Sunday, June 17, 2007

Places: Navarra Wine Country

Though we often go to Basque country, I had never been to nearby Navarra, and I really wanted to visit wine country there. At an enotourism conference in Madrid, Miguel and I met the dynamic Director of Enotourism for the new winery project, Pago de Larrainzar. Marian San Martin not only encouraged us to visit the winery, located near Estella in Navarra, but also agreed to set up a visit to other wineries in the area. Just a week later, we were heading over the vertiginous mountain roads that separate Basque country from Navarra. The scenery in early May is dramatic and very green...beautiful!

Navarra is making some really high quality, exciting, and experimental wines, but has been unable, so far, to project a cohesive image…both in terms of wine styles and a wine region to visit. It also labours under the burden of being right next door to big brother, Rioja, which still dominates the Spanish wine scene. Rioja is the prime destination for wine visitors to the area, and not enough make the extra effort to visit the remarkable wine region just up the road. Though once seen as producing wines similar to Rioja, Navarra is, little by little creating its own wine identity!

Our trip was centered around the lovely town of Estella, a quaint town of 13,000, right on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route. Such a small town, yet it has 13 beautiful churches! Estella is mid-distance between Pamplona and Logroño, about an hour drive from either. Marian took us on a wonderful walking tour around the town, which was bustling…locals and pilgrims shared the busy streets.
Next we headed to the Irache Monastery, which is close to Pago de Larrainzar. There is a project afoot to turn this wonderful old monastery into a Parador! When this happens, this will be a real asset to the wineies in the region.
Immediately next to the monastery is the winery, Bodegas Irache, which is known for its good value, easy-drinking wines. It is most famous, however, for its wine fountain, which offers free wine to the passing pilgrims...yes, free wine! They had to put a camera to prevent people coming with gallon jugs and filling them! The wine is a young basic red, but very drinkable, though I suspect the pilgrims more appreciate the neighboring water fountain!
On to Pago de Larrainzaga, an ambitious new winery created by the Canalejo-Larrainzar family. See my separate article on this ambitious, state of the art wine project!
After a wonderful lunch, graciously offered to us at Pago de Larrainzar, Marian took us to a couple of other local wineries in the area.
The first was Castillo de Monjardin, which is especially known for its cool weather Chardonnays. The winery is traditional in its lay out and has an excellent restaurant on the premises, making for a complete enotourism experience!
We were given a knowledgeable tour in English, followed by a tasting of a couple of wines. The un-oaked Chardonnay was particularly impressive…quite full bodied, with intense fruit…a lot of quality for 5 euros! They make an excellent range of Chardonnays…un-oak, aged over lees, and oak….all very reasonably priced.
Our final visit was to one of the largest organic wine producers in Spain...this is not saying a lot…it's actually a very small winery, almost 500,000 liters capacity. Organic has not taken off here in Spain yet. Quaderna Via is also one of the most impressive enotourism projects I've seen in Spain!
The winery is run by a dynamic pair of brothers, who are impressively professional and ambitious. We were guided by the wine-making brother, Raúl, who showed us some of the wineries more unique aspects. Several things struck me….their goal is to produce, inexpensive, high quality wines and to sell most of them through export and directly from the winery. They already received over 5000 visits a year…very impressive in this part of the country! They offer a complete visit: the visit starts in their multi-media organic viticulture display that, step-by-step, describes what goes into making an organic wine. Then, an in depth visit of the compact winery. Finally a wonderful tasting in the huge, rustic upstairs tasting area that doubles as a Basque-style Txoko, or informal dining hall. A group can plan for a wonderful local meal right in the winery if they want to make a full day of it!
Quaderna Via is also the only winery in Spain to offer a hot-air balloon ride over the vineyards. Their tractor operator was sent to balloonist school and now operates the winery's balloon!
The wines are wonderful, juicy wines, made from both local and imported varieties. The value is outstanding! The range runs from a basic joven wine, through crianza, to an excellent reserve wine. The most interesting wine for the wine aficionado is the Quaderna Via Especial, a red coupage of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is barrel-fermented in 300 liter barrels, then subsequently aged in the same barrels. It is unique!
The day we were there, a group of Swedes were spending the whole day, including dinner…they had driven all the way from Sweden by bus!

Quaderna Via's double focus has really worked for them…they export most of their production and sell the rest directly at the winery to the hundreds of tourists that come through their doors!

I was very impressed with the area, these wineries are really forging ahead, creating great quality wines at all price points. Most importantly, they are really focused on enotourism…they are way ahead in their attitude in this area. They understand that wineries in the area must band together to create an attractive viticultural destination for the growing number of tourists visiting Spain to discover its gastronomy and wines!


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