It’s a claim that can be made, with plenty of justification, for Navarra – a surprisingly diverse region of north eastern Spain where winemakers have been unleashing their creativity for decades. Today’s Navarra wines are varied and versatile, providing plenty of scope for independent merchants in the UK to explore.
Published in association with Wines of Navarra
Spain is not exactly short of exciting wine regions at the moment. Across the country the standard of winemaking has never been higher, while the wines themselves have never been more interestingly and deliciously varied.
Even in such a competitive context, however, one region stands out. Ideally situated for fine-wine production at a north eastern Spanish meeting point of cultural and climatic influences, Navarra is arguably the single most dynamic region in Spain right now, with a diverse cast of talented winemakers producing a range of distinctive, well-priced wines that offers something for every wine lover.
As with all great wine regions, Navarra’s natural advantages start with the situation of its vineyards. Located in the far north east of Spain, Navarra – uniquely for the Iberian peninsula – sits at the confluence of three distinct climates: Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean.
Navarra’s five distinct sub-regions – Baja Montaña, Valdizarbe, Tierra Estella, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja – are therefore each shaped by their proximity to the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees to the north, and by the moderating influence of the Ebro River Valley in the south.
But the extraordinary diversity of Navarra’s growing conditions is about more than the climatic variations. As you make your way through the DO’s 100km length, from Pamplona in the north to the Ebro River plain in the south, you move through a complex tapestry of different ecosystems, landscapes, expositions, and soils, with the Navarra DO’s 10,200-plus hectares taking in slopes, river plains and plateaux.
To this heady assortment of different terroirs, Navarra can also add its unique cultural diversity and heritage. Navarra’s position just across the border from France, and its long historical connections with the country, have brought a fascinating vini-viti-cultural mix of influences, a combination of Spanish and French that makes it quite distinct from other regions both north and south of the border.
Nowhere is this sense of cultural crosscurrents meeting more apparent than in Navarra’s collection of grape varieties. As Camilla Wood, founder and managing director of leading independent West Country wine merchant The Somerset Wine Company in Castle Carey, puts it, “The interesting thing about Navarra is that you can find high-quality wines made from well-known ‘international’ varieties, like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, planted alongside the likes of Garnacha and Tempranillo. That means the region has a real versatility of style – in all colours – that’s very useful for getting customers engaged.”
Versatile and diverse
Versatility is indeed the watchword in any analysis of Navarra’s recent history. Although international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay had been present in the region for centuries, and had long-since proved their suitability to Navarra’s terroirs, the region’s growers began to plant them more widely, alongside the native Garnacha, Tempranillo and Viura, in the 1980s. The result was a creative explosion of new styles, often in blends that were unique to the region.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, a new generation of growers emerged, bringing with them a fresh injection of innovation, a restlessly curious mentality that continues to the present day.
That’s left Navarra with what Riaz Syed, of Stonewines in Barnet, north London, calls “surprising diversity”.
“I’m a bit of a fan of the Navarra region,” Syed says. “Beyond rosado, the diversity is surprising, from Bordeaux blends of exceptional value to classic style Tempranillo and Garnacha reds.”
A quick glance at the numbers shows a skew towards red varieties, with red wine accounting for 63% of Navarra’s output, rosé 24%, and white 13%.
In terms of specific varieties, “native” grapes account for 70% of Navarra’s vineyard, and international ones 30%, with Tempranillo (with 23,584,104kg in the 2020 vintage) and Garnacha (19,413,107 kg) topping the production of red varieties ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (both with around 9,000,000kg), while Chardonnay tops the whites (with 4,547,759kg) ahead of Viura (2.374.888kg) and Moscatel (754,417kg).
Navarra’s diversity may be one of the keys to its enduring popularity in both Spain and its numerous growing export markets, but the region is nonetheless strongly identified with a handful of key attributes.
Navarra is justifiably famous for its rosé, with Navarra rosado being easily the most popular style of pink wine in Spain. It’s possible to find high-quality examples at either extremes of the rosé colour and style spectrum, with wines both pale and interesting and deeply coloured and richly flavoured. But the general trend at the moment is for growers to look to the traditional, darker-hued, sangrado or saignée method wines with which Navarra first gained international attention.
In red wines, Navarra’s knack with international varieties, both as single-varietal wines and in blended combinations with each other or the native varieties, is one of its distinctive calling cards. But an exciting recent development has been the resurgence of Garnacha. Growers, particularly from the latest generation, have been reassessing and recuperating their ample stocks of old Garnacha vines, as well as planting new vineyards to the variety. The quality of the results is striking, with wines in a variety of styles, from aromatic and pale, to deep and vividly fruity.
In whites, the undisputed leader in Navarra is Chardonnay. With growers taking advantage of the long growing season in Navarra’s cooler sites, Navarra Chardonnay is regularly ranked as the best in Spain, with a distinct cool-climate style that balances ripeness with scintillating acidity.
“I’ve been very impressed by the Navarra Chardonnay I’ve tasted,” says Wood. “It’s definitely one of the region’s real strengths.”
Syed agrees, but also wants to speak up for one of the region’s many other intriguing specialities.
“Possibly the hidden gem is the Moscatel, not the sweet wine but the off-dry version that’s sometimes blended with Chardonnay,” Syed says.
“It’s a fantastic summer white, it goes well with spicy food, especially able to handle chilli heat, and it’s generally lower abv so it works well for lunch or afternoon drinks.”
From fragrant Moscatel, to chiselled Chardonnay, and from world-beating red blends to succulent modern Garnacha, this extraordinary region really does have something for everyone.