The cultivation of the vine in Navarra dates back to the Roman occupation of the first century A.D., but the region’s winemaking reputation blossomed in earnest during the late Middle Ages, as pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago—a medieval pilgrimage route currently enjoying a dramatic resurgence in popularity—began noting the particularly high quality of wines encountered while passing through the then-Kingdom of Navarra.
Around the same time, a succession of French monarchs ascended by marriage to the Navarra throne, presiding over three centuries of cultural flowering still evidenced today by the region’s late Romanesque and high Gothic architectural gems, and by a certain residual ‘Frenchness’ that pervades local sensibilities, particularly in matters of food and wine.
Even before the establishment of D.O. Navarra in 1933, the region was known primarily for its (justifiably celebrated) rosés, made from the indigenous Garnacha Tinta grape variety. But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, a handful of pioneering growers in the D.O. expanded the region’s varietal palette by experimenting with French varieties, most notably Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Harnessing the marketing potential of these internationally recognizable grape varieties was nothing new, of course, but in Navarra it would prove to be an essay in terroir-varietal suitability: a latter-day French connection that would eventually impress even the most skeptical of varietal purists and usher the D.O. into a new phase of its evolution as a producer of fine wine.
While Garnacha has lost considerable ground to newer varieties as a result (representing 90% of total vineyard plantings 1970s and just 25% today), it is nevertheless still the second most-planted variety in the D.O. and still a much-revered component of the Navarra grape arsenal–indeed, in recent years, much of Spain has come to regard Garnacha as a national treasure, capable of world-class greatness and worthy of protection from overzealous replanting by other varieties. In Navarra, a new generation of winemakers has been at the forefront of these efforts, reclaiming and rehabilitating old Garnacha vineyards and producing wine of extraordinary concentration of flavor, remarkable complexity and explosive minerality.
Today’s Navarra is both innovative and respectful of tradition—its evolution and unique place in the world translating into a stunning multiplicity of styles on offer to the consumer: a range of wines worthy of both its long winemaking history and the remarkable diversity found at its origins.
© Photo Credit: Image banner top by Patxi Úriz. Post center image by Ayuntamiento de Pamplona