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updated: 8/23/2011 12:56 AM

The future of Navarran wines

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  • Crianza Senorio de Otazu

    Crianza Senorio de Otazu


It didn't happen until several days into my tour of northern Spain, but I found that unforgettable view of Navarra.

It didn't happen when I was careening down a mountain pass in a winegrower's Jeep or navigating cobblestone streets with a stilettoed marketing agent (how do European women not break their necks?), but when I least expected there it was: amber waves of grain pushing up against Pyrenees foothills carved with vineyards, the vista sprinkled with Medieval churches and their villages and -- perched along the mountaintops -- a continuous row of ultramodern wind mills the likes of which Don Quixote could never have dreamed -- a picture-perfect juxtaposition of Navarra's deeply rooted history and its future.

That future looks particularly bright for Navarra's wine industry as it moves to modernize production and attract new customers.

As Spain's young adults moved away from the rural villages and vineyard labor to desk jobs in nearby Bilbao, the wineries were forced to turn to modern technology and equipment to take up the slack. With that modernization came increased productivity, so ironically, it's that same mobile generation that the Asociacion Bodegas de Navarra (Navarra's winery association) has targeted as new consumers.

Still, some in that generation have embraced the region's wine country; nearly every winemaker, vineyard executive and government official I met was a vibrant thirty-something exuding excitement about the region's potential, yet respectful of its past.

That past includes Garnacha (better know as France's Grenache thanks to French monks who carried the vines home from Navarra) which remains one of the region's signature grapes. Garnacha shows up in elegant reds ("Alma de Unx" Bodegas San Martin de Unx), more often in fresh, immediately enjoyable blends (Garnacha-Tempranillo, Ochoa) and most famously in Navarra's dry Rosado (Chivite, Principe de Viana), which I enjoyed with dishes ranging from white asparagus wrapped in spinach and salmon to squid tagliatelle to barbecued pork.

Tempranillo, Spain's noble grape, is the top-planted red. The most elegant examples (such as Reserva, Ochoa and Palacio de Otazu) blend in Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to rival the stature of Rioja to the south and fine Bordeaux (just 200 miles over the mountains).

White grapes comprise just 6 percent of total planting, led by Chardonnay (favorites include the minerally Otazu "Unoaked" Chardonnay and buttery Chivite "Coleccion 125 Blanco").

While the Denominacion de Origen governs every aspect of production, Navarran winemakers talk openly about their illicit freedom to create new styles: "When we try something new, we just document it as an 'experiment.' By the time it is approved, we are ready to bottle!'" one winemaker jokes.

With this healthy and dynamic wine culture, Navarra is ready for business. While many producers have U.S. importers, a survey of suburban and Chicago retailers found the wines few and far between. I recommend asking your retailer to suggest a favorite Navarra wine, or seeking out the products mentioned here online.

The wines of Navarra may be hard to find, but they'll be harder to forget.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write her at