By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
The region of Navarra in northern Spain is home to two cultural events whose reputations have risen beyond popular to mythical, each year attracting the rompish and pious in droves.
One of them, for contemplative Christian pilgrims, involves a long walk across the top of Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, beginning in Navarra and ending in Galicia. The other, for thrill-seeking crowd-lovers, involves a short run (with bulls) through the streets of the city of Pamplona during the San Fermin festival, which Ernest Hemingway made famous in his 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Papa mentions wine from the neighboring region of Rioja in the book, but surely he drank his share of Navarra wines there too. And Lord knows, many a pilgrim has quaffed the local wine after a long day on the trail in Navarra.
I have never walked with the pilgrims or run with the bulls for two reasons. One, I don’t really like hiking, and two, I generally try to avoid putting myself in the path of confused, charging livestock. It’s just one of my little quirks. I have enjoyed some beautiful wines from Navarra, though, because another personal credo of mine is, when a bottle of Spanish wine is open and available, I do what I can to score a glass of it.
Although the wines of Navarra are not as well known as the Camino or Pamplona, they should not be overlooked. What you get from Navarra is a variety of solid wines at a lower cost than the wines from more-famous Spanish locales. You like lower costs, right?
The Navarra wine region covers the southern half of the overall region of Navarra and is broken up into five subzones: Ribera Baja, Ribera Alta, Tierra Estella, Valdizarbe and Baja Montana. Long a stronghold for roses made from the native-Spanish grape garnacha, today the area’s leading grape variety is tempranillo, another Spanish gem.
In the 1980s, the region adopted grape varieties from nearby France — including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot — and today those two reds figure prominently in Navarra blends, while chardonnay is the region’s most popular white, despite accounting for less than 5 percent of all grapes grown there. When local winemakers ferment it in oak barrels, the results can sometimes remind us that rich, buttery chardonnay is not exclusive to the New World.
The 2013 Castillo de Monjardin (barrel-fermented) Chardonnay ($15) is made of 100 percent chardonnay from a single vineyard, where the high-altitude guarantees this wine’s crisp acidity and its bright, clean lemon and citrus finish. For a little more body and richness, try the 2013 Pago de Cirsus (barrel-fermented) Chardonnay ($18), which gives off more tropical fruit aromas, and creamy vanilla and butterscotch flavors — closer to a New World style.
For reds, the 2012 Bodega Inurrieta Sur Roble ($13) is one of the best under-$15 bottles of wine I have tasted in a long time. “Roble” translates to “oak,” but it is not over-the-top here, as this half-garnacha/half-syrah blend packs leather, tobacco and fresh red fruits with a soft mouthfeel. The 2011 Bodega Otazu Premium Cuvee ($14) is 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, and the rest of it is tempranillo and merlot. Together they create raspberry and plum aromas along with a hint of green pepper, spice and incense — another surprisingly good bottle for the price.
Ramping up in cost and wine bigness, the 2009 Bodega Albret La Vina de mi Madre Reserva ($29) is made almost entirely of cabernet sauvignon with just a touch of merlot and spends 21 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels, offering notes of plum, dates, eucalyptus and tobacco. This is a Spanish steak wine if ever there was one. For a wine with power and elegance, try the 2009 Pago de Larrainzar ($30). A blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and garnacha, it spends 17 months in French oak and emerges with prominent blueberry aromas, a touch of anise and earth, and a long, slow finish indicative of its complexity.
Despite the famously kinetic events of Navarra, Spain is a place that knows how to slow down and even stop at times. We could all use a bit of that, I’m sure. I never say nunca, but you probably will not see me on the Way of St. James or in the way of the bulls any time soon. No pilgrim’s scallop shell shall dangle from my backpack; no runner’s red sash shall flutter from my waist. There’s a great chance, however, that you could find me sipping a glass of wine from Navarra, perhaps with some Navarra-related reading material laid out in front of me.
From “The Sun Also Rises,” I would reflect on the passage that encourages us to, as they say, stop and smell the roses: “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
Photo: Grapes from the Pago de Cirsus, one of the Spanish wineries who has a recommended wine on this list. Miguel Ángel García. via Flickr