Navarra’s ancient winemaking heritage has not left it looking backwards and today the region has a well-earned reputation for modernity, innovation and improving quality. Like most Spanish wine regions it possesses a state funded research facility, the Estacion de Viticultura y Enologia de Navarra, that has been particularly influential, proactive and successful in its endeavours to advise and assist the growers of the region. Navarra lies to the north-east of Rioja on the pilgrim route to Santiago di Compostela in Galicia, a fact that has been instrumental in the growth and reputation of the regions vineyards and wines as pilgrims slaked their thirst as they passed through. Despite this, and though a part of the Rioja vineyard area straddles the River Ebro and occupies a small piece of Navarra, the wines of Navarra itself have for many years been somewhat in the shadow of their more famous neighbour and have not, until recently, enjoyed the same level of investment and international...
The region today is divided into five main vineyard areas. In the cooler, wetter north, closer to the Pyrenees where the vineyards are prone to westerly winds and subject to the most Atlantic influence, are Tierra Estella and Valdizarbe. Autumn temperatures here are cool enough to mean that Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon planted there are often harvested later than they are in Bordeaux itself. Site selection for vineyards is particularly important here to ensure ripening and there are many aspects and microclimates to consider.
Closer to the Ebro, and slightly warmer than the areas further north, are Baja Montana and Ribera Alta. Baja Montana, as the name suggests, is hillier than Ribera Alta, and therefore a little cooler and it is from here that many rosado (rosé) wines emerge. Ribera Alta is warmer and flatter, more often planted with garnacha on alluvial soils. The influence of the Mediterranean has more impact here.
Warmer and drier still, though a little protected from the influence of the Mediterranean thanks to the Sierra del Moncayo mountains, Ribera Baja is the most southerly of the Navarra wine producing areas. Soils here can be lighter and sandier than elsewhere in the region, with some sites bearing similarities to the soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône.
Though there are differences in soils in some sub-regions, there is an unusual uniformity of loam and gravel over a clay-limestone base across Navarra as a whole, with most to be found in the north. Climatic variations over the region mean that many producers blend wines from across all areas to achieve a house style in their more generic wines.
Garnacha was traditionally the most widely planted variety but in recent years it has been caught and overtaken by tempranillo, with the expansion of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay plantings also impacting its share. Red wines, often blends though there are many fine single-varietals too, are the dominant style, but rosado is widely produced and enjoys considerable popularity. Whites form only 10% or so of production, usually viura (macabeo) but with chardonnay coming up on the rails, particularly from the cooler northern areas, and sweet muscats maintaining an increasingly high-quality toe hold. Though garnacha has been overtaken by tempranillo in plantings, it still makes some of the best and most distinctive wines of Navarra as many winemakers reappraise its inherent qualities, where it is best planted and how to make it.
Co-operatives are an important element in Navarran production, but there are also many independent family owned companies establishing an excellent reputation for their wines and their forward-thinking approach to making them.