Navarra, the eternal younger brother of Rioja

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Denominación de origen Navarra has been considered, over the years, as the younger sister of the almighty Rioja with whom it is closely related. Even though the political and administrative division intents to draw non-existent differences between them, they share a real brotherhood, specially amid the renamed sub-area of Eatern Rioja (historically known as Rioja Baja) and the two Navarra’s riverbanks. In fact, Sierra Cantabria and her powerful influence affects even the Eastern section of Navarra along the border with País Vasco. Specifically, on its way through Marañón, Meano and Lapoblación. The Sierra de Codés, Sierra del Perdón, Izco y Leire, are only Sierra Cantabria’s sprawl, with very similar soil composition. This means that, in equal conditions, grapes will grow likewise to Rioja’s grapes. Consequently, when we tasted wines from Navarra, we found their style and structure very much alike.

However, Rioja is a better positioned trademark than Navarra. Partly due to a greater winegrowing development experienced by Rioja when Bordeaux-based french oenologists helped out after their phylloxera crisis and partly because Rioja owns better communication routes with the rest of Spain. These ingredients and the work of the traditional Rioja wine families were crucial for its rapid expansion.  

    

Yet, current Rioja has little in common with the original, just as modern Navarra difers from the older version. The greatest change is found on the vines, as a consequence of the demise of old large vineyards following the silly european subsidy policy for the grubbing up of vines and replanting of more productive varieties. Spanish winegrowers, all over the country, took advantage of this policy without considering the devastatting effects. Garnacha was the hardest hit at the same time as other varieties known as “mejorantes” (improvers) were favoured as is the case of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc. The second major change was the construction of the Canal de Navarra in 2011, an important irrigation channel to carry Irati’s river waters to central and southern areas of Navarra.

This huge hydraulic construction has created new working patterns in the area’s winegrowing sector. It gives winemakers access to irrigation formerly unattainable, allowing them to solve worrying issues such as 2017’s drought by simply pushing a button. 

Unfortunately for those who pushed the button at the peak of 2017’s drought, late rains arrived and filled out their grapes, losing concentration which explains why many white and red wines had a weak taste, in spite of 2017 resulted a calid and strong vintage.

Rosé made in Navarra

The rose wine made in Navarra, intense in color, very fruity and lush in nose and mouth, still withstands the provenzal style invasion of paler wines with more subtle tastes and aromas. French-shaped wines are increasing in number but Navarra’s style remains the largest and more representative.

Despite the supremacy of Navarra’s style, the provençal style offers consumer another option and therefore encourages market coexistance of different styles and products. Meanwhile, in view of the stylistic development and in the spirit of the 21st century D.O’s scripts, it will be better to avoid fashions and foster local traditional styles.

After tasting over 60 rose brands, we can say the 2017’s vintage has not damaged their quality. As a matter of fact, it was a good vintage which results in better ratings comparing to those of last year. This edition the best ranked, over 91 points, are: Inurrieta Mediodía, Albret, Príncipe de Viana Edición Rosa and Pago de Cirsus Rosé Gran Cuvée Especial.

Together with Cigales and Utiel-Requena, Navarra has become a benchmark in the production of fine Spanish rose wine. Household consumption of this wine has increased 19% in terms of volume and 10% in value in Spain, according to a report of Observatorio Español del Mercado del Vino (Wine industry’s Spanish Observatory). Over 30% of rose wine sold in our country comes from Navarra, though in recent years the DO Ca. Rioja is entering with strength in the trade.

Aranbelza Vineyard (Emilio Valerio)

Only some weeks ago, took place a heated Congreso Internacional del Vino Rosado (International Rose Wine Congress), celebrating its second edition, at the castillo de Peñafiel (Valladolid), it gathered a discussion board meaning to deal with the challenges this type of wine currently faces, but where spanish rose wines were not exactly praised. However, over the last five years Guía Peñín has witnessed an spectacular increase of the 90 points references, passing from 20 references in GP 2013 to 45 in GP 2018, which means a 125% rise.This encounter showed the need to adapt to consumer’s tastes without forgetting each region’s own style.

Navarra divides into 5 sub-regions: Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja. It is a comprenhensive partition that respects diferentiation between their wines. Now they should continue to work over their labelling for they have not yet explore it further.

Navarra style

Many years have passed since we started tasting wines from this denominación de origen and yet, we have not seen a group of winemakers working together to craft a genuine Navarra style. We find isolated works, of great quality and outreach that mark what could be known as “vino navarro” (Navarra’s wine) but at individual level. We refer to terroir hunters such as Domaines Lupier, Emilio Valerio or Azul y Garanza, for example. These sort of wineries do not influence D.O.’s global numbers but help to show the region´s full potential at the same time as they serve to improve their reputation and offer a working pattern to follow among the variety of many production areas.

Old vines from Domaines Lupier at San Martín de Unx

The marriage Elisa Úcar and Enrique Basarte, are nowadays the best introduction of Navarra’s vineyard. In love with their vineyard, since 2006, they have bought several small old garnacha vines. A total of 27 vines, on the verge of being grubbed, that they selected by the most scienctific method, tasting grapes and stems. It is thrilling to listen them talk about their “babies” as they show the affection and obsesion both feel towards this small patchwork of plots. For the time being, they only produce two brands, La Dama y El Terroir, but they do  not refuse to increase the number of labels “when the time comes, it is early” as Elisa says. They vinify every plot separately and we can assure that each expression is unique, after tasting them at their small winery located in their home’s cellar at San Martín de Unx, within the sub-region of Baja Montaña, a transition zone amid the mountain and riverbanks.

Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar, owners of Domaines Lupier

They do not like to show off but they work biodinamically without becoming radical or obsessive. They simply consider this method beneficial for their products.

San Martín de Unx

The personal project launched by former public prosecutor, Emilio Valerio Martínez de Muniaín, in Carcastillo, Navarra, called bodegas Emilio Valerio, started off vinifyong plots. He was advised, in the begining, by oenologist Olivier Riviere and currently by Jean François Hebrard, who started a turnover schedule focusing on the vineyard and which he describes as “an investigation and observation agriculture”. The winery range concentrates in small productions made out of their small plots. It is the case of Leorín and San Martín, two close vineyards with different orientation and rythm that result into two completely different wines but that may be classified as two clear samples of wine with a soul. We refer to Viña de Leorin 2014 (92 points) y Viña de San Martín 2014 (pending new tasting) and Viña de Aranbelza 2014 (93 points).

Representation of Navarras past

Besides Garnacha, there are other ways of working with good results, as prove products from bodega Pago de Larrainzar, owned by entrepreneur Miguel Canalejo Larrainzar. From this winery, we tasted an exceptionnal Pago de Larrainzar Reserva Especial 2010 excepcional (93 points), a smart wine with light notes of reduction that shows the classic Navarra’s path: a blending of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and garnacha. Similarly, LaA 2014 from Pago de Cirsus, is another example of this mentioned concept of Navarra’s wine which blends cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and syrah, a wine with a strong character (92 points).

Bodega Emilio Valerio

As readers may have gathered, many of the references tasted in our lastest tasting session in Navarra come are from 2014 vintage which was a complex harvest. It started as a chilly and rainy summer but rains arrived half way through the harvest. It became a challenge as well as an opportunity for many winemakers for it allowed them to obtain freshness and structure. Laderas de Inurrieta 2014 and a lot of brands from the mentioned bodega Emilio Valerio are good examples of what an expert winegrower may create with a good vintage. We will follow their evolution because fresher harvests are usually paired with nice bottle ageing. Bodega Finca Albret, personal creation of Bodegas Príncipe de Viana’s oenologists achieve impressive ratings out of foreign varieties as the cabernet sauvignon and merlot: Albret La Viña de mi Madre vintage 2013 (92 points). This wine is the vivid expression that local is not the only way around. 

Olite

Over two long days, Guía Peñín had to face in Olite, more than 360 references. Ratings and descriptions are already available for online suscribers to Guía Peñín 2019 . However, at Olite we did not miss the chance to visit some region’s producers and to savour local gastronomy. Navarra has a large and interesting offer for the palate, the vegetables (artichokes, borages, asparragus…) and the meat as Navarra’s renowned beef. In our case, we usually return home with the car loaded.

Antonio Domínguez

During one of our famous visits to Navarra, we meet the great Antonio Domínguez, owner of the small familiar butchery José María Domínguez Gambarte (Calle Mayor, 32, at Olite) who posseses as much charm as height. Ever since, we always order two products you shouldn’t miss: chistorra and stuffed sausages with goat cheese (Idiazábal) called chichalchichas. Delicacies worthwhile tasting even though not exactly healthy, but what the hell, the región and its wine deserve it!

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