Navarra Wine Region

Land of cultural contrasts and climatic extremes

Some of Spain's new reds can be as bold as New World wines, writes Roger Voss. If you want vivid fruit, deep, dark colour and dense, chunky structure, here are regions to watch for:

By Roger Voss

"From generally oxidized rosés to full-bodied reds, the transition in Navarra's winemaking has been sudden and overwhelming. Garnacha, the workhorse rosé grape now is less than 40% of plantings, compared with 90% in the 1980's. Its place has been taken by the Spanish Tempranillo, and, equally excitingly, by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Now, after a frenzied seesaw, Garnacha is finding favour in red wines with producers who are prepared to crop low, and to use the fruit of old vines. Navarra's winemaking regions fall into five zones: Tierra de Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja. From high, 600-metre vineyards of Valdizarbe to the 250-metre vineyards of Ribera Baja, there is a huge stylistic variance in red wines. If you want oomph, go to Ribera Baja. Here the Palacio de la Vega winery makes powerful reds using Garnacha, alongside the more recent plantings of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot. Navarra's big three wineries also are making the most of the new plantings. Chivite, with Colección 125 Reservas, blends small proportions of Merlot and Cabernet into mainly Tempranillo wines. Gulbenzu replanted its vineyards in the 1980's with the new varieties and makes a strong statement with Reserva Evo, which has 70% of Cabernet. Ochoa makes distinctive varietal wines - a Cabernet, a Merlot and a Tempranillo - all with 12 months in wood."

"Located in what the world has come to know as the "Basque" region of Spain, Navarra is rich in geographical diversity and history. The region extends from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Ebro basin located on the edge of Rioja Baja. In the northern portions of Navarra, the terrain is very mountainous. (This is the area Hemingway immortalized in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Further South, the landscape becomes more pastoral. The climate is influenced by both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Pyrenees help to protect the area from France's Mistral winds.

Vineyards had been present in Navarra during the days of the Roman occupation, and most likely were cultivated before the Romans. Conquered by Charlemagne in the eighth century, Navarra shortly thereafter gained its independence to become a kingdom with its own civil rights. (This arrangement is still in effect today.) In the eleventh century, the Kingdom of Navarra held control over Spain, which was Catholic. The Moors were never able to obtain a very strong hold in this area of Spain, so their influence is minimal. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, pilgrims came through Navarra on their way to Santiago de Compostela (the first stop on the journey to the Holy Land). With them came monks, who had established vineyards throughout the area. The French influence returned to the Kingdom of Navarra in the thirteenth century and remained for the next three hundred years. When Ferdinand and Isabella (the Catholic Monarchs) came to the throne, Navarra had become annexed permanently to Spain. In the eighteenth century, Bilbao had become the major port of Northern Spain.

Demands for Spain's wines by the English and the French led to improvements in the viticultural processes in Navarra, as well as surrounding regions. When the vineyards of Bordeaux became infected first by oidium, and then, twenty years later, in the 1870's, infested with phylloxera, winegrowing regions of the North of Spain underwent experimentation with viticultural processing and barrel aging. The results of this experimentation led to the wines of Navarra we enjoy today. Unlike Rioja, Navarra has considerable plantings of French varietals such as: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The area's most fertile soil, rich in alluvial silt, is set south of Pamplona, between the cities of Puente la Reina and Sanguesa.

The Region of Navarra is divided into five subdivisions: Valdizarbe, Baja Montana, Ribera Baja, Ribera Alta, and Tierra Estella. Valdizarbe (in the heart of the Way of St James, many ancient monasteries and ruins) is located in the north central portion of the region. Its soil is chalky, often with a reddish-grey tint. This zone represents six percent of the total production. Baja Montana is located in the Northeastern area. It is twenty percent of the total grape production of the denominacion. Limestone and gravel are present throughout the soil in this area, which is tinted red or yellow. The best rosados are produced from the grapes of this region. Ribera Baja is the most southern area around the town of Tudela. Thirty-two percent of the region's production originates here. Ribera Alta is around the town of Olite. The Rio Ebro flows through the middle of the Ribera Alta. The soil is sandy and limestone is very prominent through this subdivision. Thirty percent of the grapes grown in this subdivision come from this area. Tierra Estella, located in the Northwest, is very similar to Valdizarbe and represents twelve percent of the production. 14,833 hectares under vine." - Information provided by: (Fine Wines of Spain)

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