Navarra is known for some iconic cultural and gastronomic touchstones: the running of the bulls in Pamplona; the importance of pintxo bars as a whole separate genre of street food; the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that winds through the region; and the quality of its olive oil. And then of course there is the wine - almost unknown in the wider wine world and certainly heavily over-shadowed by its wine-behemoth neighbour, La Rioja. Despite the fact that wine has been central to the culture of Navarra since before the time of Christ, the industry has been curiously unfocussed in recent decades. There is a checkered history here that comes partly out of haphazard efforts to distinguish the region from La Rioja by planting international varieties. That is only changing recently as the decision-making of large cooperatives and regulatory authorities is pushed aside by entrepeneurial risk-takers and young wine visionaries. Many are looking to Garnacha (Grenache) to build a more bold reputation for Navarra.
Garnacha is a versatile grape and can produce many styles of wine. In fact Navarra might be best known for its rosé (rosado) wines made from Garnacha. But there are so many other things going on here in Navarra - whether red, white or rosé or whether made from Garnacha, Tempranillo or Chardonnay - Navarra is pressing the boundaries. Many winemakers are seeing the opportunity to make wines that express the particular cool climate of the region and, in so doing, to set Navarra’s Garnacha wines apart from its competitors. Others are pursuing innovation in areas such as natural winemaking to establish a niche. With such a large and diverse geography and a quite expansive palate of wine grapes already existing in the vineyards, the opportunities for innovation are almost unlimited.
Why Navarra For Wine?
There are 5 wine regions in Navarra, arranged in a sort of triangular shape. Moving counterclockwise from the top centre the regions are: Valdizarbe just south of Pamplona; Tierra Estella to the west; Ribera Alta making up a large area in the middle of the triangle; Ribera Baja in the south; and Baja Montaña in the upper eastern corner. This is a relatively large area and the subregions are very diverse in geography. Good wineries are scattered throughout and, again, the range of wines is quite extraordinary. As a starting point, look for the cool climate Garnachas from the northern-most areas - they are distinctively tight and bright with delicious red fruit character. To find the most established name in Navarra, head south to Ribera Baja to Bodega Chivite.
Where Is The Navarra Wine Region?
To the north of Navarra and not far inland from the Atlantic coast and the agricultural Basque country there is the very abrupt Sierra de Cantabria mountain range. This massive wall helps to protect both La Rioja and Navarra from the most severe of the northern winds and ensures that Navarra remains fairly dry. The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail also traces the southern lee side of this mountain range as it winds its way from the French border and the Pyrenees mountains just to the east of Navarra on its way to Galicia in the far west of the country. Navarra is a place very distinct from its neighbours and has maintained a high degree of independence. Yet its physical proximity to La Rioja and the Basque Country and south-west France mean that it is at the center of some of the most interesting wine geography in the world.
Who Are The Winemakers?
There are a reasonably large number of winemakers however much of the region’s production is still concentrated among large cooperatives. Still, new wineries are appearing as the region’s ambitious young winemakers seek to make their mark on the diffuse wine identity of the area. Here are some of the interesting producers that can be found on the wine route just south of Pamplona:
Visiting Pamplona And Navarra’s Wine Country
Pamplona is a compact, strikingly beautiful and historic city set along the Arga river. Its central features are the impressive ramparts of the old city walls rising sharply above the river and the historic bull ring which anchors the San Fermín festival and Pamplona’s storied running of the bulls. Pamplona is also home to one of the best pintxo (“pincho”) routes to be found anywhere - a series of small street-side bars in the old quarter serving a whole range of foods, skewered with exacting care on sticks and served with beer or wine. After a visit to Pamplona and immersion in pintxo culture it is time to launch a tour of the wine route. Head down the A15 highway to the south and into the heart of wine country. The wineries named above and others are scattered along this route. The best time to visit is April to June and September to November.
Map and photo credits: www.navarra.es; www.navarrawine.us; Bodegas Aroa; Bodegas Artazu