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The Kingdom of Navarra~Kingly Wines


   So what do you know about “The Kingdom of Navarra”? I admit I knew next to nothing until I went to a wine tasting in Manhattan a few months ago, where we tasted a dazzling variety of Navarran wine styles. We danced with Navarran dancers moving to live, rustic Navarran music (as a journalist I observed) and I climbed aboard a “Running of the Bulls” simulator with a virtual reality headset. I started strong but then got (virtually) gored repeatedly. I wondered why they called it a“Kingdom” (delusions of grandeur?) and I wondered about this Pilgrimage I was hearing about. Then I travelled to Spain and learned a few things.


First of all the wines are worthy, some exceptionally so, and are priced very attractively for those of us on a wine budget. We spent four days touring the Kingdom of Navarra, visiting wineries and vineyards, meeting winemakers, tasting through their assortments of styles, quality levels and vintages, and visiting some very old cultural attractions of the area. The following cliff note version of the area is key to understanding Navarra.

       The Kingdom of Navarra was an independent state until the 16th century, complete with its own king and queen, in their own castle. Originally the kingdom spanned the Pyrennees mountains into France. The exact borders have pulsed and morphed in different directions over the years. It is located in Northeast Spain bordering France. The invading Moors, originally from North Africa and eventually becoming Muslim, populated and essentially took over most of the Iberian peninsula, now modern day Spain. The Christian influence in the area was waning. Archbishop Diego Gelmirez (1100-1140 CE) had heard about a religious and archeological discovery a couple of centuries prior. In the middle of the ninth century a local bishop had authenticated, on the western coast of Spain, the tomb of St. James, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus. Jerusalem (Tomb of Jesus and others) and Rome (Tomb of Peter and Paul) had become famous Christian pilgrimage routes, essentially a way into heaven for believers. The Archbishop had to rally masses to offset the waning Christian influences in France, Spain and other parts of Europe. He declared the pilgrimage to Santiago, where the tomb of St. James was found, to be as important and vital as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Rome. And the area was transformed.

     Churches, hospitals and hostels (and podiatry centers) were built, roads were improved, bridges and ferries were built or developed. Upwards of 50,000 European Christian pilgrims would make the trip annually. In the mid 12th century, Christian monks were some of the few people who could read. They were educated. Monks needed wine for their religious masses and blessings. They planted the Navarra region extensively, with almost as many varietals as vineyards. This pilgrim trail has many starting points. Two of the trails begin in France, one crossing Burgundy, the other Bordeaux. They merge in Pamplona, currently the geographic and cultural center of Navarra. Another route passing through Aragon merges with the others at Puente la Reina, or the Queen's Bridge, a beautiful span built in the Romanesque style over the river Arga. Things were going great for the Christians until the bubonic plague hit. The Black death of the 14th century hit Europe with a vengeance killing upwards of 75 million people. Pilgrims began their pilgrimage but often didn't finish or return. This plague essentially put an end to the pilgim route for centuries until the 1980's when Pope John Paul re-promoted the route and its relevance to a good Christian life, and the Christian trail was Born Again. Today, once again, 50,000 pilgrims make the journey annually, many on foot which takes months, many on bikes which takes 6-10 days and many by car, which can be done in one long day for the time-challenged or time-obsessed pilgrim.

     In the late 1800's there were 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of grape vines planted in Navarra. The “plague of the vine”, the Phylloxera louse, struck Europe, killing vines all over France. French vintners started planting their vines in Spain, in the safe zone beyond the Pyrenees mountains. Phylloxera was then introduced in Navarra, decimating and eliminating 80 different varieties of indigenous and introduced grapes. By 1905 only 700 hectares (1729 acres) remained. Phylloxera will attack and kill every variety of vine. The area had to be replanted with resistant American rootstock. Garnacha (Grenache in France), Tempranillo and Graciano y Mazuelo became the favored indigenous vines for replanted reds. They also planted the noble varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Viura and Moscatel de Grano Menuda were replanted for white wine production and they added Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Today, Navarra produces 6.5 million cases of wine, the majority (70%) of which are red. Rosés account for 25% of total production, whites weigh in at 5% of production and sweet whites (delicious!) account for 0.3%.

     In Navarra, the hot days tempered by cool nights, with three distinctly different temperate influences, provide an ideal area for a big variety of wine styles. The Atlantic influence from the north, the Mediterranean influence from the south and east, and the continental influence to the north and east, each gives the grape growers from the five distinctly different growing regions in Navarra their own uniqueness.

     Now about the wines. I love the Spanish system of allowing the different qualitative designations to be found on the label. In some countries, a “reserve” or a “grand reserve” wine essentially means it is the best that a particular producer can make; their best effort. In Spain, to say the wine is “oak aged” means it must spend at least three months in the barrel. To receive the Crianza designation red wines must be aged for at least two years, at least nine months in the barrel. Whites must remain in oak for at least six months. For the next level, Reserva, red wines must be aged a minimum of three years with at least one year in oak. For whites and rosés the Reserva status indicates two years of aging with at least a half year in oak. And red Gran Reservas must be aged a minimum of five years with at least 18 months in barrels. Whites and rosés must be four years old with at least six months of oak influence. These designations guarantee certain levels of financial commitment by the winemaker, which will produce a finer wine. In Navarra, all of these designations are in place. Additionally, to receive the Designation of Origin (DO) label they must undergo a blind jury tasting conducted by winemakers and sommeliers of the region and they must receive at least a 73 out of 100 points. This is a guarantee of quality for the level (think “price”) of wine. A Pago designation indicates the vineyard and winery have proven to have such a high quality of fruit and production that normal rules don't apply. The winemaker is free to produce wines to create the best expression of the fruit. Arinzano winery is the only Pago designation in Navarra.

     The wines of Navarra are very good. The rosés are crafted using the saignée, or bleeding off, method. The grapes, typically garnacha, merlot, cabernet sauvignon or tempranillo.are crushed and allowed 8 to 25 hours with the skins which imparts color and flavor to the juice. It is then fermented but there is no pressing off of the juice. The juice is collected and stainless steel tank and/or oak aged. Blending reds and whites is not permitted. Most rosés worldwide are consumed very young. Navarran rosés will last and the better ones will age beautifully. We tasted a Chivite Rosado from Arinzano's 2006, Collecion 125. We were greeted by fresh strawberry and peach flavors with soft pink grapefruit tempered by a hint of white pepper. Chivite's Gran Feudo line, with a rosado, a chardonnay, a crianza and a gran reserva, all retailing from between $12 and $15, is a “can't miss” bargain. Otazu's (don't miss this producer) 2010 Rosado showed bright strawberry notes with a micro effervescense and a fresh fruit explosion, perfect for late summer afternoons with friends. Ochoa Winery is making beautiful and very affordable wines, with Adriana Ochoa taking the winemaking reins from her dad, with plans to continue to improve their quality.

     The DO designation of crianza, reserva or gran reserva makes it simple to find your quality of wine within your budget. The entire region is marketing value wines at many price levels, that provide a great price to value experience. The whites are fresh, citrusy, elegant and delicious. All the reds we tasted above the entry level wines were structured with a good backbone of tannins and a brilliant balance of fruit and spice, suggesting high quality wine making and wines of ageworthiness. Next time you're picking out a wine, make a pilgrimage to the Spanish section of your store, look for the Navarra seal, with the red wine swooshy logo. Pick up a few from different price points and taste them with your friends. And reflect for a moment on all the history and culture and experience that goes into each bottle. Cook up a few simple tapas style dishes to go with the wine. And that is all you need!

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