Spain's Navarra Region
Article By: Jonathon Alsop
“This wine is too good for toast-drinking my dear.
you don’t want to mix emotions up
with a wine like that.
you lose the taste.” –Ernest Hemingway
The Spanish region of Navarra was introduced to us Americans by icon Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises but we did not know it. His vivid descriptions of simultaneous beauty and violence at the Festival of San Fermin – now called outside Spain at least, “the running of the bulls”, thanks to him – took place in Navarra’s capital city, Pamplona.
Also famous for being able to consume twice his body weight in alcohol and actually doing it on a regular basis, Hemingway makes wine something of a character in his epic novel, always there, always influencing, always speaking through the other characters, otherwise silent.
are the wines of Navarra he writes so nonchalantly about, wine that
keeps appearing and is drunk and more appears as if from nowhere. His
American brothers and sisters back home are living under Prohibition,
and Hemingway and his friends in Navarra are drinking in the streets.
Navarra is not the northernmost wine region in Spain. There are others somewhat farther north, but they are known almost exclusively for white wines. This region represents the northernmost reach of native grapes Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha, and others. The vineyards of Navarra climb the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains where the slopes face in an ideal direction, generally south and west, and then the vines end. On the other side of the Pyrenees is France, and the resort beaches of Biarritz.
Navarra is Basque country, an elbow of territory where Spain and France meet on the Atlantic. The people consider themselves neither Spanish nor French –nor both. They speak a language that is more Baltic than Romance, and the Basque influence on food, wine and culture goes back millennia. The ancient Romans found the territory between Bordeaux and Rioja already inhabited by a tribe of people called Vascones, today’s Basques. The rising tide of Spain’s wine reputation is bringing attention to lots of previously ignored wine regions in Spain, and Navarra is also beginning to enunciate what makes their wines different and interesting.
April Cullom is a certified educator on Spanish wines who organizes events and promotions for Spain. The difference, she said, is, “The Navarrans were the first Spanish wine makers to go international. They’ve been working forever with native grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano. But they like to use a lot of international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. They’re much more international in style and very easy for consumers to understand and enjoy.” By international, Cullom said she meant using non-traditional grapes, not the overblown, super-ripe, splintery oaked wines that the term “international” sometimes is applied to. “The style is elegant, and they’re well-made, with a judicious use of oak,” she said. “They’re known for rosé, but they make excellent reds and beautiful whites, especially their unoaked Chardonnay.
“Navarra is a unique cool climate in Spain. It’s all cooled down, not this extremely fruit-forward style. These are elegant styles for a consumer that it’s easy to get their head around.”
Craig Gandolf, manager at Fine Estates From Spain/Jorge Ordoñez Selections, reminisced about the first time he visited one of their properties in Navarra. “I had been sleeping on the bus and we had come from the south,” he said, “and when I woke up and looked out the window, the vineyards were snow-covered. We were in a quaint little valley, and I thought we had detoured to Switzerland. I got off the bus and realized everybody was still speaking Spanish.” For Gandolf, location is what’s important to understand. “The vineyards of Navarra are nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Because it’s so far north, it doesn’t have the same heat that so many of the vineyards of Spain are subjected to. It’s moderated by the Atlantic winds and Atlantic rainfall. Navarra is very green compared with the high central plateau of Spain, like La Mancha where everything tends to be dusty and brown. And snowfall is quite a regular occurrence.”
Conventional wisdom tells us that wine grapes make the best wine when they grow at the limit of their viability in one way or another: barely enough water, barely enough solar radiation, that sort of agriculture is good for wine. “The wines themselves develop a finesse and complexity that sometimes eludes other regions,” Gandolf said. “The cooler growing season allows the grapes to mature longer.”
This finesse game Gandolf describes is one of the things that has kept Navarra’s profile somewhat low till now. “Navarra has never come to the forefront when people are going for the high-impact, high-alcohol red wines. Jumilla, Rioja, Ribiero del Duero have based their fame on big-bodied red wines,” he said. “You’re going to get wines with more finesse and class in Navarra. They’re not great big blockbuster wines, but they’re wines that hold their own.”
We keep discovering Navarra over and over again as if for the first time. Pamplona is the first stop on the Spanish side of the medieval pilgrimage route to the shrine at Santiago de Campostela in northwest Spain. Centuries of international pilgrims certainly influenced this place, but the place influenced them too, and they carried the reputation of Spanish wines to the rest of their known world.
The vineyards and wineries of Navarra practically hug the old pilgrimage road as it passes through. No one knows, but my guess is that the route changed over time to be closer to the wine, not the other way around, making it that much easier to find our way back again.
Navarra’s invasion of Boston begins with Gastronomic Week from January 19 through 23. A dozen area restaurants will offer special Spanish tapas on their menus, as well as Spanish wines, and many will have the unique Navarran liquor, Patzaran, available for sipping.
AVILA 1 Charles Sreet, Boston, MA 617.267.481O
CHEZ HENRI 1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, MA 617.354.898O
CHIARA 569 High Street, Westwood, MA 781.461.8118
CLIO 37OA Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 617.536.72OO
DALI 415 Washington Street, Cambridge, MA 617.661.3254
EASTERN STANDARD 528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 617.532.91OO
ESTRAGON 7OO Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 617.266.O443 – top Spanish chef Enrico Martinez will be cooking here during Wine Expo weekend!
TAPEO 266 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 617.267.4799
TASCA 1612 Commonwealth Avenue, Brighton, MA 617.73O.8OO2
TORO 17O4 Washington Street, Boston, MA 617.536.43OO
OLIVES 1O City Square, Charlestown, MA 617.242.1999
EVOO 118 Beacon Street, Somerville, MA 617.661.3866
In-store tastings of Navarran wines currently available in Boston will take place at several of the better wine shops around town, both before and after the Expo weekend.
The 21 Navarran winemakers arriving in Boston at the end of month will not be idle while they’re here.
Catch up with them:
Friday, January 23
The trade is invited to attend a free seminar on the wines of Navarra at 6:3Opm at The Boston Wine School in Brighton, featuring a wide selection of Spanish tapas and remarks by expert Ana Laguna.
Friday, January 24 to Saturday, January 25
At the Wine Expo. Importers interested in private meetings at the Business Center at the Wine Expo should contact email@example.com.