Ultimate Guide to the Navarra Wine Region

The Navarra wine region, which is located in the Basque country in northeast Spain, is comprised of five zones. See our collection of wine pictures
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­One of the best advertisements of all time for Spain, and for wine, is Ernest Hemingway's classic novel The Sun Also Rises. As Hemingway's soused characters ramble through the Navarra region, the heady brew speaks through them, the medium of their liberation and self-destruction.

Navarra is located in the Basque country in northeast Spain. The Ebro River runs along its western border; to the north and east sit the Pyrenees Mountains that divide Spain from southwestern France. The region's principal city, Pamplona, is famed worldwide for the "running of the bulls" during the annual Fiesta de San Fermín [source: San Fermín Guide].

The Navarra wine region is divided into five zones: Valdizarbe, a mountainous region in the north; Baja Montana in the northeast; Ribera Alta in the center of Navarra; to its south, Ribera Baja; and Tierra Estella in the northwest. The region's topography and climate are very diverse, ranging from the cool, snowy peaks of Valdizarbe, to the desert-like conditions of Las Bardenas, to the sunny, mild breezes of the Ebro valley [source: Dawes]. Not surprisingly, amid such geographic diversity, the region produces many varieties of wine.

­Navarra has historically been overshadowed in the global wine market by its western neighbor, La Rioja. Despite its lengthy history of winemaking, Navarra has lacked a coherent marketing identity. The area has also suffered from an unfounded prejudice against rosé (rosado) wines, of which Navarra produces some of the world's best. Many new wineries have sprung up in the region in the past two decades, and they have boldly experimented with Spanish and international grape varieties, looking for the combination that will take optimum advantage of the local climate.

It's taken some time for the Navarra wine region's efforts to bear fruit, but the result is a selection of excellent Spanish wines of great value. From powerful reds to chardonnay-based whites to delectable sweet wines, Navarra has upped the ante for Spain. In this article, we'll explore the history and culture of the region, its agriculture and its amazing wines.

Read on to learn about the beginning of Navarra's winemaking industry.

Navarra Wine Region History and Culture

Humans have inhabited the Navarra region since the Neolithic and even Paleolithic eras [source: Government of Navarra]. By the time the imperial Romans advanced into the region, they found a people called the Vascones living there (ancestors of the Basques) and grapevines that were already under cultivation [source: Voss]. The Roman military leader Pompey named the major city after himself, Pamplona, but in the mountain regions, Roman influence never fully took hold [source: Government of Navarra].

Over the millennia, the Basque people have fought for and achieved cultural independence. They may live within Spanish or French territory, but they are neither Spanish nor French. Their customs are distinct and even their language is unique [source: Alsop]. Even while the Moors and the Franks occupied Navarra in the 8th century, its people worked out their own political autonomy. A Christian coalition emerged to resist Moorish influence, and by the year 905, Navarra had become an independent kingdom under the monarch Sancho Garcés [source: Government of Navarra]. The Kingdom of Navarra went on to control Spain and part of France and was a regional force for more than five centuries.

During the Crusades, beginning in the late 11th century, Christian pilgrims passed through Navarra. French monks planted vineyards along the Camino de Santiago, providing a great boost to the region's viticulture. When the area later fell under French influence, a great deal of Navarra wines were exported over the Pyrenees [source: Dawes]. After 1492, the New World became another major export market [source: Wein-plus].

In the modern era, Navarra negotiated its regional independence through a number of charters dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This arrangement has more or less persisted to the present day, with Navarra's system incorporated into the Spanish constitution since 1978 [source: Government of Navarra]. Nevertheless, a Basque nationalist movement remains active.

The citizens of this unique land spend much of their time growing grapes. Read on to learn about the Navarra wine region's agriculture.

Navarra Wine Region Agriculture

The Navarra wine region is south of Pamplona and is divided into five zones: Valdizarbe, Baja Montana, Ribera Alta, Ribera Baja and Tierra Estella. The region's topography and climate are very diverse. Not surprisingly, the region produces many varieties of wine.

Navarra became a viticultural destination in the 19th century, when the oidium (fungus) and phylloxera (bugs) plagues slaughtered the vineyards of France. Vintners from Bordeaux came to Navarra and La Rioja, bringing experimental methods along with their celebrated varietals of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon [source: Hughes]. Eventually, the phylloxera arrived too, and almost all of Navarra's 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares) of wine grapes were wiped out [source: Wein-plus]. The region recovered by returning quickly to, and then increasing, its maximum yield [source: Hughes].

Efforts to increase the quality of Navarran wine began in the 1930s, but they were disrupted by Spain's civil war and World War II. The Spanish government finally granted the region Denomination of Origin (DO) status in 1967 [source: Parode]. This title is part of worldwide Appellation of Origin designations, which ensure quality products based on strict regional rules and processes.

In 1980, Navarra's government created the Navarra Viticulture and Oenology Centre (La Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Navarra, or EVENA). Under this leadership, the region's wineries have modernized and upgraded their technology. Experimentation has led to innovation in cloned varieties, sowing and harvesting techniques and vinification processes.

While much of Navarra's soil is rich in limestone, the rest of its composition varies widely, as do planting altitudes and amounts of sunlight and rainfall [source: Parode]. Add to this the relatively cool climate, and the irrigation provided by the Rio Ebro and its tributaries, and you have a very versatile wine region. Vintners have taken advantage of these conditions, slowly bringing the region into the international spotlight. Read on as we explore famous wines of the Navarra wine region.

Famous Wines of the Navarra Wine Region

For decades, Navarra's wine specialty was the rosé made from Garnacha grapes: a light, ­dry summer wine. As recently as the 1980s, the Garnacha variety alone took up 90 percent of the region's vineyard space [source: Voss]. Since the formation of EVENA, however, Navarra has become the first Spanish wine region to make a major commitment to what are now called "international" grape varieties [source: Alsop]. The red- and white-producing grapes include:

Reds:

  • Tempranillo
  • Garnacha
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Graciano
  • Mazuelo

Whites:

A small handful of vintners lead the pack of Navarran wineries, including:

Bodegas Chivite -- This winery's labels proclaim a genealogy "from father to son since 1647" and has been in the wine export trade for more than 125 years [source: Hughes]. The firm commemorates this anniversary with its Colección 125 line of wines. Varieties of this line include the Vendimia Tardia, a world-class sweet Muscat; a superlative Chardonnay; and a red blend of Tempranillo mixed with Merlot and Cabernet. Chivite also markets a rosado called Gran Feudo [source: Savage].

Bodegas Ochoa --This winery claims a pedigree dating back to the 14th century [source: Bodegas Ochoa]. Javier Ochoa is a leading advocate for the region's vintners and a driving force behind EVENA. The Ochoa winery is small, but it manufactures the complete range of Navarra wines: red, white, rosado and Moscatel [source: Parode]. Ochoa's Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot varietals all age for one year in oak barrels.

Bodegas Viña Magaña -- This winery was among the first to experiment with clones of the international grape varieties in the 1970s and led the new generation of Navarra winemakers [source: Cervera].It produces Calchetas, Dignus and Barón de Magaña among others [source: Bodegas Viña Magaña].

There are many additional Navarra region wines to choose from, and the regional winemakers are aggressively courting the American market.

To learn more about the Navarra wine region and other wine-related topics, visit the links on the following page.

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Sources

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