result, just as the winemaker intends.  Half of the barrels made at Muga are from American oak, for much more overt vanilla flavours, and the other half are made with more subtle flavoured French oak.

On our way to see the fermentation vats, Jesus pointed out where the grapes are brought in, inspected and those passed, fed to the destalking machines and onto the press.  Once pressed the resultant liquid is fed into the huge oak vats that store the ingredients during fermentation.  These gargantuan wine vessels fill the room with wonderful aromas of the oak, wine and spice.  It is here that natural fermentation is aloud to take place for 8-9 days and the resultant young wine is pumped through the skins for around 4 weeks to extract colour and develop its structure.

The wine is then fined using egg whites to remove all the impurities.  Once these free-floating undesirables are collected up in the eggy goo, the wine can be siphoned off ready for aging in oak.

f3_muga_bodega_03.jpg From here Jesus led us into the vast cellars where there are 14,000 barrels of wine, stored at various stages of the aging process.  Naturally such a sight served only to connect the valves of feeling to the part of my brain that recognises pleasure!  Every 4 months the wines are wracked (decanted from one barrel into a clean one) to oxygenate the wine and remove any sediment.  This task of decanting and barrel cleaning is in constant process due to the quantity of barrels to work through.  We were lucky enough to be able to try the 2005 reserva as it was being decanted. Baring in mind this vintage still has another 1.5 years before release, the fruit burst onto my thirsty palate, and although a little angular in its youth, it certainly could not be denied its prospects!!

f3_muga_toneleria_01.jpg We passed through room after room of wine in barrels, wine in bottles and then back via the cooperage to see our very proud looking completed American oak toasted barrel.  There was only one place now to go… the tasting room!  Here one could admire the historical pictures of the founding father of the bodega, Isaac Muga Martinez,  (on a pony up to its thighs in the river) circa 1932 and an array of casks neatly stacked.  It was at this point that the young figure of Juan Muga appeared and invited us to taste his wines.  Juan explained that he and his brother run the business side of the operation whilst their two cousins are much more hands on in the winery.  I suspected that the passionate business of making wine in a family business could leave the door open for disagreements and infighting but Juan assured me that this was in no way the case.

Lined up we had a fine compliment of wines made on the Muga estate to indulge and my notes are here as follows:

Muga Rosado (Rosé) – Lovely fresh fruits that leave you sucking the long flavours in your mouth.  I really liked this wine (and so did Parker who gave it a rating of 90 points!). If you see it in Waitrose or Majestic you should regard it as a “must buy” at about £7.

Muga Reserva 2003 – A typically rich colour with traditional Rioja nose of dark fruit and vanilla.  It’s the vanilla gained from the oak that endears Rioja to the masses and makes this wine a great combo with meat dishes and casseroles.

Selección Especiale 2003 – More intense fruit and greater complexity than the normal reserva.  Reminders of the toasted barrels fresh fruits titillate the senses.

Prado Enea Gran Reserva 1998 – The dark rich fruits coming through from the Tempranillo as it is aged for longer. Smooth and elegant, a real treat; perfect with a plate of Iberico, peppers and olives.  This is a real classic wine for Rioja fans.

Torre Muga 2003 – Even the most traditional Bodega must listen to the creaks of market pressure.  Torre Muga is a big busty wine with all the New world qualities one could wish for but with old world credentials.  If your palate has recently suffered a fate of death then pour this wine on it liberally and it will bounce back to life.  I found it too punchy next to the Prado Enea, however, if the marketing people are to be believed then this will have its audience.

Overall the visit was treat and the tasting was gratefully appreciated.  Juan eventually had to bow to his demands and left us.  Jesus then suggested we try the Muga Cava as an unusual and unexpected finisher.  From what little I can recall it slipped down rather nicely and prepared us for the slow stroll back up to the town to unwind with a lethal measure of Gin and tonic…
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