With all the excitement concerning Rioja and Ribera Del Duero, the excellent red and white wines of Navarra are sometimes unwisely overlooked. Indeed, while the vast majority of oenophiles could name at least 5 Riojan bodegas at the drop of a hat, turning our attention to Navarra would undoubtedly present a more significant challenge. Yet this is the world’s loss, for Navarra is one of the great unsung heroes of Spanish winemaking, offering excellence and extraordinary value in equal measure.
A brief history
Navarra’s vineyards are to be found in northern Spain in a region that borders the Basque Country, Rioja, and Aragon. This is an ancient land with a history of viticulture; history records that the Romans planted the first vines in the 2nd century BC, following their conquest of what was then known as Iberia. Initially, vines were planted to the south of the Pyrenees Mountains, on the banks of the Ebro River. Over time they spread out in all directions from the regional capital of Pamplona to the southern border of Navarra, neighboring Aragon. Subsequently, the wines’ reputation spread, and during the Middle Ages, they were highly regarded in Europe, particularly by pilgrims traveling on the Camino de Santiago route.
Sadly, the outbreak of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century devastated the vast majority of Navarra’s vineyards, killing off 90% of the region’s vines. Yet all was not lost, and at the beginning of the 20th century, as in common with most of Europe, growers replanted their vines on phylloxera-resistant rootstock from the US. Nonetheless, the goal from the outset was to turn Navarra into a bulk wine region – the quality was not on the agenda, and the wines were of little merit.
However, the revolution that has taken place in Navarra is one of the most dramatic changes to have occurred in Spain’s wine industry in recent times. Once derided (justifiably) as a region of cheap jug wine, Navarra is now proving its ability to make characterful, terroir-driven wines at highly competitive price points.
Its modern transformation, of course, began relatively recently in the early 1990s, when a younger generation of globe-trotting winemakers decided to adopt a new approach, bringing a more international outlook and fresh ideas to Navarra’s wines across the board. It is this firmament – winemakers such as Adriana Ochoa of Bodegas Ochoa – that have continued to drive ever-increasing improvements in wine quality.
Today, there are close to 12,000 hectares under vine in Navarra, spread over the five sub-regions of Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja. The region offers a complex mosaic of terroirs and micro-climates, from the cooler and wetter northern mountainous sub-zone to the drier conditions of the center. Moving further south, we encounter a distinctly Mediterranean climate. The soil types are no less varied, everything from limestone and clay to well-drained gravel.
But regardless of the specific terroir in question, the Grenache grape appears to thrive in Navarra, making everything from sun-kissed rosé to deep and powerful reds. Navarra was once almost exclusively known for its rosé wines, although the number of Grenache plantings has declined considerably in recent years. Nevertheless, Grenache belongs here, offering delicious red berry fruit, bright acidity, and an inimitable freshness and sense of place.
That is not to suggest, however, that Navarra is a one-trick-pony. Far from it – the region is planted with a large cross-section of Spanish and international varieties, including Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Graciano, Viura, Malvasia, and Chardonnay.
But what should one expect from a typical wine from Navarra? That’s an impossible question to answer because the region’s key USP is its diversity. Navarra can offer everything from Tempranillo-based reds that have more than a whiff of Rioja about them (often at lower prices) to oaked Chardonnays reminiscent of top Burgundy. Indeed, Navarra’s astonishing diversity makes it unique in Spanish winemaking, and some superb value wines can be found across this complex and varied region. Of course, dross sits alongside quality, but at their best quality, Navarran wines are truly fantastic value.
So, where should the curious oenophile start looking? Well, Bodegas Julian Chivite is an excellent place to begin any Navarran journey, an ancient producer founded in the 17th century and still to this day family-owned. Its vineyards are all in the northernmost Tierra Estella region, and the consistency of quality across the board is remarkable mainly the Coleccion 125 range. Their 125 Chardonnay is among the best in its class and regularly ranks alongside the finest Spanish whites being made today. Other wineries like Domaines Lupier focus more exclusively on indigenous varieties such as Garnacha, arguing that ubiquitous grapes such as Chardonnay and Merlot have no place in Navarra.