Spanish Wines in the Shadows


Navarra may sound like a dusty desert town in an old Western movie but in reality it’s a little known wine region that’s been overshadowed by Rioja, its illustrious neighbour in northern Spain, for years. The region is renowned for its roses (Rosado) but in recent times Navarra’s reds and whites are fast gaining reputation. The vineyards are located around the attractive city of Pamplona and lie on the slopes of the Pyrenees as they descend towards the river Ebro; the region’s high altitude mountainous sites inject a nice crack of acidity into these black fruit beauties.
Pamplona may be better known for its annual festival when crazy death-wish youths run rampaging bulls through the narrow streets, but this busy attractive city is Navarra’s vinous heart. The city and Navarra’s vineyards are also a popular sector of the famous ‘Santiago de Compostela’ pilgrimage walk across the breadth of northern Spain and are therefore steeped in history having sustained weary travellers for centuries.

The vineyards are planted with the typical Spanish red varieties of Tempranillo (about 37 per cent of the total), Garnacha (26%) and Graciano whilst the Bordeaux grape duo of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot add their classic blackcurrant and damson flavours to the juicy reds. The red varieties have a bumper 95% share of the vines to produce reds and roses but, that said, don’t write off the whites (Chardonnay is making its mark) even though they’re scarce and can require a second mortgage. About a quarter of Navarra’s production is Garnacha based rose so you’ll easily find a bottle to share with friends.
The region has a continental climate (long hot summers and cold winters) and is divided into 5 sub zones namely Valdizarbe, Tierra Estella (the picturesque, mountainous, limestone zone to the west of Valdizarbe), Ribera Alta (centred around the important wine town of Olite), Baja Montana (to the north-east) and Ribera Baja (in the south adjacent to the River Ebro; sandy alluvial soils). Ribera Baja is the largest sub zone in terms of area and number of wineries.

The Navarrans are very proud of their gnarled ‘old Garnacha vines’ as some are over 60 years old. By the way, Garnacha is the same as France’s Grenache grape loved by all southern Rhone quaffers. The ‘old vines’ don’t yield as much as young vines but the good news is that as the vines concentrate all their goodies into fewer grapes the flavours in the glass are more concentrated.  It’s therefore worth looking out for ‘old vines’ on the label and paying the extra dollar or two.     

I’m a fan of the 2010 reds. The 2012’s are crisp and juicy whilst the cooler 2013 vintage produced a fresher style so, ring the changes this weekend and pull a Navarra red off the shelf instead of your usual Rioja. Or, better still buy a bottle of each and compare these Spanish neighbours with your neighbours.

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