Regional profile: Navarra, Spain

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  • Wednesday 13 August 2014

This diverse region struggles to compete against Spain's most powerful brand, Rioja. Is it time to forgo the emphasis on 'serious' red blends and international whites so that its native varieties can come to the fore? Adam Lechmere reports...

Navarra,

Navarra at a glance:

Area under vine: 11,500ha
Grapes planted:
Reds: 91%: Tempranillo 34%, Garnacha 23%, Cabernet Sauvignon 16%, Merlot 14%, Graciano & Mazuelo less than 2%, Syrah & Pinot Noir less than 1%
Whites: 9%: Chardonnay 5%, Viura 2%, Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia & Sauvignon Blanc less than 2%
Sub regions: Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta, Ribera Baja
Soils: The Tierra Estella hills have a high limestone content and can be extremely rocky; more chalkbased soils in Valdizarbe. Through Ribera Alta and into Ribera Baja, soils get poorer and sandier
Annual production: 60m litres of wine; 70% red, 5% white and 25% rosé

Vintage guide:

  • 2013: Rainy winter and cold spring followed by a fine summer meant harvest was about 20 days later than in 2012, with yields 50% lower. Best wines light and fresh with good acidity and fruit definition.
  • 2012: Dry, low yield. Both reds and whites ripened well, with particularly good concentration in Chardonnay and Tempranillo.
  • 2011: Varied quality: fine aromatic qualities, complexity and concentration in the best wines.
  • 2010: An excellent vintage. Buy up if you can find any still on the market.

Profile:

‘What is our signature grape?’ is a question asked in many wine regions around the world, but especially in those which compete with dominant neighbours. It’s highly pertinent in Navarra, which fits into Rioja as one piece of a jigsaw into another, but which is very much in the shadow of Spain’s most powerful brand. In the list of 107 winners of last year’s Wines from Spain Awards in London, just one still wine was from Navarra – and that, tellingly, was from Bodegas Julián Chivite, a producer busily distancing itself from the region that is its home. Indeed, the Chivite story could be seen as a distillation of the problems Navarra faces in achieving recognition on the world stage.

The ancient producer, family-owned since the 17th century, is doing its best to disassociate itself from Navarra. Its vineyards are all in the northernmost Tierra Estella region, including Finca de Arínzano, which has pago status, the most exalted level of Spanish wine. But none of its top labels – Arínzano, Coleccion 125 and Finca Villatuerte – say DO Navarra on the label. The only Chivite brand with that distinction is the mid-level (but excellent) Gran Feudo, a wine which is distanced from its parent company by carrying a tiny trademark but not the far more recognisable slanting Chivite signature. ‘We want to develop the Chivite brand as high-quality wines from Spain. While Navarra is going to a low price level, Chivite is premium,’ export director José Maria Nieves said.

It’s a bit like Vega Sicilia announcing it no longer wants to be associated with Ribera del Duero; only worse, as Chivite is really the only Navarra producer with any sort of international traction. In a way, it’s perverse that this should be so. Navarra is one of Spain’s most diverse and ancient wine regions. It has always been proudly independent: the last kingdom to be integrated into greater Spain in 1512, to this day it is allowed to set its own taxes – the only other state with this distinction is the Basque country.

Mountains to deserts

Navarra is a huge region, extending 100km south from Pamplona and encompassing a variety of different climates, from the cooler, damper northern mountains to the dry, continental conditions of the centre and the more Mediterranean climate of the south. Soils, generally poor and well-drained, vary from shallow sandy loam, limestone and clay to gravels and – in some cases – extremely rocky. In the south-east is the Bardenas Reales National Park, 42,000ha of semi-desert, whose vast escarpments put one in mind of Arizona’s Monument Valley.

So Navarra is nothing if not diverse. ‘That is our unique selling point [USP]’, one producer said to me. But diversity can blur the focus. A wine region needs a clear message if it is to succeed in the crowded international market, and Navarra has yet to find a coherent story. Indeed, my head was spinning after a few days in the region with the bewildering range of styles, varieties and blends that winemakers are putting out.

The most recognisable style, internationally, has always been rosé: Garnacha produces a fine, light style that has been famous for centuries – Catherine the Great was reputed to be a fan. But in the 1980s, the official state laboratory Evena (Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Navarra) decided that serious red blends would be the future of the region, and efforts were made to promote Tempranillo or a ‘Navarra blend’ of Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha or Merlot.

At the same time, international white varieties have become more and more popular. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, for example, work well in Estella, the more temperate northern region.

Varietal star

In many cases, these international whites and the red blends are well-made, bright and lively, but you are seldom struck by the thought, ‘Aha! This is Navarra.’ It is Garnacha that most seems to express place. In the cooler northern regions, the grape produces light reds with fresh natural acidity; in the south, rounder styles with less acidity but more robust tannins. At Nekeas, a former cooperative in the Valdizarbe region, export manager Carlos Biurrun says, ‘In Garnacha, with an Atlantic influence, we believe we have the Pinot Noir of Spain.’ He’s not exaggerating: its Cepa x Cepa is lovely. It has all the hallmarks of great Garnacha – raspberry and red cherry and bright acidity – and a typically cool-climate crunchiness to the fruit.

Time and again, Garnacha shines among the fog of international varieties. Particularly fine examples come from the smaller, artisan producers such as Domaines Lupier in Baja Montaña, whose perfumed, complex La Dama comes from vineyards 700m in altitude on clay and limestone. ‘It adapts so well to our terroir,’ owner Elisa Ucar told me, adding that she ‘would love to see more Garnacha in Navarra.’

That isn’t going to happen within this generation. Navarra has embraced international varieties, and too many producers are churning out well-made, inoffensive, cheap and marketable wines, which left judges at the last Decanter panel tasting of Navarra wines less than overwhelmed. The worst were considered over-oaked and over-extracted, the best were very good but characterless with no sense of place.

Panellist Pedro Ballesteros railed against the ‘crazy’ bureaucracy that insisted Navarra should plant ‘improving’ international varieties because Tempranillo was considered bland – and, moreover, Navarra was desperate to distinguish itself from Rioja and its indelible association with Tempranillo. He, too, thought that Garnacha should be the signature grape of the region: ‘It is the story of Navarra.’ Or it used to be. At the beginning of the 1980s, Garnacha accounted for some 90% of vines in Navarra, the vast majority of it going into rosé. The figure now stands at 23%, with two-thirds going into red wine and a third to rosé.

While Ucar might want to see Garnacha dominate, others celebrate diversity. At Bodegas Ochoa in Ribera Alta, winemaker Adriana Ochoa, representing the sixth generation of her family at the helm of the 150-year-old winery, told me diversity is their USP – although later she agreed the region suffers ‘from having no signature grape’.

Ochoa’s range goes from fresh, fruity young reds through rosés and whites to complex, aged reds. The wines are excellent, the reservas and gran reservas especially showing depth and complexity – the 2005 Gran Reserva is ‘like good old Rioja but with a sweet, round twist’, my notes say. They’re much cheaper than Rioja, but how to get them noticed? Do they have a flagship wine? ‘We have four flagship wines,’ she said.

That, I feel, goes to the heart of the Navarra dilemma: does its strength lie in diversity, or in focus?

Click below for six producers to watch and six top Navarra wine buys


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