Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Winery Visits in Spain - Much More than Just a Wine Tasting

When planning a day of winery visits in Napa, Sonoma, or most other wine regions in the US - it isn't unreasonable to plan to stop at four or even five stops in a single day.  You will get to taste some wine, hear about the winery and wine making process, and if you are so inclined - buy a bottle or six or twelve.

I have been lucky enough to also visit a few wineries in Spain and I hope my future holds more of these visits, plus visits to other great wine regions throughout the world.  Visiting a winery in Spain is a bit different that visiting a US winery.  Yes you will get to try the wine - but first you will get an in-depth tour of the winery, their wine making process, and their history.  It is a fabulous way to learn about the winery, but also learn a lot about the process of winemaking in general.  The tours typically have a fee of 10 bucks or less, but with a 90 minute or so tour, and some wine to try at the end - I believe it is well worth the fee!  Also, you may hear about some specific wine they make that you may not have heard of that may only be available to purchase at the winery. A great gift for yourself, or that Wino in your life (don't forget to protect the bottles in your luggage!)

On our vacation to Spain this year,  we stopped off in the City of Haro in the Rioja wine region to tour the Muga winery. Muga has been one of our favorite Spanish wines for many many years, and we have become regulars at their booth when they attend the Las Vegas Wine Spectator Grand Tour each year.  We had actually visited Muga on a previous trip, but at that time we were only able to join a Spanish language tour.  Between my Rosetta Stone fueled ability to understand Spanish fairly well, and Wino4Life Wife who is an awesome translator - I wasn't totally lost, but was looking forward to returning when I could focus on the content of the tour more than translating.

Not only does Muga create some great wines, but I especially enjoy visiting Muga because they have their own coopery - or barrel making operation. As you check out the photos from the tour below - keep in mind that all these barrels and huge vats were made on-site at the winery. Sadly, there was no activity on the day we visited - so I guess we'll have to return again some time as I would love to see the barrel making process in action.

When we arrived for our 9:30a English language tour (hey it's happy hour somewhere!), Muga had something new on display in the front of the winery. In the late 19th century phylloxera (an insect) epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in France, and not only did some French winemakers journey to Spain to continue their craft, but France looked to Spain to quench the country's thirst for wine. The train on display was used to carry vats of wine from Rioja to France from the late 1870s to the very early 1900s. Eventually phylloxera did make its way to Spain, but by that time the remedy of grafting grape vines onto American rootstock had already been developed, so the impact was less devastating and prolonged.

The tour follows the winemaking process, starting off with fermentation in huge wooden vats. Yes, these monsters with a built in staircase are also made right at the winery!

The tour continues with the barrel aging process where different wine age for different times, and in different types of barrels. Most Rioja wines are aged between one and two years in a barrel - winemaking is not a quick process for good wine at least!  For a wine to be legally labeled as "Rioja" it must follow the winemaking and aging rules of the area. For aging, a a "Crianza" Rioja wine must be aged for at least two years total,  with at least one year in an oak barrel and the other in bottle (this bottle aging must be done at the winery before release).  "Reserva" Rioja wine must be aged for a total of at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak barrels.  "Gran Reserva" Rioja wines must be aged at least five years, of which at least two years is in oak barrels and three years in bottle.  Some winemakers will decide to age a bit or even a lot longer than the law allows, depending on the style of wine they want to create, and depending on the characteristics of the grapes in a particular vintage.

Luckily on the day we visited, Muga was bottling their white Rioja wine (yes Virginia, there is white Rioja!). I'm a total geek I know, but I could watch this process for hours!:

For our next visit I am looking forward to seeing barrel making in action, but it was cool to check out the tools of the trade:

Barrels are toasted to different levels of char to impart the desired flavors to the wine.  If you drink most any red wine, or white wines that spend some time aging in a barrel, the type of wood used and the char level have a significant impact on the finished product that you enjoy.  The first picture below shows the very green process of using barrel wood scraps to fuel the fire that toasts the barrels. The second picture below shows the rage from a lightly toasted to a dark toasted barrel.

Have you ever heard of "fining" of wine?  Fining is part of the clarification process before bottling. As part of the overall clarification process, wine can be filtered to remove particles, but some winemakers choose to bottle the wine unfiltered, as filtering may remove some desirable aroma and flavor components of the wine. In addition, wines can be "fined" which is the process of adding a substance to wine to remove unwanted tannins and impurities that filtering will not remove. The process of fining a wine can lead to a cleaner, softer finished product. The substance that Muga uses, and has been used for centuries in winemaking is ... raw egg whites!  If you think that sounds strange, consider some of the other fining agents that have been used over the years in winemaking - ox blood, milk, fish bladders, gelatin from horses, seaweed, and clay.

A few egg whites are added to a barrel, and as the egg whites settle to the bottom they capture the impurities so they are not included in the wine. Part of the Muga winery tour is an explanation of this process, and the high tech (ha!) gadget used to separate eggs into the white and the yolk. Raw eggs are cracked into the upper "track" part of the device which has small holes in the bottom, the egg white drips down through the holes into the other track and winds up in the bowl on the left, while the yolks fall off the edge of the first track and end up in the bowl on the right.  The whites are used for fining, and the yolks are made into a delicious candy that is sold in the Muga gift shop. This is not a prop, as you can see the nearby trash can had more than a few eggs recently cracked for fining of Muga's wines!

Muga is a very old winery that produces a tremendous amount of wine with distribution to all corners of the globe. Still they maintain fairly traditional winemaking approaches instead of using more modern, automated process which is something I really respect.  Below are pictures of the process they use to "rack" wine aging in a barrel. Racking is the process of moving wine from one barrel to another, and in the process leaving behind the sediment that is created during the aging process.  This process can be repeated several times during a wine's aging - depending on the winemakers desires. Muga uses nothing more than gravity and a funnel made from an old, small wine barrel. The barrels are slightly tipped forward, so when the plug is removed from the barrel, the wine flows through the funnel into the new barrel.  Maybe I've found myself a new summer job!

In addition to the tour of the operations, you'll see the grounds of the winery which are beautifully landscaped, and get to hear about all the different wines the winery makes.  Seizing an opportunity to buy a couple bottles of wine not readily available back home, we purchased a bottle of Aro - a Splurge wine (bordering on a Super Ultimate OMG wine).  I have been lucky enough to try Muga's other top end wines - their Torre Muga and Prado Enea - and absolutely adore them, so the chance to try their showcase Aro was more than I could resist.  The other bottle of wine we purchased is firmly in the category of Everyday wine - is their Eneas.  This bottle caught my attention because this wine is made with a process called Carbonic Maceration - which is something I know about from the French wine called Beaujolais, but did not know that Rioja wines could be made with this process. I'll spare the geeky details, but wine made with this process initially ferment as whole grapes in a carbon dioxide rich vat.  Yes - the juice starts to ferment while still inside the grapeskin.  This process will create a light bodied, fruity, low tannin wine that is meant to be enjoyed immediately, as it doesn't gain the tannins needed to improve with bottle aging. This bottle was only about $7, but not really available except at the winery.  I am very fascinated to taste and compare to other wines made with the Carbonic Maceration process - so stay tuned for an upcoming Wino4Life review!

My overall recommendation - go to Spain, visit wineries in Rioja (or Priorat, or Galacia, or Bierzo...), learn about and drink some great wine!  Just remember - each visit to a winery in Spain will be at least a two hour event - so don't try and pack more than two in any one day (also remember to leave some time for a nice afternoon siesta!).

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