Navarra‘s Wine Route is extraordinarily diverse, just like the landscape that surrounds it. Framed by the Pyrenees in the north and the Ebro River to the south, the region also experiences its own unique weather. Marked by the confluence of Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean climates, Navarra’s location is the show. And being the Basque region, the wine here possesses an independent spirit.
History through the Grapevine
Wine production can be traced back to the 2nd century BC, when the ancient Romans built bodegas. In fact, remains of winery equipment can be found at archaeological excavations in the nearby town of Falces. Famous in its own right for its “encierro del pilon,” this is a downhill, death-defying version of the running of the bulls.
Navarra was a powerful, independent kingdom with close ties to France and viticulture prospered. Towards the end of the 18th century, wine production was the main agricultural activity in the region until an outbreak of the phylloxera plague in 1892 wiped out nearly 98% of the vines. Soon after, replanting began, wine cooperatives were formed and production increased. In 1933, Navarra’s status as a DO was born.
Many grape changes have happened in the last 30 years. Back in the 1980′s, the Garnacha grape was 90% of the region’s plantings, creating light, crisp rosados. Today, it’s less than 40%, replaced by the Spanish darling Tempranillo, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Just like the landscape, Navarra’s winemaking regions are equally varied. More than 15,000 hectares are distributed across different ecosystems and crop growing conditions, including slopes, river plains, plateaux and plains.
The area is broken into five zones: Tierra de Estella, Valdizarbe, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta and Ribera Baja, creating a huge variance in the red wines.
Valdizarbe, in the north central of the region, is smack dab in the center of the Way of St. James, the famed Christian pilgrimage route for over a thousand years. Baja Montaña, in the northeast, produces the best rosados. Ribera Baja is the most southern area and creates 32% of the region’s red bounty. For a good home base, Ribera Alta is near the charming town of Olite.
The bodegas of Navarra are made up of a group of enthusiastic, demanding growers. Through research and revolutionary concepts, these cooperatives have helped make the Basque region a bastion for bold, high quality wine – using new plantings.
Navarra’s big three wineries are making the most of these newer grapes. For over 11 generations, Chivite is one of Spain’s oldest wine dynasties, blending small proportions of Merlot and Cabernet into mainly Tempranillo wines. Guelbenzu makes a strong statement with Reserva Evo, which has 70% Cabernet. And family-run Ochoa makes distinctive varietal wines in small production, including Cabernet, a Merlot and Tempranillo.
Picture Yourself Here: Palacio Real in Olite
Olite is perfectly situated in the center of this viticultural belt. With a warm Mediterranean climate, cornfields and vineyards, the beauty truly highlights the fertile bounty. Charles III, known as “the Noble,” put Olite on the map when he ordered the Palacio Real be built in 1406.
Today, the palace is broken into two areas: The Old Palace and the New. If looking for a place to lay your head in between wine tastings, you can stay in the Old Palace, now a state-run Parador. The other part of the castle has been declared a National Monument by the government. Staying here brings you back to the Middle Ages – but with up-to-the-minute comforts.
Toast to your Travels
The Basque region is large and diverse, but easily traveled by rail. If you are using Olite as a starting point, you can take one of the three daily trains over to Pamplona to experience the bull-running tradition. The train ride is only about 35 minutes long and tickets are usually under $10.00 per person for a one-way journey. From Pamplona, you can continue your journey with a 3 hour train ride to the Madrid Puerta de Atocha train station. And from Madrid, you can easily make your way towards the next Spanish wine region on your list!
If you’re traveling with a rail pass that includes Spain, the pass will cover the ticket prices of the train journeys mentioned above, and so you will just need to purchase the seat reservation supplements for the specific times you’d like to travel. It is strongly recommended to purchase these reservations in advance, particularly for the Pamplona to Madrid route — there are only 2-3 trains running this route each day, and so they tend to fill up pretty quickly.
With such incredible beauty, one begins to understand why the people here want to create their own autonomy: to secure the Basque identity and all its splendor. One taste of Navarra’s wine and you’ll see the similarities between the wine and the people: original, fresh and distinct.