It seems like ages ago that I was in Rioja. Ages. A quick look at the calendar, however, and it was just over two and a half months back. Time flies when you’ve escaped to Europe in the middle of a cold Sydney winter…
Anyway, Rioja. While I ticked off plenty of big names in this Spanish super-region (including Roda, La Rioja Alta and Lopez Heredia) my Rioja highlight was a visit to Bodegas Muriel.
Now this probably isn’t the first super-premium estate you’d normally stop at, but it was shitloads more interesting for one reason – I finally got to see some top vineyard land.
That’s important because there’s a historical disconnect between vineyard and winery in Rioja, with many renowned bodegas owning little vineyard land, instead relying on a network of small growers from throughout the region.
Rioja is almost Champagne-esque in structure really, with much of the prestige associated with blending (and oak maturation) rather than site expression, the wineries, in turn, located closer to good transport rather than near a vineyard.
In an increasingly terroir-focused wine world, that structure does look old-fashioned, and there is loads of debate about whether that’s doing Rioja justice.
Indeed Adam Lechmere wrote a good wrap up in the September Decanter, detailing opinions from both sides. Suffice to say many big producers don’t want to change in a hurry either…
You get the feeling such evolution is undeniable, though, and especially when standing in the highest part of the Rioja Alevesa, one of the three (theoretical) Rioja subregions. Up there, right in the heart of Bodegas Muriel’s top grower’s vineyards, you begin to realise that Rioja, as a region, is hardly some flat, relatively homogeneous patch of land.
Coonawarra it’s not.
Instead, Rioja is like a giant bowl, with the Sierra de Cantabria mountains to the north/west protecting the region from the rainy cold of the Atlantic; the Sierra de la Demanda to the south protecting from the hot winds, and the river Ebro bringing in a Mediterranean influence from the east.
There’s a considerable difference in altitude between each subregion/vineyard area too, from the 800m heights of Rioja Alavesa (where rainfall is 500mm+) to the alluvial flats of Rioja Baja, where the climate is positively Mediterranean and rainfall closer to 300mm per annum.
Differences like that mean picking dates can be a month apart, which just further reinforces the potential for divergent wines within the region.
Change is inevitable…
Things are on the move at Bodegas Muriel too. Founded in 1986 by Julian Murúa – who revitalised the family winery in the old winemaking town of Elciego – this estate is firmly on the expansion trail, now in the hands of Julian’s son Javier and winemaker Chema Ryan.
I’ve written about some of Javier’s project wines before, but the extended range is massive, with a whole swag of labels
produced for supermarkets, importers and retailers around the world.
The scale is large enough now that Bodegas Muriel has been expanding, purchasing the Vina Eguia winery in 2010, followed up by the acquisition of the vintage wine ‘treasure trove’ of Conde de Los Andes winery just last year.
That push is part of a move to help grow the premium wine side of the business (reserva/gran reserva) and cement Bodegas Muriel as more than ‘just a supplier of own label wines’, as an English retailer described them to me recently.
I had the pleasure of kicking the dirt in the old Rioja Alavesa vineyards with winemaker Chema this visit, following from vineyard to bottle with a tasting that ranged from basic varietal Tempranillo, right through to gran reserva (and everything in between).
There was even a glimpse of new Tempranillo Blanco plantings that the Bodegas Muriel team are playing with (just because).
Stylistically, these wines sit on the modern side of the Rioja fence, with temperature controlled ferments (in stainless steel) and even screwcaps as part of the formula. But it was two very traditional wines that stood out as my favourites:
Viña Muriel Blanco Reserva 2010
White Rioja is a dying breed, with Viura plantings shrinking as Tempranillo – and indeed Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc – plantings increase. In a retro nod, this Blanco comes from 100% Viura fruit grown in the vineyards I wandered above Elciego in the Rioja Alavesa. Fermented over 25 days in barrel, this then spends a further 8 months in wood and then 18 months in the cellar before release.
Golden, toasty yellow, it’s all buttercups and lemon jam but with quite snappy acidity. Oak plays a big part in giving creaminess, but you can’t ignore the acidity and depth. Indeed it’s quite complex the interplay between oak, bottle age toast and thrusting acidity making this quite a drink. Enjoyable stuff, if quite particular. Best drinking: 2015-2025+. 17.7/20, 92/100.
Muriel Gran Reserva 2005
The constant challenge with gran reserva is about whether the extra oak ageing actually contributes much. In the best vintages, for the best wines, it’s easy to argue that more wood maturation is not necessarily a bad thing. But most of the time I’d prefer to drink a reserva, with the extra freshness that comes along.
This wine bucks the trend, helped along by a very healthy five extra years in bottle – Chema thinks that 15 years in bottle is about the sweet spot for gran reserva, and this is not far off that mark. Dark red with bricking edges, there’s clearly the cocoa powder dry richness that comes from 30 months in barrel, but it has now softened into something classically bittersweet, earthen and yet red fruited.
Savoury, long and tannic, there is an agelessness here that is really quite attractive – you could drink this now or in several decades time, the tannins dry, the finish long. Thoroughly enjoyable. Best drinking: 2015-2030+. 18.5/20, 94/100.