Navarra Wines, A Confluence of Cultures

dsc_1696Situated in northern Spain, Navarra’s history stretches back to the Romans and includes close links to France, both in terms of its proximity to the country and the fact that the Count of Champagne, Theobald I, also held the title of King of Navarra. The region maintained its independence as a separate kingdom until it finally succumbed to the Castilian empire in 1512.


Dolias at Villa Romana de Arellano

Coupled with this lengthy history is evidence (vinous vessels, called dolias, unearthed at Villa Romana de Arellano) that Navarran wine has been an important product from the very beginning.

Moreover, given Navarra’s place along the Camino de Santiago, it has been at the crossroads of many cultures for centuries. From the earliest days, pilgrims came from England, France, Germany and elsewhere throughout Europe, bringing their customs and cuttings as they passed through.

dsc_1487This heritage has infused Navarra and its wines with an international outlook and openness to trying new things, while still retaining its traditions. During a visit to the region in 2011, we saw an innovation with new winemaking techniques and experiments with novel grape varieties joined with an equally strong commitment to indigenous varieties.

Navarra’s also wines speak to the lifestyle of the region. The town of Puente la Reina is bustling with activity as people sit outside at cafes and bars on a hot summer’s afternoon, perfect for ordering pinchos (tapas) and a bottle of rosé, which make up 25% of Navarra’s total production. The fresh and fruity wine is the perfect accompaniment to the heat of the day and the diversity of food on the table. Whites play a smaller role, but Chardonnay, Viura and, as of 2008, Sauvignon Blanc, can be found.

dsc_1553Bridging this duality of old and new, the well-worn and well-signed Pilgrim’s Path snakes its way past the medieval castle at Castillo Monjardin. With its eponymous winery, this family estate dates to the 12th century and is currently presided over by Sonia De La Lama and her husband, Victor. Planted to French as well as Spanish grape varieties, their vineyards underscore Navarra’s historical link to France, even though French varieties have only been permitted since the 1980s. dsc_1550

The region’s primary Spanish grapes include Tempranillo and Garnacha, the latter of which are often old vines, averaging 60 to 70 years old. The resulting wines are typically fresher and lighter than their Rhone Valley counterparts due to the area’s elevation and mountains, yet they have great concentration due to the vines’ age.

Another winery with deep roots in the region is Bodegas Nekeas, which traces its vineyards to the 17th century. However, the current configuration of the company dates to 1989 when the descendants of these original grape growers pooled their lands and replanted them, eventually building a winery in 1993.

With a much shorter tenure, Bodegas Príncipe de Viana was created in 1983, taking its cue from an historic Navarran title of Spanish royal succession dating to 1423. Despite its regal name, the winery was actually developed as a way to provide financial assistance to Navarra’s farming industry.

Overall, Navarran wines are easy to drink, food-friendly varietal wines with an emphasis on fruit character. Yet, what is most striking about these wines is their quality. In tasting one wine after another, there is concentration, complexity and beautiful balance in the glass. Even more amazing, most are priced under $20.00 and quite a few are under $15.00, with aged wines – those labeled as Crianza and Reserva – generally topping out at $30.00.


Principe de Viana Chardonnay 2015, Navarra, Spain, $12.00

Although the label proudly acknowledges that the wine was barrel fermented, it is actually quite clean and fresh with only light oak/toothpick notes. Otherwise, it primarily displays aromas of melon, citrus and tropical fruit.

Principe de Viana Edicion Rosa 2015, Navarra, Spain, $15.00
This 100% Garnacha wine is refreshing with bright melon and peach fruit aromas and flavors, good acidity and long length.

Castillo de Monjardin La Cantera Garnacha 2015, Navarra, Spain, $11.00
A really lovely, light-bodied, fresh red with bright red fruits and long length.

Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa Tempranillo 2015, Navarra, Spain, $10.00
Tart strawberry fruit aromas are joined by a slight woody note on the bright, medium-to-full bodied palate.

A Summer for Sauvignon Blanc

2016-06-20 19.14.52While Riesling and rosé are highly touted for the summer season, Sauvignon Blanc is equally well-suited for sipping this time of year. This citrus-scented grape variety is cultivated worldwide, resulting in a broad range of wine styles from which to choose.

However, among the most well-known areas associated with this grape is New Zealand and, in particular, the region of Marlborough. New Zealand producer Nobilo brings two Sauvignon Blancs to the table this season: its Regional Collection and Icon. Icon is the company’s flagship wine, having been established by the Nobilo family in 1943.

The grapes for Icon presently come from the Castle Cliffs Vineyard, planted in 2002 in the Awatere Valley. Conversely, while the grapes for the Regional Collection wine are primarily sourced from Awatere, they are supplemented with those from the Wairau, Southern and Waihopai valleys within the region and then blended together to create a more consistent wine each year.

A side by side tasting permitted a comparison of the two:

Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Marlborough, NZ, $10.00
This wine is very fruity with bright, tropical fruit predominating the nose and palate. Although it has the same acidity level as the Icon wine, the perception is that it is lower in acidity on the palate due to its higher level of sweetness. Light and refreshing; perfect for an aperitif and light fare.

Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Marlborough, NZ, $18.00
The Icon has a leaner profile than the Regional Collection, displaying much more citrus aromas and flavors, along with a slightly grassy note. It is drier with more acidity, permitting it to pair more easily with a wider array of cuisine.

Although Sauvignon Blanc is less closely connected with Spain, this variety is slowly, but surely, finding a home here as well. Pago los Balancines, a winery within the Spanish region of Extramadura, about 200 km north of Seville, produces several wines with this grape. Its wines fall under the Ribera de Guadiana DO.

Pago los Balancines, Balancines Blanco Sobre Lias 2015, Ribera de Guadiana, Spain
This entry-level wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viura and offers up a bright and fresh wine with citrus, tropical fruit and melon notes on the round palate.

Pago los Balancines, Alunado Sauvignon Blanc 2013 The Bootleg Wines vol. 0, Ribera de Guadiana, Spain
This full-bodied wine has clearly been oaked, with its citrus and pear aromas and flavors wrapped in oak and vanilla.

2016-06-20 19.15.21Alunado


Rose Revolution: Better Dead than Red

World winemakers unite! Admittedly I have Communism and Leon Trotsky on the brain thanks to having just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Lacuna. However, the notion that winemakers are globally uniting to produce rosé wines is not that far-fetched, at least not in terms of the depth and breadth of these wines now being produced.

While drinking pink wine (at least publically) was previously relegated to newbies quaffing White Zinfandel and other sweet blush wines, today’s rosés run the gamut in hue and are primarily dry in style. With a decade of growth in the U.S. market, rosé continues to be one of the U.S.’s fastest growing wine categories in retail sales; the message is clear: Rosé is here to stay. Tweet that!

A recent “Pink Party” hosted by Winebow showcased the importer’s vast portfolio of rosés, which not only ranged in style (from still to sparkling and pale salmons to deep pinks), but also in origin of production.

As the number one producer of rosé worldwide, it is not surprising that the line-up was heavy in French samples, with appellations that specialize in the pink stuff such as Provence and Tavel well represented. Italian specimens were similarly prevalent, most of which hailed from the southern portion of the boot: Sicily, Sardinia, Campania and Calabria.

But, Winebow’s rosé collection is much more widespread than the wine world’s two top producers. In addition to a reasonable showing of wines from the U.S.’ east and west coasts, more unique appearances came from Croatia, Greece, Lebanon and the Republic of Macedonia.

Adding to the diversity, the sparklers were not only comprised of the usual suspects such as Rosé Champagne and a beautiful rose Cava, but also on hand were lovely bubbles from Austria and Tasmania.

And, vying for most unusual wine of the day was a “100% pure rosé sake” produced from heirloom purple rice.

With such a plethora of rosé wines in the market, it can be quite confusing to the consumer to make sense of it all. But, the easiest way to understand rosé is to think about something with which most people are familiar – tie-dyeing. Tweet this!

Such childhood arts-and-crafts projects provide a simple, but effective tool, for learning about rosé production. Armed with white t-shirts, rubber bands and RIT dye, we saw that leaving the t-shirt in the dye bath for just a few minutes resulted in a pale hue, while soaking it for the full hour delivered the deepest color. Moreover, the instructions advised that higher temperatures and agitation further added to the color saturation.

Apply these same principles to winemaking, substituting grape skins for RIT dye and grape juice/must for t-shirts (no rubber bands required) and, by George, you’ve got it. Now you are ready to join the revolution!

Looking for some rosés to sip this summer (yes, I promise it will be summer one of these days)? Here are some of my favorites from the Pink Party tasting:

Jansz Sparkling Rose NV, Tasmania, Australia
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier with just a hint of color. Citrus, mineral and peach notes.

Juvé y Camps Rosé Brut Pinot Noir NV, Cava, Spain
100% Pinot Noir and medium-deep pink in color. Floral and fruit on the nose with red fruit and herbs on the palate.

Lanson Brut Rosé Champagne NV, Champagne, France
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Rich and intense with typical yeasty character along with citrus and a hint of red fruit.

Adelsheim Rosé 2013, Willamette Valley (OR), USA, $25.00
100% Pinot Noir. Herbs with some depth and slight grip on the palate. Fresh strawberries and melon.

Chateau Mercouri Lampadias Rosé 2013, Ilia, Greece
A 50-50 blend of Avgoustiatis and Agiorgitiko. Simply lovely with good fruit and acidity.

Les Vignobles Gueissard Côtes de Provence Rosé “Les Papilles” 2013, Provence, France
Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rolle. Berries and cherries with body and good length.

Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto 2013, Veneto, Italy
Corvina, Rondinella and Merlot. Very fruity with strawberry, raspberry and dried herb aromas and flavors.

Eccoci Wine: Hard to Read, Easy to Enjoy

Eccoci_rosadoWhen I first received the Eccoci wine samples, I was a bit confused. I couldn’t quite read the script signature written across the label. Fortunately, while the logo is a bit challenging to  decipher, the wines themselves are straightforward and easy to enjoy.

Although the area near Barcelona is well known for its production of Cava and Priorat wines, the Eccoci winery is producing some unusual wines in the province of Girona. Drawing from its close proximity to France (the vineyards are only one hour south of the border), the wines are made with French grape varieties including Viognier, Marsanne, Petit Manseng, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Marselan and Petit Verdot.

Eccoci practices sustainable farming methods and, while the term leaves a lot of room for interpretation, the winery’s commitment to preserving the environment is clear. In fact, it was the first Spanish winery to be Carbon Zero certified as of 2009, only one year after its first vintage.

Eccoci currently produces four wines: Blanco (white), Rosado (rosé), Tinto Premium and Tinto Super Premium (both red blends). I was immensely impressed with the white and rosé, which displayed lovely fruit and freshness. While I liked the two reds very much, they are still quite tannic and need more time before coming into their own.

Eccoci Blanco 2011, Spain, $15.00
A blend of 50% Roussanne, 30% Viognier and 20% Petit Manseng, this wine offers up floral, musk, tangerine and peach aromas. It is dry on the medium-bodied palate with ripe peach and tangerine fruit, coupled with blossom and crushed stone notes, reminiscent of a southern Rhône white.

Eccoci Rosado 2011, Spain, $18.00
This 100% Petit Verdot rosé displays musk, berry and blossom/floral aromas. The dry palate has high acidity with berry, slight citrus, mineral and herbal characteristics, culminating in long length.

Eccoci Tinto Premium 2008, Spain, $34.00
This wine brings together 34% Marselan, 33% Merlot and 33% Cabernet Franc. It was aged for three months in new Merrain French oak barrels followed by six months in bottle before release. Berries, herbs and dried floral aromas give way to rich and ripe black cherry fruit with spice and mint notes co-mingled.

Eccoci Tinto Super Premium 2009, Spain, $48.00
A blend of 60% Marselan, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot, this wine was aged for 12 months in new Merrain French oak barrels, with another 12 months spent in bottle before release. Meaty with red fruit, leather and spice, the wine has high acidity, full body, firm tannins and long length.

Bodegas Fariña celebrates 70 years

Pictured left to right: Inigo Ramirez de Haro Valdes (Cultural Attaché to the Consul General of Spain), Manuel Farina Jr, Chef Jesus Nunez, Manuel Farina Sr, Juan Martinez Salazar (Consul General of Spain)

Manuel Farina, Jr. looks very young, but at 25 years old he is supposed to. His father, Manuel, Sr., looks more weathered after being at the helm of the family business for more than 40 years. The newly minted viticulturist was in New York for the first time in April, along with dad, to mark a special occasion – their esteemed Toro winery, Bodegas Fariña, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Situated in northwest Spain, the Toro region is a little over two hours from Madrid and about an hour from the Portuguese border. Wines have been produced here for centuries, but the denomination of origin (DO) only dates to 1987, thanks considerably to the efforts of Manuel, Sr. and his belief in the area.

With its span of seven decades, Bodegas Fariña is one of the oldest wineries in the Toro DO. Beyond simple longevity, the winery can also claim to be a pioneer in establishing the reputation of Toro wines. Founded in 1942, Bodegas Farina was created by Salvador Fariña in the village of Casaceca de las Chanas, located 30km from Toro. A new winery was built within the Toro border upon creation of the DO.

Born just a year before the winery was established, Salvador’s son, Manuel was destined to take over the business. However, Manuel wondered why the Toro wines weren’t doing better in the world wine market.

Studying wine in Bordeaux as part of his studies proved pivotal, revealing to him that people didn’t want high alcohol wines. Back then, tradition dictated that the local wines should be harvested in mid-October, the result of which was wines that clocked in at an average of 17% abv. Returning home, Manuel changed his family’s practices, producing the first wine at 13.5% abv.

Other trail-blazing measures included being the first to use a de-stemmer and the first to use temperature controlled stainless steel for fermentation. Historically, the wines were packaged in jugs, but along with his other shifts, Manuel, Sr. began bottling in Bordeaux bottles. Not surprisingly, the winery was also the first in the region to be exported.

Today, Bodegas Fariña is highly regarded, with the wines available in numerous countries. Not content to rest on these laurels, both of Manuel, Sr.’s sons share their dad’s passion for wine and innovation. Bernardo, the oldest, serves as technical director, while Manuel, Jr. focuses on the vineyards. The 2011 vintage found them actively evaluating their soils and vine nutrition and was their first vintage with separate vinification of different vineyard plots. The family’s next challenge is to convert 65 ha of their land to organic farming.

The impact of this innovation can be found in the glass. The Bodegas Fariña wines over deliver for the money, especially in the mid-range. At the lower end, fresh fruit flavors of strawberry and plum showed nicely in the Pimero 2011 ($n/a), a 100% Tempranillo wine, which begins with carbonic maceration before regular fermentation takes place. The Dama de Toro Tempranillo Roble 2010 ($13.00) was barrel aged for four months and offers more complexity with dried herbs, spice and a hint of the oak as well as strawberry aromas and flavors.

Even more complex, the Dama de Toro Crianza 2006 ($17.00) had aromas of strawberry, oak, herbs, balsamic notes, and spice, all of which persisted on the palate and culminated in long length. The winery’s special release, Bodegas Fariña 70th Anniversary 2009 ($25.00) had similar notes, but was more floral on both the nose and palate. And, to cap off one’s meal, the Val de Reyes “Tino Dulce” ($20.00) is a late-harvested Tempranillo wine with black raspberry, dried red fruit and cocoa, which was much lighter on the palate than Port.

An Honorable Mention for Mencia

Autoctona del Bierzo, an organization established to represent several wineries from the Bierzo DO wine region made its first official visit to the U.S. in early May. Located in northwest Spain, the region is made up of a group of small valleys coupled with wider, flatter areas known as low Bierzo. Situated within the province of León, this region is relatively small and is comprised of many producers each with a relatively limited amount of land. Here, the mild climate has some humidity, but the low altitude prevents problems with frosts.

The region’s flagship grape is Mencia (also known as Negress), a red variety that adapts well to the local climate. Although the variety dates to Roman times, its current cultivation is limited to the Iberian Peninsula. It accounts for 65% of plantings in Bierzo, supplemented by Garnacha Tintorera and the experimental Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Typically, Mencia is used to produce both reds and roses. Its thin skins and soft flesh result in wines with light tannins and a velvety palate, with cherry and strawberry as the predominant fruit notes. Many producers make their wines from 100% Mencia. However, with differences in vine age, varied use of oak and aging periods, each winery has a full portfolio often ranging from unwooded styles and young (those labeled as Joven) to aged Crianza and Reserva wines. The May tasting provided an opportunity to taste this grape in several iterations and I was particularly impressed with Bodegas Estefania’s line-up.

The region itself is also home to indigenous white varieties including Palomino and Godello, the latter of which offers wines with good body and apple aromas. Dona Blanca, a mildly aromatic grape, makes up only 10% of all plantings and is on the decline.

The opportunity to meet these producers and taste through their wines was eye-opening and I am sure we will see more of Bierzo in the years to come.


Bodega Luzdivina Amigo, Baloiro Blanco 2010, Bierzo, Spain,16.00
This blend of 60% Palomino and 40% Dona Blanca was produced from 60-70 year old vines. Sharp cheese and sherry-like aromas greeted the nose. On the palate, the wine was rich and concentrated with yeast, citrus and a slight oxidized note, which gave the wine some depth.

Bodega Luzdivina Amigo, Baloiro Godella 2009, Bierzo, Spain, $34.00
With only 600 bottles produced, this wine is quite limited. It was aged for 8 months in French oak, with the wood showing on both the nose and palate in addition to fresh herbs, tarragon and citrus.

Palacio de Canedo Prada a Tope Blanco 2009, Bierzo, Spain, $N/A
Produced from 100% Godello, this wine displayed youth aromas of flowers and herbs, which persisted on the full-bodied palate with the addition of lime.


Bodegas Estefania Tilenus 2010, Bierzo, Spain, $15.00
This unwooded wine is comprised of 100% Mencia. It is very youthful with bright, fresh berry and cherry notes.

Bodegas Estefania Tilenus Envejecido 2007, Bierzo, Spain, $20.00
Produced from old Mencia vines ranging from 30-50 years old, half of this wine was aged in tank with the remainder in wood (a combination of both French and American barrels) for 8-12 months. Slightly less bright on the palate than the young wine, it still showed lively acidity, with strawberry, cherry and licorice.

Bodegas Estefania Tilenus Crianza 2005, Bierzo, Spain, $30.00
Low yielding Mencia vines averaging 60-80 years old were sourced for this wine. The barrel aging regimen wasn’t specified, but as a Crianza, it would have been longer than the Envejecido. This wine was more herbal on the nose likely due to its age, with more noticeable oak on the palate.

Bodegas Estefania Tilenus Pagos de Posada 2003, Bierzo, Spain, $50.00
This limited production wine comes from a single vineyard with Mencia vines at or older than 80 years old. Yields are exceedingly low (1 kg/ha). Oak and leafy notes took precedence over the faded strawberry aromas, but the palate was still lively with leaf, oak, strawberry, raspberry, tobacco, culminating in long length.

Bodegas Estefania Tilenus Pieros 2002, Bierzo, Spain, $120.00
This wine hails from a small, rare plot of land, planted exclusively to Mencia. There was an absence of fruit on the nose, instead, developing aromas of tobacco leaf, dried herbs and pencil lead dominated. The wine showed light minerality on palate, with concentrated strawberry and leafy flavors. Overall, the wine was complex, and balanced, with extremely long length.

What’s New with Old Rioja

Located in north-central Spain, along the Ebro River, the Rioja region is made up of three subregions – Alta, Alavesa and Baja – and holds Spain’s highest quality wine classification, DOCa.

Within Rioja (as in the rest of Spain), aging requirements for wines and their labels are legally defined. For each term, a minimum aging period in oak and bottle applies, but producers are permitted to and often do exceed these minimum requirements.

• Joven/Cosecha – young wines, no aging requirements

• Crianza – 12-18 months in oak + 1 yr in bottle

• Reserva – 18-24 in oak + 1-2 years in bottle

• Gran Reserva – 24-36 months + 3 yrs in bottle

Although there are similar aging terms applied to whites and rosés, the length of time is reduced, preventing the wines from otherwise being overwhelmed by oak.

At the Vibrant Rioja trade tasting earlier this year, some interesting wines and equally interesting production techniques came across my radar.

In an unusual move, producer Sierra Cantabria employed the use of carbonic maceration as part of its fermentation process for its Cuvée in an attempt to get significant fruit concentration. The wine then spent 14 months aging in French and American oak.

At San Vicente, the observation of vines with hairy leaves in their vineyard, led to the discovery of a clone of Tempranillo now known as Tempranillo Peludo. There are 50ha on the estate, which have been isolated from the rest of the property. Surprisingly, this clone seems to prefer clay soils, as opposed to the sandy and stony soils preferred by other Tempranillo vines.

While Rioja is generally produced from some combination of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano, winemaker David Sampedro from Bodega Don Sancho de Londono blends in 5% Viura, a white grape variety, in his Phincas 2008.

Cepas Antiguas’ importer asked if the estate would produce an unaged wine from 40 year-old vines, which is unheard of for a Joven wine, with some grapes harvested from vines as old as 80 years. Why? The importer wanted to show the terroir. At $12.00 retail, this is an excellent wine for the price, providing much more complexity than other young wines with a well integrated palate.

Although most wineries produce a range of Rioja wines from Joven through Gran Reserva levels, the Valenciso estate only makes one wine and it is always at the Reserva level.

These wines highlight just some of the diversity and innovation taking place in Rioja today.



Sierra Cantabria Cuvee 2007, 100% Tempranillo, $30.00 SRP
Very fruit focused nose of blackcherry and raspberry, but the palate was more oak driven with notes of cedar, spice with a strawberry undercurrent.

R. Lopez de Heredia – Vina Tondonia Reserva White 1993, blend of Viura and Malvasia, $43.00 SRP
Slight oxidative note, showing some development, herbal and citrus notes. Honey, oxidized, and apricot flavors, with medium+ acidity, medium+ body and long length.

Cortijo 2010, 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha; $10.00 SRP
Strawberry and leafy notes on the nose. Very lush fruit on the palate – strawberry and tobacco leaf, medium+ length.

Phincas 2008, 70% Tempranillo, 15% Graciano, 10% Garnacha, 5%; $38.00 SRP
Very modern in style and very tannic – needs time to mellow.

Cepas Antiguas Tempranillo 2009, 100% Tempranillo; $12.00 SRP
Strawberry, herbs, tobacco on the palate and nose. Full body, nice acidity and medium+ length.

Valenciso Reserva 2004, 100% Tempranillo; $40.00 SRP
aged in 100% French barriques. The wine was showing some development on the nose with faint fruit notes, oak, leaf/tobacco. On the  palate, the strawberry and raspberry flavors were more prominent, joined by the leaf/tobacco notes, all of which lingered on the long palate.