When I first visited Navarra in early summer about ten years ago, I was struck by the scale and nature of investment in the vineyards, but more especially in the wineries. In comparison with Rioja, there seemed to be much more sparkling new stainless steel and far fewer old barrels. (Though my perspective was also limited - I didn't see much of what was going on, for example, in the older co-ops.) I was impressed by many of the wines I tasted but sensed that even in some of the best-equipped new bodegas, winemakers were still learning how to use their new equipment effectively. There was also much debate about which grape varieties were best suited to the region.

Señorio de Arinzano - barrel cellar

Señorio de Arinzano - barrel cellar

I returned in October 2005 as a guest of the Asociación Bodegas de Navarra - and visited some of the same bodegas and several others. I was aware of a new or growing confidence, a better understanding of what varieties truly worked best (although the love of Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay is a mixed marketing blessing) and also of more skilful winemaking. Navarra is, with doubt, a source of excellent, often competitively priced wine.

The top wines are now quite outstanding, with Chivite's superb Collección 125 best of all, but a few wineries seem to be trying just too hard. New oak seems to be everywhere, and in particular, French oak; but its spicy character does not seem as well suited to relatively low acid musts and to Tempranillo as does the sweeter vanillin of the American oak barricas traditionally used in Spain. Some are over-extracted. When over-extraction and the use of aggressive new oak combine, the effect is wearisome. Some of the most enjoyable wines do not taste as if they are out to impress - and fortunately there are plenty to choose from.

There is no doubt in my mind that Tempranillo is at its best in parts of Navarra, and is on a par with some of the better sites of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Good Tempranillo from Navarra has an elegance and freshness of fruit that is missing from the wines of the arid appellations of central Spain. Cabernet and Merlot can be good too, though a few wines were rather baked and lacked freshness. Chardonnay is very ripe, but generally more interesting than Viura. Garnacha is under-valued as a base for top-quality reds, but its rosado wines are generally very good indeed, though even better if blended with a little Cabernet, Tempranillo or Merlot, all of which may add a welcome lightness and a little more acidity. Navarra can seriously claim to be regarded as one of the world's best sources of pink wine. The very few sweet Muscatels that I tasted were also all superb.

Navarra's problem, which it shares with several other Spanish wine regions, is one of what identity to portray and thus how best to market its produce. Its best-known brands are not household names in the UK - and probably never will be: they cannot compete with the marketing budget of Jacob's Creek or Gallo. Navarra's best reds have a rare finesse, but how are they to be differentiated in the consumer's mind from the many other Tempranillo-based wines in which Spain abounds? There are no clear answers to these questions.

In round figures, Navarra has 18,387 hectares of vines in five subzones (from North to South and East to West: Tierra Estrella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montana, Ribera Media and Ribera Baja). Annual production is around 65 million litres. There are 109 wineries, over 70 of which are co-operatives, many of which are also family-run (for example Nekeas). The climate is semi-continental - largely sheltered from the cool wet influence of the Atlantic and with less rainfall in the South Estate of the region than in the North West. In the North the effect of the nearby Pyrenees helps to increase the diurnal temperature range and thus to extend the growing season, and by so doing, to produce grapes with real flavour.

Tasting Notes (listed by bodega) - the majority Durham and Newcastle (Tynemouth), March 2006; and where stated, Skipton April 2006 and Fonsoumagne (France), July/August 2006.

Palacio de la Vega

(Visited): Palacio de la Vega web site

This winery was founded in 1991 and controls around 280 hectares in Tierra Estrella and Ribera Media. It is now owned by Pernod-Ricard. The winemaking is impressive and has recently improved considerably. An un-oaked 2004 Tempranillo, for example, from twenty-year-old vines had wonderful, vivid fruit, balanced by ripe tannins. A 2004 Merlot was also very good indeed. I hope that Oddbins and others who list wines from Palacio de la Vega will continue to stock them: it is a winery to watch.

Bodegas Marco Real

(Visited): Marco Real web page

Marco Real is based in Olite and is a family-owned business, which expanded considerably during the 1990s: 200 hectares of vineyards were bought (in three areas) and a new "boutique" winery was built. The family also has wine-making interests in Toro and in Argentina.

Bodega Otazu

(Visited): Bodega Otazu web site

The most northerly winery in Navarra, Otazu has 115 hectares of vines - all replanted since 1991. A great deal of care seems has been lavished on soil analyses, canopy management and on the building an expensive new winery (in 1996). The rest of the site - the nineteenth-century winery and a medieval palace - have also been beautifully restored. The average altitude of the vineyard is 435 metres and the harvest (which is done by night) usually takes place about twelve to fifteen days later than the Navarra average. Only Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown. The annual production is around half a million bottles. The wines are aged only in French (Allier) oak - 1,800 of them, which are kept for up to four years. 35% of the production is exported. The wines are powerful, often intense and impressive, especially the top of the range, Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Altar. It will be interesting to see how well the fruit and oak marries over time and whether or not the sheer power evident in so many wines here will be matched by elegance.

Bodegas Nuestra Señora del Camino

Bodegas Nuestra Señora del Camino web site

A co-operative of 170 members founded in 1954 in Ribera Baja. It controls 230 ha of vines.

Bodegas Irache

Founded in 1891 and linked to a historic monastery on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Tierra Estella. (Irache web site)

Bodegas San Martin

Another co-op, it has 275 members and was founded in 1914 in Baja Montaña (Bodegas San Martin web page).

Bodegas Valcarlos

A modern winery in Tierra Estella, part of the Faustino group (Bodegas Valcarlos web site).

Bodegas Nekeas

(Visited): Nekeas web site

Eight families work together to manage 225 hectares of vines in the Valdizarbe zone in central-northern Navarra - at a considerable altitude range of 250 to 650 metres. Varieties grown include Garnacha, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot Malbec, Syrah, Viura, Chardonnay Moscatel, and Viognier. Some Garnacha is 75 to 100 years old, but much of the vineyard was planted between 1989 and 1992 at a density of 2,500 vines per hectare - on wires for machine harvesting. The impressive winery is also new and includes space for 3,000 barrels. The winemaking is managed with considerable attention to detail and the wines are among the best of the whole region. The average production is 1.3 million bottles.

Bodegas Vega del Castillo

The bodega was founded in 1999 in Olite. It controls around 900 ha of vines. (Vega del Castillo web site)

Bodegas Orvalaiz

(Visited - but only for a tasting): Orvalaiz web site.

A co-op of eighty members at Obanos in the Ribera Alta, it owns 400 hectares of vines. There is a marked increase in quality between the varietal wines and the truly impressive Septentrion.

Bodegas Ada

Based in Lerga in the Baja Montaña region and formed as recently as December 2003, the bodega owns 40 hectares of sixty year-old Garnacha vines and 40 hectares of other varieties. (Bodegas Ada web site)

Bodegas Chivite

(Visited): Bodegas Chivite web site.

The exquisite new winery near Estella joins two others, including the main operation at Cintruénigo in the Riabera Baj, where most of the wines described below were made. Chivite is the oldest estate in Navarra (it was founded in 1647) and is still family owned. About 500 hectares of vine are owned. Cintruénigo produces around 2 million bottles/year, but the new winery just 30 to 40,000 bottles, including the superb Collección 125 range, the flagship of Navarra and one of the finest expressions of Spanish winemaking.

Bodegas Campos de Enanzo

The largest estate in Navarra, it was founded in 1958 in the Ribera Baja and controls 1,234 ha of vines. (Campos de Enanzo web site).

Bodega Señorio de Sarria

(Visited): Señorio de Sarria web site

There are now 110 hectares of vines at Señorio de Sarria, but a capacity for many more. It was first planted in 1953 when the winery was built - innovative in its day. Recent investment and new planting have sought to revive the fortunes of the estate which certainly has considerable potential. 1.2 million bottles are now produced each year - well below the capacity of the winery. A wide range of thirteen wines is made.

Bodegas Ochoa

(Visited): Bodegas Ochoa web site

A family winery founded in 1845. Adrianna has taken over from Javier - the sixth generation of winemakers. 143 hectares of vines produce 900,000 bottles, some of the best wine in Navarra, half of which is exported. The vineyard includes five hectares of Graciano, planted seven years ago, the biggest plot of Graciano in Navarra. All aspects of viticulture and winemaking are carefully monitored - there is even a private weather station in the vineyard and with experimental work on new crossings, Ochoa is right at the cutting edge of the Navarra wine industry.

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Text & photographs © Helen Savage, 2006