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Experience Gerry Dawes's Spain: Customized, Specialized Food, Wine Cultural & Photographic Tours of Spain & Tour Advice

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Drinking Godello at Estado Puro in Madrid.
Photo by Harold Heckle, Associated Press, Madrid.

In October 2013, I led 28 people, including baseball great Keith Hernandez, on The  Commonwealth Club of California Taste of Spain Tour with Gerry Dawes 2013 to Madrid, Córdoba, Sevilla, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Ronda, Granada, Almagro, Toledo and Chinchón, highlighting gastronomy, culture and wine. 

In January 2014, I organized and led the Club Chefs of Connecticut and New York on a culinary educational tour through Barcelona, San Sadurni d'Anoia (Cava country), Valencia, Alicante and Madrid. 

The following week, I organized and led John Sconzo (Docsconz:  Musings on Food and Life and his son L. J. on a week-long trip through Segovia, Ávila, Segovia, Cáceres, Mérida, Jabugo, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the Sierra Morenas north of Córdoba, Chinchón and Toledo.  With more posts to come on his blog, John Sconzo wrote this in one of his first entries about the trip:

"Nights like this are ones that just need to be appreciated for the something special that they are. It is no exaggeration that Gerry Dawes, my friend, traveling companion and guide “knows and appreciates Spain more than all but a few Spaniards” let alone people from other countries. That statement came from our host for the evening, Benjamin Rodriguez Rodriguez, the proprietor of the humble appearing, but fully sensational El Rincon de Jabugo situated in the equally humble, but comfortable Gran Hostal San Segundo located just outside the historic walls of Avila near the  San Vicente gate."
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For customized trips, contact Gerry Dawes (based in New York) with desired dates, areas of interest in Spain (gastronomy, wine, art, history, culture, photography, etc.), specific sights you might like to see, number of possible travelers, and an estimated budget for your group. 

Phone: 914-414-6982 
Teléfono movíl (during stays in España): (011 34) 670 67 39 34


Upgraded to Four Dalí Watches: El Crucero in Corella (Navarra), Lunch with the Wines of Aliaga at One of the Great Restaurants of Navarra's Ribera Baja Wine-growing Region, Also Home to One of Spain's Finest Vegetable Growing Regions and Some of Navarra's Little-known, But Best Country Restaurants.

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 Gerry Dawes's Persistence of Memory* (Salvador Dalí)  Melting Watch Awards.
Four Watches to Nabor Jiménez's El Crucero Restaurant in Corella (Navarra)

Updated to FOUR WATCHES after highly enthusiastic reports from Chef Michael Chiarello, Chef Susan Spicer and Debragga Meats CEO George Faison and his wife, publicist Stephane Crane Faison.  

Cardos con semillas de granada (fresh cardoon salad with pomegranate seeds and the restaurant's own extra virgin olive oil), El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

Long legendary for their quality, the vegetables of La Ribera de Navarra region-fat white esparragos, green asparagus, pimientos de piquillo, artichokes, beans (pochas [fat white, cranberry bean-like and delectable), vainas [green beans], alubias [smaller white beans] and habitas, [tender young fabas]), cardos (cardoons), ajetes (green garlic shoots), etc.  

Esparragos Blancos de Navarra, Denominación de Origen protected, just like wines.

Some of the top vegetable canneries--such as Camporel in Cintruenigo 
(see slide show below)--in Spain are located in this region.  

The classic vegetable dish from this area is menestra, a melange of vegetables (vainas, peas, asparagus, carrots, cardoons, etc. cooked together, sometimes with ham)–are some of the best in Spain.  Menestra, when the vegetables, especially young spring vegetables, are cooked al diente is one of the great vegetable dishes of Spain.  However, in the past, menestra and other vegetables were overcooked, which ruined the dishes.  

Menestra, San Ignacio Restaurante, Pamplona.

Now, with advent of the well-trained chefs of the Ferran Adriá era, the overcooking vegetables--while still not a thing of the past–is much less frequently encountered.  Chefs like Enrique Martínez of Maher in Cintruenigo, Atxen Jiménez of Tubal (Tafalla), Casa García (one of the underground legends of great vegetable cooking in Navarra;  frequented by Juan Mari Arzak, Juan Suárez and other food luminaries, in Cascante, and Nabor Jiménez are doing justice to the mother lode of vegetables available in southern Navarra (and neighboring southeastern Rioja, the Rioja Baja wine growing region, also known as Rioja Oriental).

Slide show of top restaurants in La Ribera Baja region of Navarra.

If you happen to visit Corella, in the Navarra Ribera Baja wine growing region, don’t miss having lunch at El Crucero in the center of town, where Nabor Jiménez is doing some great food based on the products of this famous vegetable growing region of the Ebro Valley, the Ribera de Navarra, where Corella is located.  

Nabor Jiménez, Chef-owner of El Crucero, Corella.

I have had the good luck to have had lunch at El Crucero, twice this year, once with Carlos Fernández Aliaga, English wine merchant Anthony Sargeant and Basilio Izquierdo.  Izquierdo was the winemaker at CVNE for thirty years (until 2006) and now the winemaker owner of the tiny Rioja Alavesa bodega, Aguila Real, where he makes B. de Basilio wines (a garnacha blanca-based white that is one of the best Rioja whites I have ever tasted and a spectacular red that is reminiscent of the great CVNE Viña Real Oro wines of years past.  

Gerry Dawes, Basilio Izquierdo, Carlos Fernández Aliaga and 
English wine merchant-importer Anthony Sargeant, lunch at El Crucero.

In January, Sargeant, Izquierdo and I drove down to Corella to see Carlos and taste his wines, since Sargeant was looking for new properties for his English wine importing business.  Carlos put us in Nabor Jiménez’s capable hands and asked him to do a tasting menu for us to accompany a lineup of his wines.  First off, this being January, you may be wondering what vegetables are available in the middle of winter.  The Navarrese are masters at cooking winter vegetables such as cardoons, borrage and cabbage; making dishes with the region’s bounty of tinned and glass jarred vegetables; and turning dried beans into something magical.  

Slide show of Navarran vegetable dishes.

Our luncheon began with Viña Aliaga’s superb, cherry-red Garnacha Rosado de Lágrima 2009 (see Spanish Rosados: Among Spain's Most Delightful Wines), a brilliant, delicious rosé with good acidity, rich fruit and full-bodied (13.9%; weighty, but not over-the-top), then we sampled a 2009 Verdejo, a nice white wine with the oak, fruit and acid in harmony (and perhaps a touch of Viognier in the blend to spice it up). 

Aliaga Rosado de Lágrima.

With these wines, Nabor Jiménez served us a salad of cardos con semillas de granada, a refreshing dish of cardoons with pomegranate seeds.  

Cardos con semillas de granada.

The next dish was bright green steamed borrajas (borrage)--a stalk vegetable that is believed to have originally come from north Africa, where in Arabic its name is abu rash-- dressed with Jiménez’s own Condado de Martinega aceite de oliva virgen, olive oil.  


Nabor Jiménez with his own Condado de Martinega aceite de oliva virgen.

He followed that with slightly picante pimientos de cristal (red peppers not to be confused with the famous local piquillo peppers), which were served with a minced black olive-infused oil.  

 Pimientos de cristal.

Next up, with a Viña Aliaga Tinto 2007 (supposedly Tempranillo, but probably with 25% Syrah in the blend) came one of my favorite of all Navarran dishes, pochas, this with verduras (veggies: pimientos rojos y verdes, zanahorias, tomate and cebolletas, scallions) for which I put five *****, my stars.  These beans were buttery, heavenly and the soft, smooth Aliaga 2007 that came next was the right wine with which to finish this stellar dish. 


The region’s wonderful alcachofas, artichokes, tender young hearts of artichoke at El Crucero, came with foie gras and just the right squirt of the normally dreaded balsamic vinegar. 

For me, it was a four-star dish, but the combination of artichoke and balsamic vinegar royally screwed up the flavor of the Garnacha Vieja 2007, one of Aliaga's best wines.   

Then Nabor sent out a exceptionally flavorful dish of caracoles (snails) cooked with Ibérico ham, codorniz (quail), ajos morados asados (roasted purple garlic cloves) and pimientos de cristal.  

El Crucero's Snail dish.

The purple garlic cloves reminded me of Las Pedroneras (Castilla-La Mancha) in the province of Cuenca, which is the ajo morado capital of Spain (read Gilroy, California, the garlic capital here) and has a festival to celebrate the bulb every year.  The town is also home to arguably the best restaurant in that region, Las Rejas, where the great chef of La Mancha, my friend Manuel de la Osa cooks.  Nabor Jiménez brought out a plate of the big purplish cloves to show us.  “Ajo morado is much finer garlic than the kind we have here in Corella,” Jiménez said.  

Ajos morados (purple garlic).

To accompany this dish, we had an Aliaga Cuveé Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon that was well-balanced, smooth and elegant despite its 14% alcohol and with the patorillo, practically embryonic baby, baby lamb parts (the feet, tripe and and bones; all tender, but  this was not the all-time favorite lamb dish on my lamb pleasure meter).


With the patorillo, we had the dark, silky Aliaga Reserva de la Familia, a blend of 85% tempranillo, 10% cabernet sauvignon and a 5% hit of “other,” which I guessed may be the dastardly outlawed (not permitted in Navarra) grape, Syrah.  The wine was rich at just under 14% and had sweet cherry and black raspberry flavors with a hint of clove and a bit of oak bite in the finish.  

Aliaga Cuveé.

With a fine cabrito asado, roast kid with a wonderful crackling skin, we drank the Aliaga Colección Privada 2007, another well-made, silky wine with moderate alcohol (for southern Navarra) at 13.7% and more sweet cherry and blackberry flavors.  

 Cabrito asado.

The Colección Privada 2007 was made from 80% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 5% of the ubiquitous “other.”  It was aged for 13 meses in 60%  French Allier oak and 40% American oak, mercifully none of which was new oak (the barrels are 3-4 years old); instead the wine was well-rounded without the raspy new oak curtain that one finds marring the finish of many so-called “modern” wines.

We finished up this superb luncheon with helado de turrón de Jijona, a rich, nutty, delicious almond turrón ice cream, which was accompanied by the exceptional Viña Aliaga Moscatel Vendimia Tardía (Late Harvest) 2008, a deep green-gold, beautifully fresh, perfumed wine with only 11% alcohol and great acid levels to carry the lovely sweet, but never cloying, honeysuckle flavors that made it taste like a fresh moscatel grape trapped in a bottle. 

Helado de turrón de Jijona.

(Also see Food in Navarra, Navarra's Country Cuisine [Stay tuned for an updated version.])

Recommended Restaurants in La Ribera Baja region of Southern Navarra:  

El Crucero, calle Mayor 1, 31591 Corella (Navarra).  Tel: 948 78 16 83
(Exit 16 off AP-68, Corella-Cintruenigo exit, drive 3 kms.  to center of Corella, straight ahead beyond the stoplight. Parking in streets around and behind the restaurant.)  Moderate.

Maher Restaurante-Hotel, Ribera 19, 31592 Cintruénigo (Navarra)
Tel. 948 81 11 50 . Fax 948 81 27 76

The one-star Michelin restaurant of maestro Enrique Martínez and his brothers, Martínez Hermanos, thus Maher.  Offers a fine combination of modern Spanish dishes and beautifully prepared Navarrese classics, including vegetable dishes from La Ribera de Navarra. Reasonably priced for the quality of the dishes served.  (Located in the same town as Bodegas Julián Chivite.)

Casa García, Mayor 93, 31521 Murchante (Navarra). 948 838 052

An underground legend of great vegetable cooking in Navarra, frequented by Juan Mari Arzak, Juan Suárez and other food luminaries, in Cascante (Navarra).  Not expensive.

Tubal, Plaza de Navarra 2, Tafalla.  948 79 08 52  70 12 96.
Owned and run by Atxen Jiménez, a woman with the highest standards for cuisine and service, and her son, Chef Nicolas, Michelin one-star Tubal is one of the top-ranked and most elegant restaurants in Navarra. It offers first-rate, sophisticated nueva cocina and artfully prepared renditions of Navarrese classics, always based on the best, freshest ingredients. Tubal has an excellent wine list.  Expensive.

Restaurante Hotel Casa Zanito, Rua Mayor 16, Olite.  948 74.00.02

This restaurant serves nueva cocina dishes such as hake-filled crêpes with clam sauce and classics such as brick oven-roasted shoulder of goat.  Moderately expensive.  Has two lovely hotels in Olite. 

Mesón El Chapitel, Mirapies 8, 31390 Olite (Navarra); Tel.:  948 71 22 50

This is a fun restaurante on an interior street in the old village of Olite.  For those who want a break for all those veggies in southern Navarra (all the restaurants have fish and meat dishes on their menus), you can really get off the wagon here.  El Chapitel serves excellent steaks of a wood-fired grill (my friend Michael Whiteman, the ex-jefe of Windows on the World and President of the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Company, says Chapitel's steak was "one of the best I have ever eaten."  Chapitel also serves grilled rabbit, lamb and veggies, including good salads, for which you would be wise to tell them to hold the balsamic vinegar, and you can even get a good pizza here.

Bodega Chateau-Hotel Pago de Cirsus de Iñaki Nuñez, Ablitas, (Navarra) (5 kms. from Tudela).

The title alone gives you the idea.  This hotel-restaurante-winery is crowned by a glaring white faux castle keep of very recent construction.  It is the property of film magnate Iñaki Nuñez’s and looks like what a film maker magnate might imagine a castle-winery to be.  The hotel is comfortable and the restaurant is good.  I did not like the wines.

Recommended lodging in La Ribera Baja region of Southern Navarra (and nearby La Rioja Baja): 

AC Ciudad De Tudela, Misericordia S/N, 31500 Tudela (Navarra). Tel: 948 40 24 40; Fax: 948 40 24 41;

Best Western Hotel Hospederia Nuestra Señora del Villar, NA-161 km 2.5, 31591 Corella (Navarra). Tel: 34 948 78 21 97;Fax: 34 948 40 40 32

Hotel-Restaurante Palacios, Ctra Zaragoza s/n 26540 Alfaro (La Rioja). 866-538-0187 (reservations).A good restaurante and wine museum in a hotel owned by the family of internationally renowned winemaker, Alvaro Palacios of Priorat L'Ermita, Clos Dofi, Les Terrasses fame. The family winery, located in Alfaro is Bodegas Palacios Remondo.

Parador de Turismo Principe de Viana, Plaza Teobaldos 2, 31390 Olite (Navarra). Tel: 34 948 74 00 00; Fax: 00 34 948 74 02 01;

A storybook parador alongside a XVth century castle in the magical village of Olite.


About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Navarra Revisited: A Pyreneen Odyssey

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Lacha sheep grazing in the Navarran Pyrenees.
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Text & Photographs copyright 2010 by Gerry Dawes
(Contact for publishing rights.)

(Author's version of an article (without the map) that originally appeared in
The Sunday New York Times - Travel Section, June 12, 1994.)

Navarra, the northern Spanish province that shares a wild stretch of the western Pyrenees with France, has long been one of my favorite places. This fascinating region has some of Spain's most beautiful scenery, important historical sights, excellent cuisine, good wine, and a recently developed network of private lodgings that makes travel there downright cheap.

Navarra's spectacular terrain runs the gamut from snowy Pyrenean peaks soaring above wild canyons and pristine green valleys to terraced vineyards and shimmering heat-baked southern hills that overlook farms growing superb white asparagus, red peppers, and artichokes. Picturesque villages, medieval castles, and major shrines on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim's road to Santiago de Compostela, grace this former kingdom (from 1234-1512, Navarra included part of southern France).

Castillo de Olite (Navarra).

On my fifty-odd visits to Navarra since 1970, I often attended Pamplona's Fiestas de San Fermín, made famous by Ernest Hemingway; stayed in storybook Olite; made pilgrimages to Camino de Santiago sights--Romanesque Sangüesa, monumental Estella, and Puente la Reina's lovely 12th-century bridge; malingered in Jewish-Moorish Tudela; and photographed the harvest that produces Navarra's lovely dry rosados (roses) and sturdy reds.

Because of what must be an atavistic attraction to Spain's mountain villages, it was inevitable that I would re-explore those of Navarra, so when I read about a local network of family homes offering bed and breakfast for under $15 a night (mid-1990s prices!!; now they cost from $40-$60), I made plans to return. Many of these lodgings, called casas rurales after the stone village houses and huge stone farmhouses typical of this region, are in the heart of the Pyrenees, where cold trout rivers rush through mystical stands of beech trees into deep-green valleys sheltering some of Spain's least-spoiled villages - - Burguete in the Irati river valley, Ochagavia in the Salazar valley, and Roncal and Isaba in Roncal Valley.

To stimulate this isolated region's economy, which once depended on timber sales, sheep, and handicrafts, the Navarrese government made low interest loans to villagers willing to renovate their homes to accommodate tourists, mostly Spaniards who come here for skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, cave exploring, cycling, fishing, and hunting (wild boar, deer, partridge). Now that Spain's famous paradores have become expensive, casas rurales are Spain's lodging bargains of the 1990s.

Some casas rurales offer home-cooked meals. The Navarrese are noteworthy cooks and many families grow their own vegetables and make ewe's milk cheeses and cuajada (a delicious yogurt-like dessert). Even if meals aren't offered, most Pyrenean towns have simple restaurants serving such typical dishes as espárragos blancos (white asparagus), alubias (bean stew),  pochas (delectable, fat, cranberry bean-like white beans cooked with chorizo and, sometimes quail), pimientos rellenos (stuffed peppers), huevos revueltos (eggs scrambled with mushrooms, green garlic shoots, shrimp, etc.), fresh trucha (trout) from Pyreneen rivers, costillas de cordero (lamb chops), and cuajada (northern Spain's wonderful, yogurt-like ewe's milk dessert, complete only when you add wild mountain honey)In spring and autumn, there are dishes with exceptional native hongos (mushrooms). This good country cuisine is usually accompanied by one of Navarra's first-rate rosados (rosés) or sturdy reds. And usually, for an after-dinner drink, homemade Navarrese Patxaran, a potent anís liqueur in which sloe berries are macerated for several months, sometimes with a few coffee beans. 

Navarra rosado.

I decided to begin my trip in the spring of 1994 with a nostalgic drive up to Burguete and on to Ochagavia for the night, explore the Salazar Valley the next day, and end up in Roncal the following night. I first stopped at the Tourist Office of Navarra in Pamplona (see box), where the multi-lingual staff found rooms at casas rurales in Ochagavia and Roncal.

On the road to Burguete, I saw emerald-green pastures and tawny, fresh cut wheat fields whose straw bales would provide comfort this winter to the stocky cattle the Basque farmers raise here. I passed pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, cyclists on mountain bikes, and fishermen heading for trout streams. I was reminded of scenes in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises when Jake Barnes rode atop a bus up these mountain roads drinking from wine skins offered by friendly Basques. Re-reading Don Ernesto’s passages, I found his descriptions still good. In some places, little has changed.

In the 1970s my late former wife Diana and I used to go to Burguete in early July with Alice Hall, the late irrepressible doyen of Spain aficionados. We would spend a quiet time in the pastoral farming villages of these verdant mountains before surrendering to the cacophonous joys of Pamplona's wild fiesta. We would read, stroll along the road to Roncesvalles picking wild strawberries, and have long talks about Spain over dinners irrigated with plenty of vino tinto.

We stayed at Hostal Burguete, which was still much in style and comfort, or the lack of, as when Hemingway stayed there in the 1920s and made it the setting for several scenes in The Sun Also Rises– Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton came here to trout fish on the Irati, a good hike east. The hostal's owners claim the upright piano is the one mentioned in the novel. Under the lid is Don Ernesto's picture and "E. Heminway" (sic) scratched in the wood.

Trout fishing in a Pyreneen river.

The Camino de Santiago crosses the French border 15 miles north of Burguete and winds through the hills above Roncesvalles where Charlemagne's nephew Roland was immortalized in the epic French poem, Chanson de Roland. The Roncesvalles woods are a mystical place haunted by the spirit of Roland and by the millions of Santiago-bound pilgrims who have tread this ground. Seeking a respite from the fiesta in Pamplona, every year Diana and I used to bring a group of San Fermín celebrants up here. In the deep-green mossy forest's icy rivulets, we cooled our wine, melons, and other picnic items for glorious camaraderie-filled al fresco luncheons.

The much restored 12th-century monastery of Roncesvalles, was a proud hospital and hospice for pilgrims, renowned for its hospitality - - good food, real beds, and a cobbler. Of interest here is the 13th-century Virgin of Roncesvalles, a Gothic cloister, King Sancho VII of Navarra's pantheon, and a treasury with several venerated objects of colorful heritage.


On this trip I could spend only a few moments in Burguete - - stopping for coffee at a bar, gazing wistfully at our old Hostal Burguete haunt and paying homage to Alice Hall, who had died in February at age 90. I had to press on to Ochagavia before night-fall. Driving along curvy, well-paved roads through rocky green forests, I passed pretty, bucolic Garralda; Arrive with its fine medieval bridge over the Irati; and Garayoa with its 13th-century Gothic church.

Abaure de Abajo in the Spanish Navarran Pyrenees.

High escarpments towered over the twisting roads to Puerto de Abaurrea pass (3320 feet), where I got my first glimpse of the dramatic, snow-capped Pyrenean peaks, now suffused with a lovely peach glow in the late afternoon sun. Several miles of hairpin turns led me down a dramatic valley past Ezcároz, an attractive village on the swift Salazar river just below Ochagavia, the Salazar valley's main town.

Quintessentially Pyrenean, Ochagavia is charming mountain-bound village of just under 800 inhabitants that is laid out along two sizeable streams, the Zatoya and the Anduña, which form the Salazar just south of town. A passerby showed me to Casa Osaba, a big stone house on a cobblestoned street. Gabriela Moso, the owner, led me up two flights to a plank-floored bedroom with an armoire, a big bed with warm coverlets, and a night stand with the obligatory Spanish dim-bulbed lamp. Down the hall, Señora Moso showed me a new, spotless bathroom with plenty of hot water. The family's second floor dining room/living room had a big table, a fireplace also used for cooking, a pair of armchairs, a television, and a few decorations including a herrada, a gleaming brass-and-steel inverted-cone shaped utensil - - once used to carry water - - that has now become an object of folk art. Gabriela invited me to return for dinner at 10 p.m.

I took advantage of the remaining light to explore the picturesque village and look for some tapas (hors d'oeuvres). Most of the houses are two- and three-story stone homes with white facades, tiled roofs, shuttered windows, and geranium-filled wrought iron balconies. The dates (1768, 1908, 1926) on arched stone portals above the wooden doors, speak for the durability of these homes. The rough streets are hand-paved with river stones.

I crossed a quaint stone bridge over the swift Anduña and found the Pension Auñamendi, whose upstairs restaurant offers an inexpensive menu, but alas, there were no tapas at the ground floor bar, where some men were playing cards. As I returned to Casa Osaba, wood smoke curling from the village's chimneys laced the fresh mountain air with a homey smell that sharpened my hunger. I hoped Gabriela was a cook worthy of Navarra's culinary reputation.

In the dining room, I met Gabriela's family: Her husband, daughter, grandson, and her son-in-law, who spends his days near Tudela tending a large herd of sheep. In front of the crackling fire, Gabriela and her daughter served us a fine salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and white asparagus; garlicky green beans and potatoes; merluza rebozada (hake in batter); pork chops grilled in the fireplace; and fresh cherries. The wine was a decent rosado, purchased in bulk at Puente la Reina.  After dinner, there was coffee and homemade patxaran, Navarra's sloe berry-anise liqueur. After the pacharán and an amiable chat about life in America, I went to bed, quickly gave up reading in the dim light, burrowed under the covers, and slept soundly until morning light. I came down to toasted pan, butter, and homemade plum jam; galletas, the snap cookies ubiquitous to Spain's breakfast tables; and good coffee. Bed and breakfast was about $12).

Pacharan Navarro, homemade in most of the rural lodgings of the Navarran Pyrenees.

From Ochagavia I followed the Salazar down the valley through fresh forests punctuated by awesome cliffs, striking rock formations, and green hills with grazing sheep. The ancient stone houses, block-tower churches, cobbled streets, and rustic bridges give this valley's fifteen villages a medieval air. Below Ezparza, a pretty, photogenic village with a three-arched Romanesque bridge, an impressive 16th-century church, and a large pisifactoria (trout farm), the scenery gets very dramatic as the road goes through spectacular gorges with falcons soaring above them. Beyond the gorges, fields of flaming-red poppies lined the road to Navascués, where I stopped to admire the 12th-century Romanesque church of Santa María del Campo, which stands in ancient solitude alongside the village cemetery southwest of town.

North of Navascués, the road to Roncal becomes much rougher, curving up steep, craggy, pine-covered hills to the pass of Las Coronas (3120 feet), where a spectacular vista overlooks the vast Valle del Roncal and its awesome backdrop of snow-covered peaks.

After nine more miles of beautiful, but twisting, steep roads, I reached Burgui, where the excellent Roncal cheese, Larra, is made from the ewe's milk of the very photogenic Lacha breed of sheep.


Lacha breed of sheep, whose ewe's milk is used to make Roncal cheese.

Burgui is a dramatically picturesque river town with a Romanesque bridge and a breathtaking canyon to its south.

Along the river banks here, I saw log rafts used by modern-day daredevil almadieros (rafts are called almadías), who reenact the dangerous feat when, before trucking and a downriver dam was built, each spring daring loggers used to ride such log rafts down the swollen river to the sawmills.

At Burgui the Navacués road joins the smooth main road from Pamplona that runs up the Roncal valley, following the Esca river through picturesque gorges, where dramatic bluffs rise above the road, waterfalls gush from the rocks, and suspension bridges over the river link hiking trails.

The Roncal valley is famous for its cheeses, bucolic villages, splendid scenery, and colorful folklore. Every year on the first Sunday in July, the Roncalese dress in colorful regional costumes for a romería (pilgrimage cum picnic) at the mountain hermitage of Idoya near Isaba. On July 13, the mayors of Roncal valley's seven villages turn out in typical costumes to receive the Tribute of the Three Cows offered by their French neighbors from the Baretous (Bearn) valley. The event, dating to the Middle Ages, annually draws thousands to a site near the French border.

Roncalese houses, like those of Ochagavia, are of the same stout stone and timber construction, but richer Roncal has more distinctive architecture. Like most towns here, Roncal's interior streets are paved with river stones, which are like walking on a washboard and require sturdy footwear. At Roncal's northern edge, the Esca runs by a trout farm just across a small bridge from a park with picnic tables and fine views of Roncal's massive church.

Tenor Julián Gayarre (1844-1890), the greatest Spanish opera singer of his epoch, was from Roncal. Gayarre's funeral monument in the village cemetery is by Mariano Benlliure (1862-1947), the Valencian sculptor who did the equestrian statue of Alfonso XII in Madrid's Retiro Park and torero Joselito's funeral monument in Sevilla. Gayarre's home is now a museum displaying momentos from his illustrious career.

Roncal's excellent sheep's cheese, queso Roncal, somewhat reminiscent of Italian Parmesan, but milder and softer, was the first Spanish cheese to earn an official denominación de origen (like wine). Once an artisan cheese, much of today's queso Roncal is produced in a local factory and can be purchased in markets or shops all over Navarra. If you want a homemade cheese, look for signs that say "Queso Roncal del Pastor" (shepherd's cheese).

Queso Roncal, a ewe's milk cheese that is the pride of the Navarran Pyrenees.

At Roncal's southern edge, on a hill overlooking the town, I found Casa Indiano, the charming two-story fieldstone home of Ana Maria Donazar, a grandmother who dotes, with equal amounts of cariño, or tender loving care, on her young grandson and her casa's rustic pine-timbered interior. The living quarters, including a kitchen with spectacular valley views, were on the second floor. Señora Donazar put me in a small room with a double bed, a dresser, and an armoire, just across from a clean, modern bathroom.

For lunch, on the main road just below Casa Indiano, I found Restaurante Begoña, a small cafe on Hostal Zaltua's second floor overlooking the river, where fishermen cast for trout. On the wall was a "celebrity" photograph of a man wearing a huge Basque boina (beret) and displaying several trophies - - Roncal's 1991 trout fishing champ. When I asked for trout, Begoña, who answers the jangling telephone, waits tables, and cooks, informed me, "If you had told me ahead of time, I would have had trout." I settled for a salad; red beans and chorizo with guindillas (hot peppers); superb revueltos con ajos y gambas (eggs scrambled with garlic shoots and shrimp); and queso Roncal. When I ordered a bottle of rosado, Begoña handed me the corkscrew and returned to the kitchen. The bill was about $10.

Pochas con guindilla.

North of Roncal is beautiful Isaba, a village in a lush green valley below the rugged peaks culminating in the Mesa de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings' Table), Navarra's highest mountain (7984 feet). Saving a more thorough inspection of Isaba for evening, I headed north toward the high gray-stone peaks that poke up through the surrounding forests like giant teeth. On the way I saw fishermen working the picturesque Belagua, a trout stream criss-crossed by rustic stone bridges. On the high plain below the peaks were verdant pastures where herds of sheep grazed with bleating newborn lambs and mares nursed wobbly-legged foals. Signs on farmhouses offered homemade Roncal cheeses.

Beyond the plain the road climbs steeply for several miles to the heights of Belagua with its stunning views down the valley towards Isaba. Incredibly, I encountered cyclists pedaling all the way to the summit; Miguel Unduráin, the Navarrese cyclist who won the Tour de France, trains here. On the way up the mountain is the rustic Venta de Juan Pito. In the rock-and-timber dining room, one can sit in front a big fireplace and lunch on migas ("shepherd's crouton's") and grilled lamb chops.

At Belagua is a ski refuge with spectacular cross country and downhill trails, but no lifts. With the temperature in the 70s in Roncal, I was in shirt sleeves, but it was cold at these heights, where there was still snow in the high crevasses. The road climbs through increasingly rugged terrain, where lovely little clumps of intensely blue wild flowers were a strikingly juxtaposed against the rocks and snow. Finally, the road ran level through a pass where I got breath-taking airplane views of France before heading back down to Isaba.

That evening, I explored the picturesque streets of Isaba, admiring the streets and houses that seem to be made of the same rectanagular-shaped stones; the flower-festooned balconies; and quaint doorways. After inquiring, I was directed to the gift and ski rental shop at Hotel Isaba where I purchased a herrada, like the one I had seen at Casa Osaba in Ochagavia, for $130.

Since Roncal has few places to eat, I decided to stay in Isaba for dinner. Isaba has several choices including upscale Hotel Isaba's reasonably priced, Restaurante Leyre, which offers good regional fare. I chose Isaba's popular Hostal Lola restaurant, where pimientos rellenos (piquant peppers stuffed with salt cod puree), trout cooked with cured ham, superb cuajada, a bottle of rosado, and coffee came to about $20.

Back in Roncal I found a lively bar that served homemade pacharán. The place was packed with young people eating, drinking, and listening to music. A sign on the wall, translated, said "If bullfighting is art, cannibalism is gastronomy."

Tired, but exhilarated from my day in the mountains, I returned to Casa Indiano and spent a restful night. The next morning, Señora Donazar and her husband, with "help" from their grandson, gave me a breakfast of cafe con leche, pan tostado with homemade mermelada (jam), and galletas (thin Spanish cookies). I paid my bill, which was about $14 with breakfast. As I was loading my car, I saw the little boy and his grandmother waving from an upstairs window. I waved back and reluctantly began the day-long drive out of these splendid mountains to Madrid and the plane ride back to New York.

- - End - -


About Gerry Dawes

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Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

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Navarra: A Spanish Kingdom's Wines Wear the Versatility Crown, But Winemakers Here Need a Dramatic Change in Winemaking Philosophy

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A painting at Guelbenzu winery in southern Navarra.

Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes©2011
The Spanish Artisan Wine Group - Gerry Dawes Selections

(Double click on photograph and click on link to see it full size.)

Immortalized in the Middle Ages in the French poem Chanson de Roland (whose legendary setting is in the hills above the Pyreneen village of Roncesvalles); its capital Pamplona and  the annual running of the bulls made famous the world over in the 1920s by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises; and again in the 1960s by James A. Michener in Iberia: Spanish Travel and Reflections, beautiful, rugged and evocative Navarra is arguably Spain's most versatile wine region (see The Wines of Navarra [background article from 2004]).

Located in mountainous north central Spain, Navarra is hemmed to the north by the Pyrenees (and France) to the north/northwest by Basque Country, to the west/southwest by La Rioja and to the east/southeast by Aragón, a climatic range that includes high mountains, green northern zones, the arid Ebro River basin in the south and a desert called Bardenas Reales. These varied climatic influences, which include very important temperate zones provide a breadth of truly great winemaking potential.

Chardonnay at Chivite's Arinzano estate.

Several of its wineries have proven just that: Its first-rate Chardonnays are among the finest in Spain; garnacha-based rosados (see Spanish Rosados: Among Spain's Most Delightful Wines rank with the best in the world; the cream of Navarra's Bordeaux- and Rioja-style wines (especially from bodegas such as Julián Chivite) stand alongside many of Spain’s most distinguished reds; and late harvest moscatels — Aliaga, Chivite and Ochoa to name three — are counted among the most delicious dessert wines in the country. Navarra even boasts a stunningly good, little-known, old-fashioned vino rancio known as Capricho de Goya that rates in the high 90s on nearly everyone's point scale.

Bodegas Camilo Castilla in Corella.

Wines have been made here since the Roman occupation, as evidenced in southern Navarra along the Ebro River by the remains of several wineries, such as the one at Funes, that date back more than 2,000 years. In the Middle Ages, Navarra was a sprawling kingdom that included Bordeaux, French Navarre, parts of La Rioja, portions of the Basque Country (mountainous northern Navarra and Pamplona, called Iruña in Basque) and Aragón.

Roman Winery at Funes in Southern Navarra.

Navarra's importance was vital in establishing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that buttressed the Christian frontier, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Cistercian monks arrived to establish monasteries and plant vineyards all around northern Spain.

Iron forger's works alongside the Camino de Santiago at Ayegui depicts pilgrims.
A lone pilgrim crosses the lovely 12th-Century bridge across the Arga River at Puente la Reina,  
 a lovely Medieval town that is a major stop on the Camino de Santiago.

The province still reflects its deep historical roots by calling itself, for promotional purposes at least, El Reyno de Navarra, the Kingdom of Navarra, even though the last Navarrese king was conquered out of existence centuries ago. Officially, Navarra is one of Spain's 17 comunidades, the La Comunidad Foral de Navarra, a title that bestows the privilege of retaining many of the province’s own unique set of fueros, or rights, some of them dating to when kings did rule.

Navarra D. O. Symbol Reflects the Region's Ancient Wine Traditions

When trying to grasp today’s big wine picture, it helps to keep in mind that there are increasingly important distinctions to be made between the wines of the Denominación de Origen (DO) Navarra and the wines of the Comunidad Foral de Navarra, the latter of which now partially encompasses the wines of four official designations: the DOs Navarra and La Rioja (several Navarra wineries in areas contiguous to Rioja are allowed to use that designation), Vinos de la Tierra (VT) La Ribera de Queiles (Navarra and neighboring Aragón) and the newly recognized DO Pago Señorío de Arinzano (Chivite's spectacular 316-acre wine estate located in the temperate Tierra de Estella wine region of central Navarra), one of only five such Vinos de Pago in Spain (the other four are in Castilla-La Mancha). Navarra wine laws were recently changed to allow the creation of this (and presumably other pagos, plus a new Vinos de la Tierra classification, as exists in many other parts of Spain).

Chivite's DO Pago Señorío de Arinzano 

With these major changes in the wine law, Fernando Chivite, winemaker for Julián Chivite wines and President and winemaker of the Arinzano operation), says "Navarra now has an opportunity to demonstrate the quality potential of its geographic conditions and place itself among the top denoninaciones de origen in Spain; the new wine laws will provide us with a unique chance to put our best foot forward."

Among those bodegas that have most convincingly proved Navarra’s mettle are Artazu and Señorío de Sarría for their exceptional old vines Garnacha rosados; Chivite, which turns out superb wines in all four categories; Guelbenzu for its robust, full-flavored Valle de Quieles reds from southern Navarra and northwestern Aragón; Magaña, which has produced exceptional Merlots and Merlot/Cabernet blends for nearly three decades; Castillo de Monjardín for its Chardonnay, late harvest Chardonnay and Merlot; Otazu, an old estate winery with an impressive facelift and a determination to make some of the best wines in Navarra; Muruzábal, which made the legendary 1995 Chardonnay; Ochoa for its full range of very good wines; and Barón de Ley, whose surprisingly good reds are from the area of Navarra permitted to use the Rioja designation.

With so many impressive calling cards to its credit, not to mention the blessings of an Atlantic-influenced climate in the north, a Mediterranean-continental climate in the south and a wide range of microclimates in between, why aren’t the wines from the Kingdom of Navarra, with annual estimated industry sales (wine and grapes) of $250,000,000, enjoying the type of sexy publicity heaped on far less versatile regions such as Ribera del Duero, Priorat and Toro? The reasons are complex and somewhat maddening, but arguably the overall potential of this wine-rich region has been blunted by numerous producers who are making wines for perceived market tastes, too many of which were established over the past 10 to 20 years on subsidies from the government of Navarra (along with loans from Navarrese banks), from the European Union (so much for "drying up the European wine lake.") and the principal money from many investors new to the wine trade. Much of this money still needs to be repaid; so Navarra is in the midst of an economic epoch that many have described as a general wine crisis.

Rumours abound, often backed by actual fact, that many new-to-wine bodega backers, once bent on climbing a wine vine to social pinnacles to which mere industries such as the brick trade (construction) could not take them, are frantically trying to unload (especially in Navarra, Ribera del Duero and the super-hot country Mediterranean areas) their suddenly way too expensive hobby/societal enhancement toys. One wonders why some of them did not heed the old California wine country adage, "If you want to make a small fortune from wine, start with a large fortune."

Sprawling vineyard on film producer Iñaki Nuñez’s wine estate, 
complete with a castle keep/hotel-restaurant in southern Navarra.

During this period of cash infusions, wine cooperatives, which existed in nearly every wine village in Navarra and generally produced poor to mediocre wines, were converted into privately owned wineries. New wineries, a number of them architectural showcases, including film producer Iñaki Nuñez’s huge white faux castle keep (when Navarra has several distinguished real castles!), were built and filled with gleaming stainless steel tanks and, of course, the obligatory spanking-new French and American oak 225-liter barricas, which made aging cellars smell like sawmills. 

These newly minted showcase properties seem to be imitating producers from Australia, Napa Valley, Priorat and the super non-DO Vinos de la Tierra crowd by making wines in a style perceived to be "what the market is asking for." The result is far too many bad copies of bad copies of overripe fruit bombs lashed with harsh new oak and sporting enough alcohol to fell a Basque wood chopper. Were this not bad enough, in what seems a desperate effort to become profitable, many producers are pricing these brutes far, far above their quality levels.  (American wine writer, Bruce Schoenfeld, and Michael A. Weiss, co-author of Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America's Complete Guide to Wines of the World, both vociferously complained about the overall quality and style of the Navarra wines shown at a major tasting for the press at Madrid Fusión 2010.)

Andrés Proensa, publisher of the prestigious bimonthly wine magazine PlanetaVino and the annual Guía Proensa, sums up the situation: "The D.O. Navarra, without a doubt, has the necessary conditions to be a prestigious winemaking region and a good fistful of high-class wines bring their contribution towards that [end.] But, now is not the time for (mediocre) wines asking high prices to get attention, but for wines that don't hurt your pocket and still satisfy your palate."

One of the most troublesome things in Navarra’s recent viticultural history is that thousands of Navarra's old goblet-pruned garnacho vines (the Navarrese word for the garnacha) were ripped out and replaced with more highly productive tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines. Garnacha, which is native to Navarra and Aragón and was brought to France during the epoque of the Popes of Avignon, was considered an inferior grape, best for making rosados (Go figure! Some of the best rosés in the world!) and, if left to reach higher alcohol levels, for beefing up red wines. More importantly, its lowly status (a big mistake, as some of the best wines of Priorat, which often contain 50% garnacha have proved) commanded a far lesser price than tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Harvesting Garnacha near Olite.

So in the rush to go "modern," change Navarra’s image and turn a profit as rapidly as possible, this wonderful native garnacha variety, much of which grew of old vines vineyards, was sacrificed with thousands of acres ripped up and replanted with the aforementioned trio. Ironically, neighboring Aragón, where it is rumored that a lot of garnacha, which still exists there in old vines plantations in profusion, finds its way into Navarra, has become a huge success in both national and export markets (the U. S. in particular) and has established a strong identity for the grape.

The positive face of all this it is that, unlike in many Spanish Mediterranean winegrowing regions, the non-native cabernet sauvignon and merlot (as well as chardonnay) do well in Navarra when yields are kept to reasonable levels (which Chivite, Magaña, Ochoa and others have proved). Strangely enough, given the success of Chardonnays from several producers, pinot noir is not permitted here, though based on what little of it I have tasted (from an outlawed plantation), I suspect it could be promising, since even Penedès and Conca de Barberà in Catalu. In addition to the usually insipid native viura (the white grape "preferred" by the Navarra D.O.s regulatory council), chardonnay, garnacha blanca, malvasia and moscatel de grano menudo (small berry moscatel) are merely "authorized." Improbably, among the red grapes, the native tempranillo and graciano, along with cabernet sauvignon, are the preferred grapes, while the excellent native garnacha tinto, merlot (also sometimes excellent here) and mazuelo (carignane) are also just authorized by the Navarra D. O. , as opposed to being among the officially preferred varieties.

Cabernet Sauvignon at the Arinzano estate near Estella.

The vines of the Navarra D. O. comprise more than 46,500 acres and are spread over five different subzones: Baja Montaña (northeastern Navarra), Ribera Alta (around the marvelous medieval castle village of Olite), Ribera Baja (more or less paralleling La Rioja Baja on the northeastern side of the Ebro River), Tierra Estella (in middle western Navarra, around the historic town of Estella and other key pilgrimage stops on the Camino de Santiago) and Valdizarbe (the smallest of the five, but a promising, temperate wine area that extends mostly south-southwest from Pamplona, the capital). Some dozen wineries around such towns as Viana, Mendavia, Andosilla and Azagra north of the Ebro River in western Navarra are allowed to be classified as DO La Rioja and are considered Rioja Baja wines. Several wineries of note, including Barón de Ley, Bagordi, Finca Manzanos, Ondarre and Rioja Vega and, are located here. 


Navarra D. O. Subzones Map  

In the VT Ribera del Quieles, in southern Navarra bordering Aragón, the recently sold Guelbenzu was making wines that have received international acclaim.  Though the name Navarra on a bottle is no more a true quality guarantee than any place name, no matter how lofty, the best producers are making some truly satisfying, very well-made wines here. Many possess attributes such balance, drinkability and moderate alcohol levels that a plethora of wines from regions such as Priorat, Ribera del Duero, Toro and Jumilla simply don’t have, although there is an alarming tendency among copycat wineries in Navarra to produce high-priced, high-alcohol, monster modernista wines in an attempt to copy the perceived successes of the aforementioned.

Sonia Olana, who with her husband, Victor del Villar, owns Castillo de Monjardín, is also of the opinion that the "aureole of (such) ultra expensive ‘sexy’ wines has more to do with a bodega’s small production than the quality of the wine." (The reasoning being, if there is not a lot of it, it must be good!)

However, many of the top Navarra bodegas keep alcohol levels in check (under 14 percent, often lower), temper their use of new oak and don't traffic in overripe fruit. The resulting wines are well balanced with good acid levels; are fruity, not jammy; and finish with a clarity and length on the palate that was once expected from good Rioja, cru classe Bordeaux and the finest California Cabs up until the late 1990s (when many wineries went over to the dark side).

Sonia Olana says, "Navarra’s terruño (soils, climate, altitude, sense of place) historically has been recognized, now (modern) techniques and the enthusiastic desire of new enologists are creating magic in our new wines." Well, some of them anyway.

Bodegas Julián Chivite is the undisputed leader among Navarra wineries taking a measured approach to winemaking. ( Its family winemaking history — de padres a hijos desde 1647 — can be traced from fathers to sons and daughters (the late Mercedes Chivite was a key member of the family team) from 1647. The Chivites, once among Spain’s most elite wine families and in the same league with names such as Codorníu, Ferrer and Torres (Catalunya); López de Heredia, Marqués de Riscal and Muga and(La Rioja); and Gonzalez Byass and Hidalgo (Sherry), have been decimated by illness, death and a nasty family brouhaha. Led today by Fernándo, the internationally recognized winemaker, now missing three of the siblings (tragically both Mercedes and Carlos Chivite both middle-aged died from cancer–Fernando himself is now in remission from the disease–and winery namesake Julián was recently purged from the winery in a sad family coup), Bodegas Julián Chivite’s fortunes are being closely observed by the Spanish wine world.  (Note:  As of last year, brother
Julián was able to regain control and he now runs the bodega.)

Since at one time or another, I have been friends with the late Mercedes, a wonderful, shy, unassuming, gay woman who sometimes worked with Mother Teresa and adopted a number of young boys; with Julián and with Fernándo (I have dined, drank or spent time with both in Cintruenigo, Pamplona, Madrid and New York), this is a situation that greatly saddened me personally.

Enrique Martínez, Chef-owner at Maher in Cintruenigo tasting a lineup of Chivite wines. Maher (from Martínez Hermanos) is perhaps Navarra's top restaurant. 

Ironically, the Chivite company is riding a wave of successful wine triumphs that includes international kudos that have earned it the reputation for making Navarra’s best wines, the successful expansion into La Rioja with the purchase and very successful quality upgrading of Viña Salceda, plans for making wine in the Ribera del Duero and the granting of the aforementioned D. O. status to the Señorío de Arinzano. There are literally no wines emanating from the Chivite bodegas in Centruénigo and Señorío de Arinzano (or the Viña Salceda winery in La Rioja Alavesa) that are not first rate. Even Chivite ’s price-to-quality ratio Gran Feudo series excels with an unoaked Chardonnay, Spain's most popular garnacha rosado, a delicious tinto de crianza (tempranillo, garnacha, cabernet sauvignon), a reserva tinto (tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot), Viñas Viejas (a blend of tempranillo, garnacha, merlot and cabernet) and a moscatel dulce (sweet muscatel) — all benchmarks for affordable, consumer-friendly wines.

Chivite's stellar Colección 125 series — which commemorates the bodega’s 125th anniversary — includes a barrel fermented chardonnay that is consistently among Spain's top whites; a spectacular barrel fermented rosado made with six red varieties; a Bordeaux-esque tempranillo/cabernet sauvignon/merlot reserva; and a vendimia tardia (late harvest) Moscatel. Although some of these critically praised wines reach foreign markets, including the United States, much of Colección 125 is snapped up by Spain's top restaurants. More elite is Chivite's Señorío de Arinzano Pago wines, which are made only in very good to great harvests. Several vintages are currently aging in bottle at the winery, the first three vintages -- 2000, 2001, 2002 -- of which were scheduled to be released this March. Just over 1,600 cases of each were made.
The renovation and re-design of the Chivite Arinzano estate buildings was done 
 by architect Rafael Moneo, the architect of the Cathedral of Los Angeles (California).

While Chivite reigns as undisputed royalty in the Reyno de Navarra's wine kingdom, several other wineries form a very honorable color guard; they include Alzania, Nekeas and Señorío de Sarria, as well as the aforementioned Artazu, Magaña, Monjardín, Ochoa, Viña Aliaga and Ondarre. Of them, the Ochoa family ( has been making wine in the fairytale castle village of Olite for 600 years. Javier Ochoa, the architect of the 1980’s modernization of the Navarra wine industry, currently heads the winery.

Castle Village of Olite.

Ochoa, whose grapes are all grown on 350 acres of estate vineyards, pioneered some of the first plantings of foreign varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, here in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, he also revived interest in the ancient moscatel de grano menudo vines that grew in Navarra for centuries. Eschewing the traditional cloying, sometimes sherry-like style (the aforementioned Capricho de Goya is nevertheless a prime example and one of the greatest of Spain’s vinos generosos, at least that this writer has ever tasted), Ochoa began crafting fresh, lively vinos dulces de moscatel that he (and Chivite) refined into an art form, earning him kudos from top Spanish and international wine critics. Ochoa's bread-and-butter, however, is a line of vinos tintos — a competently made, but rather middling set of monovarietals, including a Tempranillo, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, along with an expensive Vendimia Seleccionada 50 percent cabernet sauvignon/50 percent merlot blend that is aged for one year in Allier oak. Ochoa’s 2001 Reserva, another tempranillo/cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend, weighs in at 14% and is so tarry and licorice-like, it could be almost pass for a wine from Toro. Like most bodegas in Navarra, Ochoa also makes rosado; his 100 percent garnacha version (traditionally the best here) is a fine example of the category; a Rosado de Lágrima (made only from free-run juice) is a more novel 50/50 blend of garnacha and cabernet sauvignon.

Bodegas Ochoa, Founded in 1845.

Located in the Tierra de Estella subregion 30 miles northwest of Olite, along the Camino de Santiago in the pretty, castle-crowned village of Villamayor de Monjardín, is the showcase Castillo de Monjardín winery ( The bodega is housed in a striking, 19th-centuryesque, twin-towered, monastery-like building tastefully constructed of stone, old brick and wood with its own well-regarded restaurant that serves innovative, regional-inspired cuisine. Founded in 1988 by Victor del Villar and his wife, Sonia Olano, Castillo de Monjardin focuses on foreign varieties — chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — planted on 370 acres of vineyards sited nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and periodically cooled by the strong, Mistral-like Cierzo winds that blow from the north. The line features a lovely, inexpensive, refreshingly unoaked El Cerezo Chardonnay; a barrel fermented chardonnay that is not over the top; and the unusual Esencia de Monjardín Reserva, a sweet late harvest chardonnay that spends four months in barrel. Monjardín's equally unusual and delicious rosado is 100 percent merlot, for which there is such demand that 15,000 cases are produced. The sound, well-made tintos include a cabernet-merlot reserva, a cabernet-tempranillo Reserva, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon reserva and Deyo, 100 percent merlot.

Castillo de Monjardín winery.

Since the 1970s, merlot has been a mainstay at Viña Magaña ( in Barillas, a village a few miles outside the historic southern Navarra city of Tudela. The ever-restless owner, Juan Magaña, makes some of Spain's greatest merlots and merlot-cabernet blends from vines that were smuggled into Spain in the waning years of the Franco era. In fact, Magaña also ran his own nursery and supplied many of the top wineries in Spain with merlot and cabernet sauvignon vines during the 1970s and 1980s, when these foreign varieties become the rage.

Juan Magaña

Magaña's noteworthy roster includes Dignus, a tempranillo-cabernet-merlot blend; Barón de Magaña, 70 percent merlot with the balance cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo; an excellent 100 percent Merlot; a merlot-laced reserva; a superb 70 percent merlot gran reserva that could pass for a top Saint-Émilion; and Calchetas, for which Magaña will not to divulge the grape makeup (an educated taste points to merlot, cabernet sauvignon and probably syrah and malbec), a big (14.5 percent), extracted wine that will satisfy the power palate aficionado.  I was told this spring that Juan Magaña and his son,  Diego, who is know making the wines, are turning out of some of their best efforts in years.

Juan Magaña with his wines at a restaurant in Tudela (Navarra).

Technically a cooperative, but with a difference – its members are eight families from the same village with their own vineyards – at Nekeas (, longtime winemaker Concha Vecino makes a range of well-balanced, relatively inexpensive wines from native varieties (viura, tempranillo and garnacha), along with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The finished wines include an inexpensive Nekeas Vega Sindoa Viura-Chardonnay, a crianza blend of Cabernet-Tempranillo, a Merlot crianza, a Cabernet-Merlot Reserva and the star of the line, El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa, made from 100 percent old vines garnacha aged six months in oak. 

This very successful winery is one of the stable nurtured by their U.S. importer Fine Estates From Spain’s Jorge Ordoñez, a Spaniard originally from Andalucia, who seems to be in perfect lock-step with the palate of American wine arbiter, Robert M. Parker, Jr., who, when he was still writing about Spanish wines, rarely found an Ordoñez wine that he didn’t swoon over. (Parker’s last Spanish review before he turned the beat over to Dr. Jay Miller covered the wines of Fine Estates From Spain exclusively--reportedly after heavy pressure from Ordoñez–which infuriated several other American importers of Spanish wines. I, personally, after living under the reign of the Bush cabal for the past seven-plus years, found nothing surprising that comes out of the Washington, D.C. area, where the Robert M. Parker, Jr. Apellation Controleé/Denominación de Origen is headquartered (nearby Monkton, Maryland). 


Bodegas Nekeas

Old vines garnacha is the central theme at Artazu, located in the cooler Valdizarbe growing region near Puente de la Reina, whose arched medieval bridge is one of the major landmarks on the Camino de Santiago ( This relatively new project is headed by Juan Carlos López de la Calle of Rioja's Artadi, who makes a much sought after Artazuri garanacha rosado in stainless steel; a Garnacha tinto (from 60- to 80-year-old vines) that sees no oak; and a top-of-the-line Santa Cruz de Artazu Garnacha (from century-old vines) that is aged in large oak demi-muids (600-800 liters) for a year.

Artazuri Rosado is one of best rosados I have ever tasted from Spain and is one of a rare genre of Navarra rosados that will live and improve in bottle for up to five and sometimes a long as ten years. Unfortunately, Sr. López de la Calle, chose to bottle the excellent 2006 with a plastic stopper and the 2007 and subsequent vintages with a screw-top, either of which will kill any plans that serious rosado lovers might have of putting this wine away for a couple of years. 

Having drunk Las Campanas Gran Reserva Garnacha Gran Reserva Rosados from 1961, which were spectacular still in the late 1970s, and this year and last drinking several bottles of Señorío de Sarría’s rosados from their Viñedo #5 old vines Garnacha vineyards that were from 5-6 years old and still superb, I know from whence I speak. I can only hope that Sr. De la Calle decides to put future vintages under cork. Perhaps he will since several restaurateurs I talked to about it on trips to Spain in April and May were not planning to order the wine anymore because of the closures. 

Señorío de Sarría's superb Old Vines #5
Garnacha Vineyard in Navarra.

For garnacha rosado fanciers, Señorío de Sarría's ( superb Viñedo #5 Garnacha rosado, from a 50-year-old, high-altitude garnacha vineyard on its storybook estate near Puente de la Reina, is one of Spain's (and the world’s) greatest renditions of rosé wine. Sarría also produces a lineup of competently made wines from tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay along with a red called Viñedo Sotes (with the preceeding there red varietes plus native varieties mazuelo, graciano and garnacha) and good late harvest moscatel.

Señorío de Sarría’s Viñedo #5 old vines Garnacha vineyard.

Señorío de Sarría estate.

Drawing on fruit from vineyards located alongside Navarra's Bardenas Reales (a desert nature park), Azul y Garanza ( makes its wines in a partially underground winery that still uses epoxy-lined concrete tanks–something a number of wineries are going back to using–dating to the period between 1940 and 1960. Its Rosa de Azul y Garanza garnacha-tempranillo rosado and a tinto blend of 80 percent tempranillo tinto, laced with 20 percent cabernet sauvignon have drawn favorable attention.

Viña Aliaga (Bodegas Camino del Villar;, a family-owned, vineyard-driven winery in southern Navarra makes an excellent garnacha rosado called Lagrima (tears) de Garnacha, and a stellar Vendimia Tardia (Late Harvest) moscatel dulce, along with several promising red wines made from garnacha, a superb ninety percent garnacha / ten percent cabernet sauvignon coupage called Antonio Corpus, several blends enlisting tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon and one of the finest Gracianos in the region. Aliaga, little known in the United States, has won a slew of prized in international competitions. Carlos Aliaga and his family have other business interests (toys, furniture), but seem dedicated to making serious wines with minimum of intervention in the cellar.

Vinícola Navarra a.k.a. Las Campanas, beloved by Ernest Hemingway and generations of devotees of Pamplona's Fiestas de San Fermín, makes some delicious garnacha rosados (Las Campanas and the first-rate Castillo de Javier) and two serviceable tintos. It now belongs to the mega-group, Domecq Bodegas, which has acquired numerous Spanish wineries (including Palacio de la Vega, another Navarra producer) and bottles more wine than any entity in Spain.

Coat-of-arms at Palacio de la Vega winery.

Señorío de Otazu, the northernmost red wine vineyard–not just in Navarra, but they claim in all of Spain–lies in the moderate Valdizarbe subzone near the village of Echauri, just twelve kilometers from the gates of Pamplona. The Otazu estate is flanked by the Sierras del Perdón and Echauri and bordered by the Arga River, which flows down past the pens where the bulls are kept in Pamplona before the encierros of San Fermín each July and runs alongside about half of this spectacular 350-hectare estate property, where wines have been made for centuries.


Señorío de Otazu 

The 115 hectares of vineyards are planted in the noble varieties chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and tempranillo. In corporated into the restored old bodega, Otazu features a very modern, artfully vaulted cellar (with a capacity of 200,000 liters) in the middle of an enchanting setting that includes the vineyards, a 12th-century stone torre (tower) integrated into a 16th-century palace, a 13th-century romanesque-gothic transition church and a 17th-century hermitage, all framed by carefully trimmed chopos (poplars) and some of the most important stands of oak trees left in Navarra. 

Indeed, except for their Sotavento blend that uses 80% tempranillo–the rest cabernet sauvignon and merlot–and is the lowest in alcohol at 12.7% (see, it can be done) and oak (five months), Otazu’s other red wines are very Bordeaux/-like blends (except for the 5% - 20% addition of tempranillo). However, on the palate, they come across as supercharged Bordeaux, if not Napa Valley like (the natural acidity in this region prevents that caricature). Palacio de Otazu Dimensión (50% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 20% tempranillo) tips the scales at 14.4% alcohol; Berquera (70% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% tempranillo) weighs in at 14.19%; and the top of the line (in a bottle of hernia-inducing weight) Altar, their big Cab (90% cabernet, 5% merlot, 5% tempranillo) just squeaks in over the magic 14.5% bar by a whisker 14.51%, says the label, which being so precise may make Otazu one of the few wineries not lying in print about the actual alcohol content of their wines. Otazu also makes a good, mercifully un-oaked night harvested Chardonnay (13.8%) and the obligatory, butterscotch-laced, barrel fermented (in new French Allier, light toast; also around 13.8%) Chardonnay that spends a year in oak.

Javier Colio, Enólogo-Winemaker at Señorío de Otazu.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, I am sure that jefe Javier Bañales, Director Gerente at Señorío de Otazu–who with his enologist Javier Colio, has a big hand in the winemaking process–knows that he potentially has one of the greatest estates in Spain, perhaps rivaling Chivite's Arinzano. For one thing, the Atlantic-influenced northern climate here puts it near the limits of cultivation, as most of the greatest wine regions of the world used to be (at least before global warming), but the sierras, the annual rainfall (about 600mm), the fogs from the Arga and the stands of trees all have a beneficent influence on Otazu’s unique micro-climate (which Bañales says also has a "buena influencia Mediterránea"), which points to the potential for producing some of most elegant, Bordeaux-like wines in Spain. They may also have the climate for producing Burgundy-like wines. Anyone who has ever spent a Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona in July can attest to the Burgundian-like fickleness of the climate. (Can someone tell me why the D.O. Navarra never approved the planting of pinot noir here?).

Otazu has it all, except in this writer's opinion, the will to back off from making wines that the "market is asking for" and let the grapes, climate and soil lead them to the Grand Cru Classé that this superb estate has all the necessary elements to become. Although there are signs that these wines are evolving in that direction, to this palate, there is still far too much new oak evident, too much power for power's sake and not enough viticultural and winemaking restraint to allow these wines to achieve true greatness at the level at which Bordeaux used to be reknowned. 


Javier Bañales and many other producers in Spain have one Hell of a road ahead of them, one with even more potholes in the severe wine crisis that is coming (the weak dollar, soaring petrol prices, home foreclosures and all the other economic calamities that the Bush administration’s insane robber oil baron policies have foisted upon us, all of which will make expensive, overblown wine a commodity way down on the scale of luxuries, let alone necessities). Once Parkerization established a premium on overripe fruit, overblown alcohol levels and new oak as the criteria to be prized over balance, elegance, grace, charm, style and, above all, the sense of terroir (place, soil, altitude, climate), the latter qualities have taken a backseat at many wineries, not just Otazu.

Market forces and wine reviewers–including, and especially, those in Madrid, who seem to think that Spain has to exhibit El Cid-like balls when it comes to wine–continue in lock-step with the Parkerista crowd (Spain this year gave their highest national wine prize, the Premio Nacional de Gastronómia to Dr. Jay Miller, Parker's Spain beat reporter, this after less than two years of Spanish wine reviews. Why? Because he gave 100 pts. each to five monster ball wines, which points out how commercial the whole thing has become.) 

Money, power, wretched excess and winemaking through chemistry, technological manipulation and the use of irrigation to attain overripe fruit, all rule over knowledge, real style, authentic reflections of terrior and taste in today's world wine market. (If you want to understand the whole process and just how ridiculous (and horrendous) the wine business has become, a must read is Alice Feiring’s new book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization [Harcourt, Inc., New York], which explains the whole mess in can’t-stop-turning-the-page detail.) 

Guelbenzu, a family winery (recently sold) in Cascante, was founded in 1851.

The Guelbenzu family home in Cascante 

stands next to the winery.

In far southern Navarra in the Ribera Baja subzone, Guelbenzu (, a family winery dating to 1851, lobbied several years ago for the formation of the Vinos de la Tierra la Ribera del Quieles (from the Quieles River valley), which straddles the Navarra-Aragón border and withdrew from the Navarra DO. The subsequent approval of V.T. status gave Guelbenzu the advantage of sourcing grapes from both provinces within this unique microclimate. Bearing its distinctive triangle-within-a-circle label design, Guelbezu's wines from the Navarra vineyards include Azul (Blue), a tempranillo-merlot-cabernet- blend; EVO, which features each harvest's finest cabernet sauvignon; and Lautus, the winery’s top, ageworthy wine, which features a similar blend as Azul, but with the specially selected grapes and the addition of garnacha.  

Last year, the Guelbenzu winery, Vierlas estate and all Guelbenzu brands were sold to Señorío de Sarría.  A reliable source told me that Guelbenzu wines are still showing well. Ricardo Guelbenzu, the former owner, has now started Bodega del Jardín at the original family estate in Cascante.  Bodega del Jardín’s brand names are 1Pulso, 2Pulso and 3Pulso (an unfortunate choice of names, IMHO).  The wines, roughly mirror the style of Guelbenzu’s Azul, EVO and Lautus.  According to a trusted source, the style of the wines has not yet been set.  My source says the 2007 wines were rushed to market, but hopes that Ricardo Guelbenzu “rediscovers the elegant style they had in the early years.”

Mayor de Ondarre, Barón de Ley and Rioja Vega are the standard bearers for the legally designated Rioja-producing section of Navarra, generally producing wines that are more in the full-flavored in the meaty, robust, but still well-balanced style generally associated with the wines of La Rioja Baja. 

Navarra wines from the recommended producers offer some excellent, often reasonably priced drinking and some are a welcome relief from the palate assaulting wines from all over the world that are far too often encountered these days. What is certain is that there is growing evidence–in magazine articles, on weblogs and from scores of conversations–from both professionals (many wine writers, young sommeliers and even the winemakers themselves) and consumers that a wave against the excesses of the highly concentrated, overripe, alcoholic, heavily oaked wines of the past couple of decades is growing into a tsunamai, despite the fact that many producers (not just in Spain, but in Napa, Australia and elsewhere) have spent years trying to paint these Parkerista-fattened hogs as thoroughbred race horses. In fact, to the point where they sell "concentration," which French nouvelle cuisine decried years ago in doing away with overly rich reduction sauces as a quality standard for fine cooking, as a virtue in wine, when in fact such concentrated, dense wines are like putting a sumo wrestler as a jockey in the Derby in which the heaviest, slowest horse wins.

Navarra, with its temperate climate-driven versatility is a place particularly well suited to produce flavorful modern wines with balance and restraint across the spectrum. As winemakers and consumers open their eyes (and palates) and seek the antidote to the excesses of many of today’s wines, they would do well to consider some of the wines from the recommended Navarra producers. They may soon find themselves lifting a glass of surprisingly elegant chardonnay, supernal garnacha rosado, fine well-balanced vino tinto or luscious moscatel dessert wine, taking a sip and exclaiming, "Viva Navarra!"

The End

About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

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