Share This Gerry Dawes's Spain Post


In 2019, again ranked in the Top 50 Gastronomy Blogs and Websites for Gastronomists & Gastronomes in 2019 by Feedspot. "The Best Gastronomy blogs selected from thousands of Food blogs, Culture blogs and Food Science. We’ve carefully selected these websites because they are actively working to educate, inspire, and empower their readers with . . . high-quality information. (Last Updated Oct 23, 2019)

Over 1,150,000 views since inception, 16,000+ views in January 2020.

36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


The Great Harold McGee on High Alcohol in Wines

* * * * *
 "We do not represent wines that conform to the conventional canon, i.e.,  wines so dark that you can't see the bottom of the glass; wines with jammy, overripe fruit; wines low in acid; "dry" red or white wines with pronounced residual sugar; wines that taste more of oak than wine; or wines with high levels of alcohol  higher that 13.5%.   We prefer 13% and lower, but will consider wines of 14% and, on very, very rare occasions 14.5%, but only if they seem particularly well balanced, which is a sleight-of-hand performed by very few maestros." - - From The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group Mission Statement.

* * * * *
Harold McGee on High Alcohol in Wines

Harold McGee at the book party at Per Se for Ferran Adrià's A Day at El Bulli.
Photo by Gerry Dawes ©2008.

"High-alcohol wines, those that exceed about 14 percent alcohol, are often described as “hot” and unbalanced. Alcohol’s irritating effects account for the heat. And flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine’s bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that’s left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal

I couldn’t find any recent trials of wine dilution, but it’s been practiced since the days of ancient Greece, so I went ahead and tried it on a California zinfandel with 14.9 percent alcohol. I poured a partial glass of the wine and added about a quarter of its volume in water, to get it down to 12 percent.

A glass of the full-strength wine tasted hot, dense, jammy and a little sulfurous, while the diluted version was lighter all around but still full of flavor, tarter, more fruity than jammy, and less sulfurous. . ." -- Harold McGee, aka Curious Cook and author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, on High Alcohol in Wines in his article, To Enhance Flavor, Just Add Water in The New York Times (July 7, 2010).

* * * * *

(Note:  These quotes from Harold McGee, who is a friend of mine, are in no way meant to construe or imply that Harold in any way endorses the wines or philosophy of The Spanish Artisan Wine Group.  His conclusions on high alcohol in wine speak for themselves.  It was about time that someone with a scientific background said what many people have been thinking for a long time.  High alcohol is an albatross around the neck of a fine wine, in fact I believe it keeps many wines from being truly great. -- Gerry Dawes, Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel.)

The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group - Gerry Dawes Selections Mission Statement

* * * * *

The Philosophy of
The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group  
Gerry Dawes Selections™

“Wines the Way They Ought to Taste”

What makes the world of wine so interesting, compelling and even romantic is the diversity of vineyards, grapes, producers and wines, not homogeneity or sameness.”

Eugenio Merino of Bodegas Crescencia Merino in the family vineyards in Corcos del Valle (Valladolid) 
that he works so hard to tend, allowing him to produce one of the truly great rosados of Cigales.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2011 /

We prefer family-owned bodegas with their own vineyards (preferably un-irrigated or minimally irrigated) or those who work with controlled growers under long-term associations.  We are looking for winemakers with a dedication to producing wines that reflect their own unique tastes and the uniqueness of their vineyard sites, grapes, soil, climate and individual tastes, not preconceived tastes "that the market is asking for."  We represent unique wines that taste the way the people who make them think the product of their years-long labor in the vineyards ought to taste. 

Gerry Dawes with members of La Asociación de Bodegas Artesanas (Artesan Bodegas) of Rías Baixas, some of the more than a dozen small grower-producers who use native yeasts to ferment their Albariño wines. These Galician bodegueros make Albariños the way they think the wines ought to taste and each of their wines is as distinct from the other as they are as individuals.  At the end of July, these artisan producers hold their Feria del Vino de Autor, to show their wines, with an "author" behind each one.  They only bottle their wines of the previous vintage in time to have them for the Feria, while most producers bottle theirs just 2-3 months after the harvest.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 / /

We do not represent wines that conform to the conventional canon, i.e., wines so dark that you can't see the bottom of the glass; wines with jammy, overripe fruit; wines low in acid; "dry" red or white wines with pronounced residual sugar; wines that taste more of oak than wine; or wines with levels of alcohol higher that 13.5%.   We prefer 13% and lower, but will consider wines of 14% on rare occasions, but only if they seem particularly well balanced, which is a sleight-of-hand performed by very few maestros.

A No-Can-See-Bottom-of-Glass Wine of the Inky Monster School.
Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 /

We see no virtue in wines so extracted and concentrated in color that you can't see the bottom of the glass. Depth of color is no indicator of a great wine in the glass, it merely a very dark wine, which often means it has very high alcohol and is a very extracted wine made from overripe grapes.  Such wines are usually made to please reviewers during the two minutes they may have to evaluate one wine among the 30-100 wines they will taste that day.  We don't believe that is the criteria by which really good wines should be judged. 

We don't mind if the wines are lightly filtered, since we don't put much stock in the unfined, unfiltered wisdom, nor do we believe in exaggerated concentration of flavors as a virtue. 

We do not seek wines that rely on harvesting overripe grapes and submitting them to long macerations to achieve dark color, high alcohol and so-called "flavor."  We discourage the abuse of battonage, the popular stirring of dead lees back into the wine, a practice that effectively breaks and often obliterates the seamless marriage of great minerality with the taste from great grapes, putting an artificial volume-appearance enhancing element in wines that misses the point of what a great wine should be about.   

And we discourage barrel fermentation in new oak and aging wines in improperly prepared new oak, either French or American, all of which tend to obscure both the taste of the grape variety and any terruño (terroir), or unique sense of place, that a wine may possess.  

We believe that wines subjected to the harshness of too much improperly conditioned new oak 
taste more like a the product of a saw mill than of a vineyard.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2009 /

We prefer to work with wineries that use only hand-harvested fruit.  In the case that we may begin to work with a producer who machine harvests, we will urge that producer to begin hand harvesting the fruit as soon as possible for the wines we import.

Harvester monument, Cacabelos, Bierzo.
Photo: Gerry Dawes©2009 /

We do not represent wines with artificial closures, i.e.,  screw caps, plastic "corks," and composite corks with chemical binders.  We will be working with a major Portuguese cork supplier, Amorim, who will guarantee our producers’ wines against cork taint and we will say so on our labels. (To be implemented by all our suppliers by the second year of their Spanish Artisan Wine Group association.)

Carlos de Jesus of Amorim in Portugal explains the process of preparing cork that will be made 
into natural cork wine stoppers.   Photo by Gerry Dawes©2010 /

We recognize that some vintage years are better than others, but we put our stock in small producers who make every effort to get the best of any vintage, even if it means throwing out half their grapes.  From long experience, we believe true wine lovers should follow producers, not vintage years.  When a great producer harvests an exceptional vintage truly great wines can be made.  In a so-called great vintages, many mediocre producers make as much wine as possible to take advantage of the fame of that vintage year.  Such wines are seldom as good as those that conscientious producers make, even in an off year. 

We believe that there is a substantial market for wines that express our philosophy. 

 - - Gerry Dawes©2013.
  About Gerry Dawes

 Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel  

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.

 In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

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

* * * * *

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.

Related Posts with Thumbnails