In December 2008, the Navarra DO will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its first constitution. Of course, Navarra has been producing wines for much longer than 75 years. In fact, archaeological finds from the second century B.C. include Roman-era earthenware wine jars. Perhaps the DO should be celebrating its 2,075th anniversary instead.
With so much tradition behind it, you might think that the Navarra DO would quickly and easily find its way to the top echelon of Spain's wine regions, but Navarra's path to success hasn't been smooth. While Navarra's wines were famous as early as the Middle Ages, when winemakers catered to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims, the region's production focused mainly on bulk wines before 1933.
Efforts to create a Navarra DO began in the mid-1930s, but the Spanish Civil War and the post-war recovery process delayed this process. In 1967, Navarra officially became a DO. Today, Navarra includes five sub-regions: Baja Montaña, Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja.
The establishment of EVENA, the Estación de Viticulture y Enología de Navarra (Navarra Viticulture and Oenological Research Station), in the Ribera Alta sub-region was a turning point in Navarra's winemaking history. EVENA conducts research and plants experimental vineyards to support its missions of introducing useful technology and up-to-date winemaking methods into the DO's wineries and working to improve every aspect of viticulture, from the grapes themselves to pest control and harvest methods. EVENA is a resource for all the winemakers in Navarra, including those in the adjacent Rioja DO. As a result, many Navarra winemakers have upgraded not only their equipment but also their planting, harvesting and production methods. The result is a higher level of quality and innovation. This process is still ongoing; Navarra's winemakers are looking for ways to build on this foundation of quality and distinguish themselves from their neighbors in Rioja.
Navarra Geography, Climate and Soils
The entire Navarra DO lies south of the area's main city, Pamplona, which is famous for its annual Running of the Bulls. The area sits in the shadow of the Pyrenees – Navarra is part of the historic Basque country – but the Ebro River has the most impact on winemaking here. Navarra's sub-regions each have distinctive characteristics, but all five sub-regions are located in river valleys, either near tributaries of the Ebro River or, in the case of Ribera Baja, near the Ebro. Elevations vary from about 800 to 1,800 feet.
Navarra's climate is continental, with the three northern sub-regions benefitting from their geographical position. These three, Baja de Montaña, Tierra Estella and Valdizarbe, have milder summer weather than do Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja. Across the DO, temperatures can reach 82 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and fall to 28 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter months. Rainfall varies by sub-region, but the average annual rainfall is about 17.5 inches in Ribera Baja, the driest sub-region, and about 29 inches in the northern sub-regions.
Soils are mainly limestone mixed with marl or alluvium depending on the sub-region. In Ribera Baja, the soils are considered semi-desert because of the sub-region's high temperatures and lower humidity.
Navarra Grape Varieties
Navarra has always been famous for its rosado (rosé) wines, so red wine grapes occupy 95% of available vineyard space. Some white wine grapes are planted here, mainly viura and chardonnay. Moscado wines – sweet dessert wines made from moscatel de grano menudo grapes – are traditional specialties of Navarra, and some vineyards, about one percent, are planted in moscatel grapes. Garnacha tinta is the most commonly planted red wine grape, with tempranillo close behind. Foreign grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, are becoming more popular.
Visiting Navarra's Wineries
Navarra's history, from Roman territory to independent kingdom to Spanish region, includes famous battles, religious pilgrimages and Moorish invasions. Navarra's historical tapestry is reflected in the diversity of its wines and wineries. You can find everything from cooperatives to boutique wineries in Navarra, set against a backdrop of castles, monasteries and even a UNESCO Natural Biosphere Reserve, Bardenas Reales in La Ribera. With so much to choose from, you're bound to find a winery you truly enjoy.
Castillo de Monjardín, in Tierra Estella, lies in a valley that was once thronged with pilgrims. Today this well-known winery produces merlots, blended reserva reds, chardonnays and even a sweet chardonnay, Esencia Monjardín. You can visit the winery; it's best to telephone or email in advance.
If you've ever tried Gran Feudo wines, you've tasted the product of Bodegas Julián Chivite. This family-owned winery dates back to 1872, but the Chivite family's connections to viticulture, winemaking and wine exports extend back in time to the 16th century. The Chivites have seen it all – oidium, phylloxera, even civil war. Today Chivite wines are some of the finest in Navarra. In 1988, the Chivite family purchased the Señorío de Arínzano estate; the family also owns a bodega and estate in Rioja, Bodegas Viña Salceda. You may visit the Julián Chivite winery by appointment only. Visits to Señorío de Arínzano are severely restricted; call ahead to find out if a visit is possible.
Bodegas y Viñedos Nekeas is a different kind of cooperative. Owned by a small group of families, this winery exports approximately 75 percent of the wines it produces, mainly under the Nekeas label, but also under the Vega Sindoa label. To visit the winery, please contact the staff in advance.
No discussion of Navarra wines would be complete without a mention of Bodegas Ochoa, another family-owned winery with a distinguished history. The Ochoa family has been in the wine business since at least 1370, according to documents in the General Archives of Navarra. Javier Ochoa was one of the guiding lights behind the establishment of EVENA, and the family's commitment to quality is evident in the wines it produces. Ochoa makes a wide variety of wines – everything from a viura-chardonnay blend to rosés, red varietals and blends and a moscatel. (Note: The winery's website does not mention the possibility of visiting the winery. Please contact Bodegas Ochoa for information.)
Looking Back, Looking Forward
With so much winemaking history to reflect and build upon, it's no wonder Navarra is considered to be one of Spain's top-value wine regions. While Navarra's wines cannot (yet) command Rioja-like prices, the quality is definitely there. Navarra's best winemakers are forging ahead, combining tradition with technology to make some of Spain's most innovative wines.