World-Class Producers of Modern Traditionalism
By W. Peter Hoyne
A few years back during a visit to the town of Haro in the epicenter of Rioja, Spain, I unexpectedly came upon Bodegas Muga situated in the historic Railway Station District. It had been an unannounced visit; yet third generation family member Juan Muga graciously met with us, sharing several vintages from his family’s portfolio while pairing them with an assortment of regional foods and raising the American flag in the background. Wanting to revisit this memorable experience, I recently scheduled a virtual interview with Juan. This allowed me the opportunity to delve into Muga’s family history and the reasons for their continuing success in the global market.
Given the fact that Rioja’s first commercial winery dates back to 1852, Muga’s existence is relatively young, yet it remains one of the most respected wineries in Rioja. Muga’s history dates back decades, even before the winery existed, as family members had been actively involved in the Rioja region. According to Juan, his father’s family was always involved in the viticulture business and grape growing. “My great grandfather founded La Rioja Winery in 1890 and later my grandfather founded Muga Winery in 1932,” Juan said. At that time, during Spain’s civil war and political unrest, wine was as cheap as water. Children would add some sugar to the wine and make a toast.
Juan acknowledges that his grandfather Isaac and father Manuel are the base of the business. “Together they helped form the business and they are everything,” he said. As the third generation is beginning to take control, Bodegas Muga remains a family affair. Juan and his brother Manu are in charge of the business. His cousins Jorge and Isaac the third are involved with the technical aspect of the winery, vineyards and winemaking. His brother Eduardo is the finance director. According to Juan, “my brothers and sons all have the same passion. We understand each other very well.”
Juan lives north in San Sebastian, a coastal town in the Bay of Biscay, where he grew up. Given its close proximity to France, his father and mother would travel to Bordeaux. His father liked the style of the wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion, which inspired him to create Torre Muga. Juan would also travel frequently to France, later deciding to attend school there while studying enology and the wine business. After seven years in France, Juan moved to the UK where he worked for the British multinational alcohol beverage company “Diageo.” He shyly admits to improving his English in the UK. Afterwards, he decided to join the family business working with his brother Manu in the export market. Bodegas Muga has been working with the US market for over 40 years trying to change the image of Spanish wines. The Muga brand now has a presence in 80 countries.
The Muga family owns nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards in the prestigious Rioja Alta region. When the winery first began, Juan described these early wines as needing to be consumed young. Later In the 1960’s they decided to barrel age the wines in American Oak. Using American oak in Rioja was very common as it imparts attractive vanilla and coconut overtones.
Muga began using new French Oak in the 1980’s. Juan professes “new French Oak is much more elegant. American Oak, when it is new, is too powerful and the tannins are strong, Yet, three to four year old American Oak goes very well with Gran Reserva Rioja wines. Nowadays, we use around 80% French Oak and 20% American Oak. “
When asked if the Muga style is modern or traditional, Juan acknowledges, “we are very unique in terms of making both styles, traditional and modern. We are looking for intensity and elegance.”
With the Muga Prado Enea we are “making our grandfather’s style. The high altitude vineyards have 60-year old vines planted in soils that are quite high in acidity. It is more old style Rioja.”
With the Muga Seleccion Especiale Juan describes it “as something in between, it is in the middle. Half part traditional and half part of the newer style,“ he said.
Torre Muga was created in 1991 after his father was inspired by the wines from the Right Bank of Bordeaux. His father had an open mind to making something different for the export market without losing the identity of Tempranillo.
Robert Parker of the "Wine Advocate" had an influence on Rioja wineries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Scores from the "Wine Spectator "and Parker opened the doors to the export market for Spain as wineries began crafting new world wines.
Muga does not use any stainless steel, but instead they ferment their wines in large oak vats. Each year they travel to France to source the best oak. It is then dried and toasted at the winery where they have their own in-house coopers (barrel makers).“After fermentation, we keep the wine in large oak vats for a few months to relax the wines before starting the aging in barrique. There is no filtration of the wines and we use egg whites for fining. We are looking for intensity and elegance. We understand the land better than our grandfather and our technology is different today. We have less production today with an emphasis on quality. People used to drink wine with a fork and knife.” They have gone away from powerful wines and like to drink nice elegant wines.
Today, Muga is preparing the business for the 4th generation. “Most of the 4th generation are going to the university, so they are better prepared. In terms of technical knowledge, maybe they will be better than us.” According to Juan, “it is very rare in Spain to have a 4th generation in the business. Quite rare. People drink wine as part of the culture. We don’t push our children. We push them into the culture of wine. When your family is in the business, it is a way of life. Year after year we maintain the quality because it is more about passion than business.”