Navarra has always been overshadowed by its neighbour, Rioja, and has had to deal with a domestic market that doesn't look beyond its rosé. But the region's red wines are growing in stature, and present some real bargains for the restaurateur. Fiona Sims heads for north-east Spain
There's a little bar around the back of Pamplona's main square that specialises in Pata Negra. The sweet, nutty, cured ham is Spain's finest, and Navarrans devour it with reverence. But what's this? A bottle of Rioja sits, half-finished, next to one diner, alongside his slabs of ham. Where is the region's own fine red, being glugged by the container-load in Britain, which would be just as worthy an accompaniment?
"The domestic market is not so easy for the red wines of Navarra," laments Jose María Fraile at Palacio de la Vega. "When they think of Navarra, they think rosé."
Go into any restaurant in Madrid and it'll be the reds from Rioja and Ribera del Duero that trip off any wine waiter's tongue. Yet Navarra's red wine production accounts for nearly 50% of the country's total, although most of it heads across the border (French farmers permitting) to northern Europe, and the UK in particular, where customers can't get enough of its smoky crianzas - sales last year were up by 22% on the previous 12 months.
The Navarran countryside is stunning. Rocky outcrops lord over vast expanses of rolling prairie, interrupted by wooded river valleys, with vineyards cascading down the nearby slopes in the north and stretching across the flatter, fertile soils in the south. The mountains, which hog the northern skyline, are the Picos de Europa to the left and the Pyrenees to the right, and are bounded on the west by Paºs Vasco and on the east by Aragón.
Wine from a Lively land
The kingdom of Navarra once stretched all the way from Bordeaux to Barcelona. Today, the northern part of the province is claimed by the Basques, whose language makes the road signs delightfully unpronounceable and who still have the power to instil fear in their opponents.
The bravest opponents parade around the region's capital, Pamplona, with blue ribbons on their lapels, denouncing the Basques' bully-boy tactics. Add this to the famous bull run through its tiny streets and you get a lively kind of town.
Navarra is, perhaps, most famous for its rosé, or rosado to the locals, although it has a bit of an image problem in the UK. It moves slowly on restaurant wine lists, except when pushed as a special offer or wine of the week, and the high street can't get to grips with the flute-shaped bottles - apparently they destroy the aesthetics of supermarket shelves.
Then there are the psychological drawbacks: it's pink, so it must be sweet, and blokes don't drink pink drinks. That's a shame, because Navarra rosé is a great food wine and a potentially profitable glug in the summer months, packed with strawberry fruit and a refreshing acidity.
But the image of Navarra's reds in their own country can be blamed partly on history. Only 20 years ago, more than 90% of the area's vineyards were planted with one grape, Garnacha, and rosé was the chosen style. Now, with the same grape, many producers are making juicy, concentrated reds by cutting back on yields and listening to the men from Evena, the pioneering research station located at Olite.
Evena is also responsible for the influx of international varieties that are making an impression in many Navarran vineyards, albeit to the cost of Garnacha. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are very much at home here, resulting in wines of a finesse that should knock sideways anyone in any doubt, producing varietals to reckon with and lifting indigenous varieties in blends.
Adding a fat dollop of Chardonnay to the most widely grown indigenous white grape, Viura, is a case in point, elevating what can be a boring sip into something of interest.
The Navarran government set up Evena in 1981. It lists top wine-makers on its staff, and a dynamic new director, Joaquin Pejenaute, who embodies the mood of the whole region. The more go-getting wineries, such as Nekeas, Castillo do Montjardºn and Palacio de la Vega, have made a real impact on the international wine scene by listening closely to what Evena has to say, and mixing it with their own enthusiasm.
The government is also fairly open, in comparison with, say, Rioja, in permitting "outside" varieties to be planted - as long as this is monitored by Evena. The authorities even let those varieties sneak, in tiny amounts, into the final blend, without this having to be noted on the label.
Sonja Olano makes an admirable Pinot Noir, though it can't be labelled as such as it's still in its experimental stages, so it goes on sale with "100% Tempranillo" on the back label (£39.25 ex-VAT for a 12-bottle case, from Laymont & Shaw: 01872 270545). Misleading, maybe, but the consumer gets a classy glass for his money and it's getting better every year. The vines are only 10 years old, but are already showing what the combination of soil, climate and grape is capable of, and in another 10 years well, watch out, Burgundy.
Navarra's wine regions lie south of Pamplona and are divided into five districts. The three most northerly of these are, from west to east, Tierra Estella, Valizarbe and Baja Montana - Olano's winery is in Tierra Estella. The northern part is where most of the Chardonnay is being planted, the front-runner for the white "international" varieties preferring the cooler weather and higher rainfall. The two hotter, southern districts are Alta Ribera and Baja Ribera.
Also lying in the southern part of the region is the curious town of Corella, which has a unique micro-climate that is well-suited to growing the Moscatel à Petits Grains grape. At the end of one dusty street is Bodegas Castillo, producer of Spain's most popular fortified moscatel, Goya.
Bodegas Castillo had a hard time at the London Wine Trade Fair this year. Visitors to its stand appreciated its heady, luscious wines, but couldn't work out how to go about selling it. The packaging is a slight drawback - the bottles look like the worst holiday memento - but get past the screwcap and you're in liquid heaven.
They would make a fun offering on a restaurant wine list, paired with the cheese course - especially the blues - and with desserts biased toward nuts. But it's the price that should attract: about £40 for a 12-bottle case, ex-VAT - half the cost of an Australian Liqueur Muscat. And it's robust too; you should see how it ages - 50 carboys sit squashed together on top of the bodega roof, getting hotter and stickier by the week and presenting quite an attraction for the flies.
But it all adds to the final blend, assures Bodega oenologist Ladis Lao. "It all contributes to the oxidising process," he says. The Oakhouse Wine Company (01584 810850) can sort you out a few bottles.
Although plantings of Garnacha have been reduced to less than 40%, there is renewed interest in the indigenous varieties. Some clever wine-making and inspired marketing shifted La Campanas' 100% Garnacha Vega Nueva 1995 as fast as you could say carbonic maceration.
La Campanas oenologist Jesus Lezaun explains: "There are two distinct camps with Garnacha here: those who are making powerful reds like Bodegas Guelbenzu, and those who are making the lighter styles with carbonic maceration, like us." Make a chillable, strawberries-and-cream mouthful, slap on a trendy label and the consumer can't get enough. Oddbins Corporate Sales (0181-944 4400) has plenty of the 1996 at £38.71 ex-VAT per 12-bottle case.
Mercedes Chivite heads the best known bodega in Navarra. The Gran Feudo (pronounced "fayudo") wines are well known in the high street here, and show off Navarra at its most elegant.
For something a bit special, try Chivite's 125 Collection. The 1992 Reserva is a stunner, the small percentage of Merlot added to the Tempranillo elevating the fruit, softened by its year spent in Allier oak. Yorkshire-based Wright Wine Co (01756 700886) currently has stocks of the 1988 and 1990 Reserva at £75.72 per 12-bottle case, and is awaiting delivery of the 1992. For your nearest distributor call Chivite UK on: 01225 783007.
The grapes are grown on Chivite's newest and most idyllically sited vineyard, at Arinzano, and taken in refrigerated lorries 60km south to Cintrefenigo, Chivite's base camp, a marked contrast to the rather scruffy town it dominates.
Scruffy is not a label you could apply to Anorbe. It gets the vote for Navarra's prettiest wine village, and is dominated by the ultra-chic Nekeas, an imposing post-modernist structure hugging the hillside just below where the tumbling white-washed village ends. It was founded in 1989 by a group of 12 local farmers, who ripped up the cereal crops planted in the 1960s. That had been a common move throughout the region, when many locals upped sticks and flooded into the cities - cereal crops were cheaper and more practical than vines.
Nekeas started with 165 hectares of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot plus a bit of Chardonnay and some Viura. Its land, all visible from the winery, differs in altitude by 125m, with Chardonnay planted at the highest point, enjoying the markedly cooler temperatures. The Evena research station has had an important role here, analysing sub-soils and top soils as well as dishing out vinification tips.
Nekeas hasn't quite got in to the special-cuvée-from-a-particular-slope stage but it is not far off. The wine makers are already vinifying and selling particular parcels separately, but this is not yet specified on the label. "We do this so we can give our buyers a blend that suits their purposes," explains export director Manuel Antonanzas.
All the wines are of an exceptional standard. The 1996 barrel-fermented Chardonnay is a good example and this is available through Heyman, Barwell Jones (01473 232322), which reports plenty of stock at the bargain price of £56 ex-VAT per 12-bottle case. The wine offers a good balance of fat fruit and oak (a mix of American and French).
Alternatively, try the equally remarkable 1994 Tempranillo/Cabernet blend with its complex, velvety, luscious fruit at £54 ex-VAT for 12 bottles.