In the very north-east of Spain, on the outskirts of the city of Pamplona- most famous for the yearly near-suicidal tradition of running with huge horned animals- is an oft-overlooked wine region with a long, interesting history, unique varieties and a diverse set of climates and soils. Today we’ll be delving into the region of Navarra and getting to know a little more about its past, present and future, as well as trying to discover why it is so unknown!
Well, it’s not unknown because it’s small, that’s for sure! Navarra stretches from the southern outskirts of Pamplona for 100km, and is pretty much the same size east to west in a rough upside-down triangular shape. There are approximately 11,500 hectares under vine and the region produces a staggering 60 million litres of wine per year. The majority of this is cheap bulk wine, and rarely makes it out of Europe, though this wasn’t always the case…
The wines of Navarra were favoured by the Romans according to ancient Roman texts however, unlike in France, it is believed vines predated even Roman arrival in the 2nd century BC. Vines of the prehistoric Vitis sylvestris species, a predecessor of the now ubiquitous Vitis vinifera have recently been discovered still growing in Navarra! After the Roman decline and the invasion of the Moors, Navarra was one of the last strongholds of Spanish culture, and even after the Moors took control of the region, grape growing was still a major focus- it just wasn’t made into wine! When the Spanish Christians took the region back during the Reconquista, wine production ramped up once more, and the fame of the region spread after the establishment of the path of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the remains of the apostle St James are buried. This path runs from the Pyrenees Mountains straight through Navarra, and many thirsty pilgrims had their first taste of Spanish wine here, spreading the word back across Europe of the quality of wines from this region. The fame of Navarran wine hit its peak in the 14th century, when the grape was such a good investment that legislation had to be introduced to secure enough land for growing cereal crops to feed the local population! Navarra hummed along for the next few centuries, receiving a huge boost in sales when phylloxera decimated the French wine industry in the mid 19th century- Navarra was one of the closest wine regions to the French border, and the French needed wine, so it was Navarra to the rescue! This came to a screeching halt when this very same pest that destroyed every other wine region in Europe made its inevitable way to Navarra in 1892, which was closest to France and subsequently one of the first to fail. After this knock-out hit, Navarra never quite made it back. In 1990, the area had only recovered to a third of what it was 100 years prior.
After the ravages of phylloxera, much experimentation was done into planting new, phylloxera-resistant varieties in Navarra. This was done in an attempt to create a point of difference from western neighbour Rioja who were going all in with native variety Tempranillo. Instead, Navarra went with French varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in an attempt to increase sales to neighbours just over the mountains, France. Many producers rejected this idea, believing the region to be too warm for these imported grapes, and instead focused on native Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) which was more productive and reliable than the French imports, though lacked the intensity and complexity of eastern neighbour Priorat. Others wanted to follow Rioja’s lead and planted Tempranillo, though lacked the funds to buy the expensive oak required to add complexity and richness to this oft-neutral variety, meaning their wines were bland and lifeless. This resulted in a bit of an identity crisis in Navarra, and was one of the main reasons it has never taken off internationally- it did not have a clear story to tell and the bewildering range of styles, varieties and blends that winemakers were creating confused more than excited.
Today things are coming together a little more, with the percentages of plantings of French varieties dropping. Today the most-grown variety is Garnacha with 35% of plantings in the region. And seeing as Grenache will grow the same here as in Rioja or Priorat, as a point of difference Navarra has found a niche in dry, refreshing rosé made from this most versatile of varieties, often with a dash of Cabernet or Pinot Noir added for freshness and some Tempranillo added for a savoury twist. This has come at the perfect time as more and more people are drinking rosé and the popularity of this style has soared over the last decade. The arrival of modern technology in stainless steel fermentation tanks and machine harvesting means Navarra has now become Spain’s specialist in dry rosé.
Navarra is a geographically diverse region from green fields to deserts, and as such is split up into 5 very distinct subzones. Below I will quickly run through each region with a few words on what makes each unique;
Tierra de Estella takes up the western-most corner of Navarra and abuts neighbour Rioja. As a result there is a lot of Tempranillo planted here.
Valdizarbe sits just south of Pamplona and has warm days and cool nights due to its proximity to the Bay of Biscay to the north. This subzone has a mix of varieties planted, though Grenache is showing the most promise here.
Baja Montaña is the eastern-most subzone, close to both the Bay of Biscay to the north and the Pyrenees Mountains to the east, meaning this is the coolest part of all Navarra. Pinot Noir is having a large impact here, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends also do well.
Ribera Alta is the very centre of Navarra, and the largest subzone. This is Grenache homeland, and the wide, flat plains are planted heavily with bush vine Grenache vines destined for fresh, dry rosé.
Ribera Baja is the southernmost tip of Navarra, and is by far the warmest and driest subzone, bordering Bardenas Reales National Park which is a semi-desert. The heaviest, jammiest and highest alcohol wines come from this part of Navarra.
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