Great Wine Route: Northeastern Spain

An ancient region, travelled for centuries by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain today has a whole host of attractions for those in search of fulfilment, writes SUSIE BARRIE.

Northern Spain has for centuries fed and watered weary pilgrims on their journey west towards Santiago de Compostela, and no other part of Spain offers more to wine lovers in search of exciting flavours and new discoveries. The familiar old names of Rioja and cava will always find favour, but snuggled quietly in between these two and offering something altogether less traditional are Navarra, Somontano, the Costers del Segre and Conca de Barberà.

As the rugged sandy hills and grey mountaintops of Rioja roll into the flatter Aragonese plains of Navarra, winemaking regulations are far less strict and the wines take on a more international feel, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot making regular appearances. It’s only in the past 20 years that Somontano has been planted with vines, and there’s still a feeling of ‘watch this space’. As you head further east along small winding roads into Conca the landscape turns to stunning green forestry and ditching the car in favour of pedals or feet is highly recommended. The one constant is the influence of the Basque country and its wonderful cuisine, more meat-based here than at the coast, with lots of delicious grilled lamb, local sausages, jamón and roasted peppers.

Don’t Miss Navarra

To the west of Pamplona Bodegas Valcarlos is owned by Faustino, one of the biggest family-owned groups in Spain. The building was completed in 2001 and no expense has been spared. From the huge René Mackintosh-style entrance to the lotus flower ceiling of the winery, everything aims to impress. The winemaking is concentrated on reservas and grans reservas, and their blends are the most successful.

In the 1980s Chivite spread its wings from the south to the west of Navarra and began a single-estate project Señorío de Arínzano. The renowned Navarrese architect Raphael Moneo was given the difficult task of creating a modern ‘winery built for wine’, while at the same time respecting the three exisiting old buildings, the surrounding oak and poplar trees, and the river Ega running quietly through. It’s a wonderful achievement and a fitting building in which to produce the consistently impressive Chivite Colección 125.

Just outside Puente La Reina lies Bodegas Señorío de Sarría with its very own on-site chapel. The most recent innovation here is the Viñedos range of six single-variety wines. When Jesús Lezaun became winemaker in 2001 he was looking to create a more modern style of wine with less barrel ageing, fresher fruit flavours and better structure. The most interesting to try is the Viñedos 7, made from 100% Graciano, a variety normally used in the blend for traditional red Rioja.

Heading towards Pamplona Bodegas Otazu claims to own the most northerly red wine vineyards in Spain, just 58km from the Atlantic. Check out the concrete ceiling in the Hollywood-style barrel cellar which at enormous cost has been made to look like wood. All the grapes come from the estate, tasting is free and all wines are available to buy at the bodega.

As you head south you’ll find some of the best wines in Navarra at Nekeas on the outskirts of Añorbe, a traditional little village. In 1989 eight local families had the vision to create this cooperative estate, the winery was built in 1993 and they’ve been producing increasingly good wine ever since. The Rhône-style ‘El Chaparral’ is one of the best of a very exciting range.

Guelbenzu offers a wonderful opportunity to contrast traditional with ultra-modern. The original winery in Cascante looks like a lacy pink wedding cake while the new facility, off the beaten track in Vierlas, is almost futuristic in its concrete and rusting metal structure. This is still a family company with a short video and museum tracing its winemaking history. Try the Gran Vierlas, the EVO or even their Chilean wine, Hoppe.

Just up the road from Guelbenzu a bright yellow, flower-clad courtyard welcomes you to Camilo Castillo. Sweet wines from old Muscat are the speciality here and the ancient barrel room smells just like spicy Christmas cake. This is the only winery in Spain where you’ll find wines being aged in demijohns on an open flat roof, and for this sight alone it’s worth a visit.

Somontano

Heading north from Barbastro you’ll find all of Somontano’s major wineries conveniently situated on the same road. Pirineos and Viñas del Vero are first, sitting opposite each other minutes out of town, but a little further is the most impressive of the three, Enate. Allow an hour and a half for this visit which includes a free tasting. The owner is an art fanatic and the grand red brick exterior of the building leads you into a space in which wine and art share centre stage; there’s a huge picture made up of boxes depicting the story of wine, a gallery housing 170 original works, many of them commissioned for the Enate bottle labels, a shop, and a wonderful aroma room in which to test your olfactory senses. Navarra is the region most readily associated with rosé wine but Enate’s rich and chunky Cabernet version is hard to beat.

Costers del Segre & Conca de Barbera

As you head southeast into the Costers del Segre region stop off at Raïmat, part of the Codorníu group normally associated with cava. Here alongside the old modernista winery sits a brand new building for which the top of a hill was levelled off, the winery built upon the surface and then the sides filled in with earth to leave the landscape as unspoiled as possible.To the east of Lérida is the estate of Castell del Remei, owned by the Cusine family since 1989. The pretty castle today remains empty as all efforts have so far been focused on regenerating the vineyards, but there’s a sanctuary and a very good restaurant serving substantial portions of home-cooked local food.

All around the Monasterio de Poblet in the Conca de Barberà are vineyards owned by Torres, one of the most important wineries in Spain. Here, although there is no winery, wander through the 32ha Grans Muralles vineyard or visit the 13th-century tower of Milmanda with its stunning views.

If You Have Time

In Olite visit Ochoa’s old winery (Alcalde Maillata 2). The new winery just out of town doesn’t receive visitors, but here you’ll find a shop selling wines from the estate.

Vinicola Navarra, south of Pamplona claims to be the first cellar established in Navarra in 1864. They’re on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago and the tasting room used to be a hospital.

Stop off at Bodegas Orvalaiz for ridiculously cheap, delicious rosé. The Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2003 is just t2.55.

In October look for the pepper market in Puente la Reina

From the Hotel Regina Spa visit the modern wine coops as far as the Monasterio de Poblet – www.concadebarbera.info

Discovering Wine Country: Northern Spain by Susie Barrie (£12.99, Mitchell Beazley) will be published in March 2006.

Written by Susie Barrie