Navarra Winemaking and Aging – Sweet Wines

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In Navarra, two types of sweet wines are produced: the naturally sweet, in which sweetness and alcohol in the wine come exclusively from sugars of the grape, and fortified wines, in which alcohol is added to partially fermented or non-fermented must. Let’s see how they are made.

Naturally sweet wines. We use overripe grapes (usually of the variety Moscatel de Grano Menudo) to produce this wine, which has a high sugar content. Because the fermenting must has a good balance between the acquired alcohol (which comes from the fermentation) and residual sugars, we end the process without allowing all the sugar to be transformed into alcohol. To achieve this, the wine is racked, cooled, and filtered, and sulfites are added. Before sterile bottling, antimicrobial filtration should be performed to strictly eliminate all possible microorganisms, so that the wine does not begin to ferment again in the bottle.

Fortified Wines. We start with a grape (Moscatel de Grano Menudo, of course) which is perfectly mature and very low yield – 1.25 tons per acre – from which we get a sweet must, dense and syrupy, that is not allowed to finish fermenting. Like other great fortified wines (Port, Madeira, Pedro Ximenez, etc.), when there are still unprocessed sugars in the wine, alcohol is added to extinguish the yeast. We thus obtain a fortified wine with an alcohol percentage close to 15%, which is then aged through a special process. The wine is poured into damajuanas, the traditional glass jugs, which are then placed on the hills of the winery and exposed to the elements: the light and sun cause oxidative aging of great personality. This aging is complemented by three or four years of barrel aging in wooden casks before bottling.


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Navarra Winemaking and Aging – Red Wines

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Classic Winemaking.

Winemaking with red grapes differs substantially from the two previous processes. Fermentation takes place in the presence of the skins, to extract the substances contained in them (primarily tannins and anthocyanins).

In most cases, the grapes are destemmed, because, although the stems contain tannin, they also add bitterness and astringency. The berries are crushed, and after the addition of a light dose of sulfites, the must is sent to the fermentation tank. From the very beginning of fermentation, carbon dioxide raises the solids, which form a compact mass at the top of the tank called a “cap.”

In the tank, alcoholic fermentation takes place at the same time as maceration of the skins and pips in the must. The complete fermentation of the sugar (if there are no problems) lasts 5 to 8 days. To prevent the death of the yeast, the temperature cannot be allowed to exceed 86 ºF / 30 ºC. Maceration gives the wine its color and tannic structure. Wines that are to be aged should be rich in tannins and therefore undergo a long maceration (2 or 3 weeks) at a relatively high temperature, between 68-86 ºF / 25-30 ºC.

“Pumping over” allows us to monitor the extraction of the constituents in the skins. This operation involves pumping the juice at the bottom of the tank to the top onto the top of the cap, exposing more of the juice to the skins and extracting tannins and anthocyanins.

Racking involves separating the free-run wine from the solids (which are also called “pomace”). The pressing of these solids results in press wine, which is very tannic and deeply colored. If we are developing a wine for aging, it is very common to mix the press wine with the free-run wine to give structure and intense color. If wine is to be consumed young, it is not mixed, because mixing provides a certain astringency that requires years of aging to soften.

Malolactic fermentation is a necessary step in making red wines. Ideally, while it is being racked, the wine is not allowed to cool below 64 ºF / 18 ºC. If all goes well, after two or three weeks the wine will again become saturated with carbon dioxide, a condition that indicates the start of the malolactic fermentation. This process ranges from one week to one month (even longer if the cellar is very cold); when it is completed, the wine is decanted and sulfites are added.


Carbonic Maceration.

Carbonic maceration is a particular way of making red wine which has a great tradition in the region of La Rioja (the popular cosechero or nouveau-style wines).

The main departure from conventional winemaking is that it does not involve breaking the skins of the grapes before fermentation, meaning that the grapes are neither de-stemmed nor pressed. Because of this fact, carbonic maceration is also referred to as whole-cluster fermentation. Whole bunches of grapes (which must be manually harvested) are loaded into the fermentation tank until it is filled. Immediately thereafter, carbon dioxide is pumped into the tank from the bottom. Being heavier than normal air, the carbon dioxide replaces all the oxygen in the tank from the bottom up, and the grapes are left surrounded by an entirely anaerobic atmosphere composed only of this gas.

In this environment of pure carbon dioxide, the grapes develop a special metabolism which begins to transform part of their sugars into alcohol. This transformation is not due to the development of the usual microorganisms, yeasts, but is instead due to the metabolism produced by the grapes’ own enzymes at an intracellular level inside each individual grape.

In addition to producing a small amount of alcohol (about 1.5 percent), a series of characteristic aroma components are synthesized, such as notes of sour candy, fruit yogurt, banana, etc. These components are easy to detect and identify, as can be confirmed by tasting any wine produced by this particular method. The winemaking technique consists of two parts:


  • The first, as we have described, is to fill the tank with whole bunches of grapes and leave them in a CO2 atmosphere for 8-15 days.
  • After this time, the wine is racked and pressed. Run-off wine and press wine are then mixed and the sugar is allowed to go through normal alcoholic fermentation. This technique is used to make young wines for early consumption in many wine regions.


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Navarra Fields


Sulfur dioxide (whose chemical formula is SO2) is a preservative that has been used in wine for over 200 years. Its main function is to prevent the development of undesirable micro-organisms (such as those that make the wine turn to vinegar) and oxidize the odors. Once you add it to the wine, the sulfur produces some salts and sulfites. There are many foods that use it (mustards, sausages, vegetables), but it is often indicated by a number, for example, E-220, E-221, or E229. Although we’ve spent our whole lives using sulfur dioxide, as of November 2005 the European regulations require us to specify on a wine label that it “contains sulfites.” This is due to the fact that, although its use is limited and it is used in small concentrations, some people are allergic to this compound and must avoid it. In just the same way, “contains gluten” is mentioned on packaging to alert those with celiac disease.


These wines come from grapes grown on the principles of organic farming, that is, showing great respect for nature and conservation. Therefore, synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicidal minerals are not permitted in the cultivation of the vines. There are also a number of limitations when producing the wine (such as using fewer sulfites), but basically, the winemaking is carried out similarly.

Organic wines have similar organoleptic properties as those of conventional wines (there isn’t a difference when tasting them), but working the vineyard like this puts special emphasis on sustainability and respect for the environment. More than 5% of Navarra vineyards benefit from this system of organic cultivation, which is particularly valued by European and U.S. markets.


Although rosé wines from the Navarra D.O. are produced only by the method of bleeding (discussed in its corresponding chapter), traditionally these wines have been called “Clear” or “clarets.” In fact, however, a claret wine is made by mixing white and red grapes or even coloring a white wine with a red – meaning that a rosé from Navarra will never fall into the category of claret. But tradition is tradition, and it is difficult to change the name to which people are accustomed.


You know that wine is created through the transformation of sugars into alcohol, and that yeast is responsible for this transformation. But where does yeast come from? Broadly speaking, the yeast may have three different origins:

a) Those which come from the field and are found in the waxy layer that covers the skin of the grapes.

b) The natural yeasts that are found throughout the winery and multiply spontaneously in the tank when we fill it with grapes.

c) Selected commercial yeast, which arrives freeze-dried and is added to the tank when the grapes arrive too cold or too ripe, or the winemakers seek any special transformation (for example, a wine with specific aromas).

Every winemaker has their own preferences, so there are those who obtain good results with the yeasts brought in by their grapes and which exist in their cellar, and also those who prefer to direct the fermentation by adding specifically selected yeasts to ensure a certain outcome.


Before, when a bottle had sediment (“dregs”), it was dismissed due to misunderstanding as poor quality, with the claim that it was chemical. However, the first thing to keep in mind is that sediment has a totally natural origin. We find two types:

a) The heavier sediment, which comes from salts in the wine. This is because the grapes have an acid, tartaric acid, which is very soluble, but they also have potassium, calcium and more. When grape seeds break during winemaking, all these components are put in contact, forming slightly soluble salts called bitartrate or tartar. Their appearance is crystalline, rather like grains of sugar on the bottom of the bottle, although if tested, they almost always have a sour taste.

b) The lighter sediment, looking somewhat like pasty, colored flakes. When a red wine is just made, the pigments and tannins are small, lightweight particles. Over time, they join up with each other and form long chains, which are heavier and fall to the bottom.

To prevent sediment from appearing, the wine can receive various treatments before being bottled (it can be stabilized, cooled, clarified, etc.). These processes are always done on simpler wines. The higher the quality of a wine, the less it is treated, because these treatments always entail some loss of body and aromatic complexity.

If you have a great wine that contains sediment, always decant it before serving. Although natural, sediment is not at all pleasant to drink.

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