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by Andrew Chalk

Estate grown wine from Bodegas Muriel.

With everything we hear about soil types, climate, and their influence in winemaking it is instructive to actually pace the vineyards and see how they change. Of the three components of terroir: soil, climate, and altitude, soil is the one that can change the most over a short physical distance. I had an advanced class in the subject from Chema Ryan Murúa, winemaker at Rioja producer Muriel Wines, on an early May visit to the region.

Vineyards right next to the Ebro grow in sand.

We drove from Bodegas Muriel in the Rioja Alavesa zone village of Elciego for a few kilometres to the bank of the River Ebro, the primary river in the region. Pulling around to look away from the river the land is a flat basin that Chema explains floods due to the Ebro bursting its banks. The striking thing here is the soil. It is virtually pure sand next to the river. Vines, tempranillo, grow vibrantly and on rootstock, despite sand being a barrier to phylloxera. The vines here are bush-trained, partly to keep them close to the ground in response to the high winds, partly because it is the traditional system. The wide rows bely the fact that hand harvesting is used throughout.

We loop around the basin to the opposite side. The soil in the basin here has transformed to a light sandy clay despite a distance of only half a kilometer.

The same vineyards from the other side. Looking towards the Ebro river we see a dramatic transition in the soil from sand to sandy clay.

On the side of the trail away from the river the ground rises steeply. A prominent outcrop brashly exposes a mille feuille of calcareous soil layers, that represent a crib sheet on what to find under the soil surface.

This escarpment dramatically exposes the layering in the soil.

Driving up the trail we come across a vineyard sheltered by a gently rising slope and trellised using double cordon or royat. The vines on the left appear at the same stage of development as those on the right. The leaves have an identical structure. Their distinguishing feature is the color of the leaves. Both are tempranillo, but the lighter-colored vines on the left are white tempranillo.

Tempranillo Blanco on the left. Tempranillo on the right.

Evolved as a mutation of tempranillo, it is tempranillo, but with white grapes. Chema explains that Bodegas Muriel has 7 acres of tempranillo blanco and has produced two vintages of the wine but has not yet put it in the market.

Tempranillo Blanco

To get an idea of what to expect, I later tried some wine made from tempranillo blanco (2017 paco garcia, Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja DOCa) and it delivers a punchy, elevated acid, wine that can pair with food ranging from shrimp to pork chops.


We journey up to the highest point of the Bodegas Muriel’s El Gallo vineyard (altitude around 3,000 feet). This gives as a macro view of Rioja Alavesa topography. To the north, the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range protects from the Atlantic climate. To the south the Sierra de la Demanda protects from the Continental climate. To the south is also the political boundary of the River Ebro. On the other side starts the zone of Rioja Alta.

Chema Ryan Murua describes the El Gallo vineyard

Virtually all of the grapes in Rioja Alavesa are Tempranillo. Traditionally, the white grape of the region, Viura, was grown in the same vineyard as the red grapes. Not quite as a pure field blend, the white grapes were planted at the head of the vineyard for easy recognition. Viura added acid and freshness to the fermentation (shades of the northern Rhône). The practice was outlawed in more recent times but reincorporated back in by allowing the winemaker to ask the regulator for permission to add white grapes to the fermentation. Winemakers and growers do not have complete freedom to alter their blend as the EU has control of all new planting.

In this zone the climate is not pure mediterranean. There are Atlantic and continental climate influences. This is not a bad thing in Chema’s estimation as he feels that, were the climate pure mediterranean, they could not produce the wines that they do.

A 'Chozo'. Traditionally shelter from storms.

An enduring feature is the steady, moderate wind. Before the advent of the automobile, vineyard workers caught up here by the region’s frequent storms sheltered overnight in one of the conical stone shelters known as Chozos. Nowadays, they can drive home.

The soil up here is clay with some sand (a clay sandy loam) so it drains well. This is a good thing given the effects of climate change. Chema explains that the annual rainfall has not changed much (350-400mm/year), but its mode of delivery has. Whereas they had long, steady, frequent showers when he started viticulture 22 years ago, now they have less frequent, but much heavier, downpours. This requires a soil capable of rapid water absorption. Harvests in the Rioja region are getting earlier. For example, in 2018 for the first time, Chema harvested their Rioja Oriental (prior to 2018 known as Rioja Baja) vineyards of white grapes in August, rather than late September or October.

It takes a visit to the vineyards to get a feel of just how tough grape growing is in La Rioja. The fanciful idea of a predictable mediterranean climate and a singular soil producing a monotonously constant wine does not hold true. For Rioja wine drinkers, this means choice, but choose your vintage and your grower carefully.

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About Me

Andrew Chalk is a Dallas-based author who writes about wine, spirits, beer, food, restaurants, wineries and destinations all over the world.

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