By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 23 April 2016
Best known for its annual bull-running festival in Pamplona and its acres of white asparagus, red peppers and succulent artichokes, Navarra is also home to some of the world’s oldest Garnacha vines – offering drinkers some of Spain’s best value reds.
Beautiful rugged Navarra, stretching from the high Pyrenees in Spain’s Basque country down to the sandy banks of the River Ebro, is a fascinating diverse wine region – but few in the UK have discovered the wines.
The reason. Navarra is completely overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Rioja. With their strong resemblance in style and similar grape varieties, like Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano, the smaller Navarra region always plays second fiddle on wine lists to more popular Rioja. (Pictured above right: Bodegas Sarria vineyards in Navarra).
If you were to compare the two regions side by side, Navarra reds tend to have slightly higher acidity and more structure on the palate – this derives from the more mountainous terrain and higher altitude vineyards.
90% of Navarra’s wines are red. These in my opinion are their best wines – and its real treasure trove is its 100 year old Garnacha vines (pictured right: Elisa Ucar of Domaines Lupier in their Garnacha vineyard) which, until recently, were largely abandoned in Navarra in a stampede to grow better known international varietals like Cabernet and Merlot.
Undoubtedly the best Navarra wines are made from the gnarled old Garnacha vines – but in the UK, Navarra is still best known for its cheap easy-going Garnacha-based roses.
What I find interesting about Navarra is its diversity. This ancient wine region – which lies on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella – has no less than five sub-regions which range from starkly beautiful mountainous zone of northerly Tierra Estella (limestone soils) and Valdizarbe (chalky soils) down to lowland Ribera Baja (sandy alluvial soils) by the River Ebro.
Many of the best known wineries have been in the same family for generations, like Bodegas Ochoa who makes excellent Gran Reserva reds. Bodegas Julian Chivite has been in the family since 1647, but today they make wine across Spain from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Rueda as well as Navarra. They seem reluctant to fly the flag for Navarra due to its cheap wine image abroad.
What is needed is an influx of newcomers. Enter the Andre Sanz and his sons Xabi and Inaki at Vina Zorzal in Corella village (pictured: Vina Zorzal Malayeto single vineyard Garnacha) and the funky new Bodegas La Calandria run by Javier Continente – both based in Ribera Baja south of Zaragoza. These two show – at opposite ends of the price spectrum – what Navarra can achieve in the hands of those with ambition.
Some of the best wines I have tasted in Navarra are made by Bodegas Artazuri (see star buy below) – a good example of how Navarra has benefited from outsiders. Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle made his name with his Bodegas Artadi in neighbouring Rioja, then moved across the border to neighbouring Navarra to run Bodegas Artazuri in the village of Santa Cruz focusing on just 100% Garnacha wines.
Vintages vary in Navarra – with the best recent vintage being 2010; buy up any from this vintage if you find them. 2012’s are ripe and succulent, whilst the cooler 2013 vintage offers fresh youthful crunchier fruits.
NAVARRA RED TASTE TEST
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE SIERRA DE ANDIA NAVARRA 2013
This typifies the best of the cheaper end of Navarra reds: bright fresh juicy fruits which reminds me of a warm peppery sweet southern Italian red, rather than anything else from Spain. Good value as an undemanding easy quaffer: 13%
VINA ZORZAL GARNACHA JOVEN 2014
***STAR VALUE BUY***
(£6.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com; Indigo Wines; £10 Scarlet Wines; Yorkshire Vintners & other independent winemerchants)
Tasters loved the smooth juicy crunchy black and red fruits in this light easy-quaffing unoaked Garnacha. This shows what good value Navarra Garnacha can be. A fantastic buy at under £7: 14%
VINA ZORZAL GRACIANO 2014
(£6.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Graciano is an interesting grape with spicy aromas, higher acidity and firm tannins, but in my opinion it does not quite work on its own here; it would be better to have included some Garnacha to soften the blend. Tasters found this too austere, taut and bitter on the finish: 13.5%
SAN ANTOLIN RESERVA NAVARRA 2005 Bodegas Sarria
Good to find a supermarket selling a Navarra red with some age. Mellow savoury with sweet warm spicy flavours on the palate. Smooth easy blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Graciano – would suit anyone who normally searches out Rioja bargains. Watch out as this can often be found on promotion below today’s price: 14%
EL CHAPARRAL DE VEGA SINDOA OLD VINE GARNACHA 2013 Bodegas Nekeas
(£7.99 / £8.99 Majestic Wine)
For many years this has been my staple value Navarra red, but in the cooler 2013 vintage it has a bit more structure and less complexity in comparison to past vintages. El Chaparrel’s name comes from the Chaparros oak forests near Nekeas valley: 14.3%
VINA ZORZAL MALAYETO GARNACHA 2013
(£9.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
This single vineyard Garnacha is a more powerful spicier wine than Vina Zorzal’s softer unoaked Joven (above) from higher altitude vineyards. A high scorer for tasters who love Big Reds; with spicy, peppery, dense fruits – an intense and concentrated Garnacha: 14%
ARTAZURI GARNACHA 2013 Bodegas Artazuri
(£11.99 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com; Ocado)
Very popular with tasters at our recent Spanish tasting who loved its licquorice, damson and bitter chocolate flavours and light cedary undertones from 4 months French oak. Its depth of flavour and velvet smooth palate eclipsed Riojans at twice the price in the tasting. Made by the legendary Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle in Navarra who made his name with his Riojan Bodegas Artadi. Brilliant wine – affordable and approachable – buy it if you can find it: 14.5%
TIERGA PURA GARNACHA 2010 Bodegas La Calandria
(£31.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Winemaker Javier Continente wanted to make a wine which stained his lips purple. He has certainly succeeded with this blockbuster red. Very intense, densely packed ‘organic’ Garnacha with a long lingering finish. A very good wine – but watch out for the hefty alcohol level (the 2008 vintage has 16%!) and hefty price tag: 15%
Join Rose’s ‘Taste of Scotland’ Food & Wine Tasting at Abode Hotel, 129 Bath Street, Glasgow on Friday 1 July £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com