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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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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).
Bodegas Julián Chivite is the undisputed leader among Navarra wineries taking a measured approach to winemaking. (www.chivite.com). 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.
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.
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 (www.bodegasochoa.com) 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.
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.
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 (www.monjardin.es). 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.
Technically a cooperative, but with a difference – its members are eight families from the same village with their own vineyards – at Nekeas (http://www.nekeas.com)/), 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).
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 (http://www.europeancellars.com/Spain/Artazu). 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.
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.
For garnacha rosado fanciers, Señorío de Sarría's (www.bodegadesarria.com) 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.
Drawing on fruit from vineyards located alongside Navarra's Bardenas Reales (a desert nature park), Azul y Garanza (http://www.azulygaranza.com/) 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; http://www.vinaaliaga.com/), 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.
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
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.)
The Guelbenzu family home in Cascante
stands next to the winery.
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.”
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!"
Gerry Dawes can be reached at email@example.com; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): firstname.lastname@example.org