"In almost 500 years of family history, the Oja-Tirón valley has always been our home," explained Jorge Muga on a windy mid-January morning. Back then, Covid-19 was a distant problem confined to the other side of the world.
Three months earlier, his cousins Manu, Juan and Eduardo had organised a press lunch in Madrid to mark the 25th anniversary of Torre Muga (the first 1991 vintage was released in 1994). Inspired in Bordeaux, Jorge’s father Manuel was the driving force behind this red wine that represented Muga's first foray into modernity. The family had been producing wine since the 1930s, but it was not until 1970 that they moved to their current location. Very few would say so judging from the vast number of vats, barrels and all kinds of oak vessels that make Muga look even more traditional than some of its hundred-year-old neighbours in Haro's Railway Station District.
In fact, Torre Muga resulted from several trials carried out in the 1980s to age highly concentrated grapes sourced from Rioja Alta in new French oak barrels.
The aim of my visit was to find the connection between the vineyards and the wines and to explore Muga’s most relevant sites. The house owns over 300 hectares of vines that cover between 70% and 85% of its needs. “Working in one of the coldest areas in Rioja and harvesting late is a risky business. The only wine we produce every year is Muga Crianza,” points out Jorge.
Muga’s soul is deeply rooted in the valley formed by the rivers Oja and Tirón. The Tirón, which is born in the Sierra de la Demanda mountains in Burgos, joins river Oja (which arguably lend its name to Rioja) a few kilometres outside Haro before flowing into the Ebro.
The visit starts on the first meander drawn by the river Ebro after flowing through the narrow passageway formed by the Conchas de Haro gorge. On this lower part of the valley, vines are planted at 430 and 450 metres on terraces on both sides of the river. According to Jorge, knowing the soils here is very important because of the coexistence of terraces from the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. He favours the former: older, clay-limestone soils with reddish coloured tones that stand in contrast with the brownish appearance of the neighbouring soils dating from the Quaternary period.
These soils are loose with sand and gravel. Although they may suffer in warm years, they are easy to work with: their texture prevents compaction and the roots breathe better. "Roots are constrained by a petrocalcic horizon running between one metre to one and a half metres deep," says Jorge Muga. One of the most outstanding vineyards in this range is Baltracones. It is planted with Tempranillo (cuttings were sourced from old vines grown in the village of Villalba, further north) and 43-year-old Mazuelo. Muga Selcción Especial sources grapes from this kind of vineyards.
Grapes for Muga Crianza, which is sold abroad as Reserva, are sourced from similar soils but with a higher percentage of grapes bought from purveyors. One of them is Jesús Azcárate who, apart from being the house’s cooper or cubero, has inherited a grape growing tradition going back several generations.
Our tour follows an upward direction. Grapes for Torre Muga are sourced from vineyards at 500 to 550 metres on the southern slopes of the Obarenes mountains surrounding the village of Villalba de Rioja. According to Jorge, El Estepal marks a turning point as this is the first vineyard to combine the freshness and full ripeness required for this modern red. "The soils here are loamy and balanced, with an interesting amount of clay, yet the structure is primarily sandy and we have sandstone in the subsoil", he explains.
After passing through Villalba, family tradition dictates to skip the following valley that runs into the village of Sajazarra. "We’ve done this ever since my grandfather said that the vineyards in this area were less interesting," explains Jorge. The landscape becomes more rugged as we approach Hacienda del Ternero, an enclave that is administratively in the province of Burgos but lies in the heart of La Rioja. The next, wider valley is "Prado Enea territory", where the family's sought-after classic Gran Reserva comes from.
At an elevation of around 600 metres near the villages of Sajazarra, Villaseca, Galbárruri, Cihuri and Fonzaleche, these vineyards display very different characteristics. The landscape features conical mountains and hills and the land is hard to work given the abundance of clay. "The most interesting soils are found in the upper parts of the slopes where sand from a river that existed thousands of years ago has been preserved. These areas feature balanced textures and are less prone to frost; the rest has been washed away with pure clay dominating the bottom of the valley and the lower slopes," Jorge explains. This area is also one of the latest to ripen in Rioja with harvesting stretching to November. "We have harvested twice under snow," Jorge points out.
It’s interesting to note that in vintages when Prado Enea is not made, Muga sells all these grapes because, according to Jorge, “they don’t fit anywhere.”
Their palette of varieties is not restricted to Tempranillo. Quite the contrary, Muga has a strong focus on less widely planted varieties, to the point that they account for around 30% of the blends. "I think it's a shame to make varietal wines; you can always improve wine with a good blend", Jorge Muga says.
Working separately with different grape varieties, elevations, exposures or types of soils are essential factors for the family. “It helps us to learn and build a strong groundwork. Moreover, the chance of blending remains there. Until the late 1990s, we used to coferment, but now we work all batches separately. Coferementing is a good tool in difficult vintages, but in such years I do not make Torre Muga”.
Staggered harvests have provided another important lesson. “We start with Viura followed by Tempranillo, then Garnacha... Our reds are fuller bodied and richer since we harvest fully ripe Graciano and Mazuelo”, he explains. Anyone who attended the masterclass conducted by Pedro Ballesteros MW in the second edition of the Haro Station Wine Experience was able to verify this. Producers where asked to "strip" their wines and show the ingredients behind their blends. Muga stood out for the quality of the Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo they presented.
That doesn't mean it's easy. "Garnacha is the most difficult grape variety to grow in Rioja Alta and the most unpredictable, even less so than Graciano," says Jorge who adds that "getting Mazuelo to ripen here is really hard". Mazuelo is also prone to powdery mildew. "This is reason why we are not fully organic," he adds.
From his point of view, "the problem with Rioja is that it is yet to be developed as a wine region. You only have to look at the sheer diversity we have in the first valley, where we are focused". But he also likes to experiment and is very passionate about Garnacha grown at high altitude in parts of Rioja Baja like Tudelilla, Ocón and others. "For those of us who are keen to develop the different areas in the appellation as opposed to a standardised, homogenous style of Rioja, there is plenty of scope," he claims.
Another area that Muga usually turns to for its whites, rosés and cavas (all of these wines are made by Jorge's brother Isaac) is the Najerilla Valley. In terms of whites, their next bet is Garnacha Blanca, even if their plantings are still young and not yet used in their wines.
"We have to rethink viticulture", Jorge says, looking at the business from a broader point of view. Traditional pruning practices in Rioja are a good example as it is based on large cuts which could soon become a problem given the greater incidence of wood diseases.
There is also the dilemma between bush vines or trellised vines. His experience tells him that trellised vines are better in terms of grape health. All Muga vines are harvested by hand, but the trellis allows for mechanization in laborious tasks like leaf removal. Yet Jorge points out: "On poor, sandy soils I would return to bush vines".
Climate change is having an impact, particularly on pest management (moth, yellow spider, green mosquito), says Jorge, and it can be a problem as Muga avoids the use of insecticides. There is a large project underway involving different wineries in the valley to create a climate database network to study pests and develop more effective response strategies to fight them.
Having their own vineyards is a matter of great importance for Muga. "Despite working with very good purveyors who have been supplying us with grapes for 40 or 50 years, their plots often bordering ours, this is the only way to have full control of grape growing", says Jorge Muga.