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Fruits of Navarra’s superb climate

NAVARRA was once a proud kingdom that stretched both sides of the Pyrenees.

NAVARRA was once a proud kingdom that stretched both sides of the Pyrenees. It is now restricted to the south, an administrative region of Spain, sandwiched between the Basque Country and Rioja. I love the wine made there.

Navarra wines are sometimes compared to those of its powerful neighbour Rioja. This isn’t quite fair, for although they share very similar growing conditions, Navarra makes a greater range of styles, drawn from a much broader palette of grape varieties and flavours. This has emerged out of an imaginative local research programme to see which international varieties might thrive in Navarra’s superb climate.

In the 20th Century, Navarra’s fame was founded on excellent rosé (rosado), made mostly from Garnacha (Grenache) and should have given the region a huge head-start as demand for pink wine began to surge over the last 10 years or so. But the Navarra wine producers have failed to make the most of what could have been a huge commercial advantage. The very richness of choice available to them has turned out, perhaps, to be their Achilles heel. They have dithered and have not always marketed their wines with a clear enough focus.

Although I was also a little disappointed, on the evidence of a tasting of wines from 18 Navarra producers, gathered in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, that one or two wineries were not achieving the high standards of which they ought to be well capable, the leading bodegas continue to do their region proud.

Where would Navarra be, without stalwarts like the grand old family firm of Chivite, founded in 1647 and still one of the most innovative and quality-conscious firms in the whole of northern Spain? They continue to wave the flag for Navarra Rosado with their unfailingly delicious Gran Feudo Rosado. The 2007 (available in Waitrose at £5.99 and Oddbins at £6.49) has almost crunchily fresh raspberry and strawberry scented fruit. It’s as fine a Grenache rosé as anyone could reasonably hope to find anywhere.

Chivite also make Navarra’s flagship range – the Colección 125, originally named to celebrate the first 125 years of exports from their cellars. The Colección 125 Vendimia Tardia 2005 (Waitrose £15 for 37.5cl) is possibly the world’s finest sweet Muscat. I haven’t tasted the latest vintage (2006) of Colección 125 Chardonnay, but in previous years I’ve found nothing in Spain to beat it (£22.50 at Waitrose).

The red Colección 125 2004 is not yet in the shops, but continues the recent tradition of what is undoubtedly a very great red wine, with its intense, complex black fruit, balanced by real finesse. Like the top reds of Rioja, it is based on Tempranillo, but unlike them, it is stiffened by a goodly dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Colección 125 range is made in Chivite’s spectacular new winery in the relatively cool north west of the region.

But their older plant in the warm dry south, as well as making their estimable pink wine, also produces some hugely attractive, keenly- priced reds in the same Gran Fuedo range. Gran Feudo Crianza 2004 (£6.99 at Oddbins) has a most attractive depth of ripe plummy fruit, supported by just enough toasty oak to add a little complexity and interest. Gran Feudo Reserva 2003 (£7.19 at Waitrose) is a further testament to Chivite’s winemaking skills. That year was a difficult, hot vintage, but the wine, though just a little raisiny, is ripely fruity without being baked like many other 2003s. I’m delighted to see that Majestic have begun to stock wine from Bodegas Nekeas, another of my favourite producers.

Nekeas was founded in 1989, when eight families decided to pool their resources and to build a new winery.

It’s in a gorgeous setting with breathtaking views up into the mountains, marred only by the serried ranks of wind turbines that are so common in this part of Spain.

The business has been so successful that they now claim to export around 85% of their production – proof that Navarra wines can be marketed successfully abroad! One reason for their success, apart from the very high level of quality that they maintain right across the range is their very reasonable pricing.

And with Majestic’s latest special offer rates, my wine of the week is one of the hottest bargains of the year.

They also list the red Becaira de Vega Sindoa 2003 at the same generous offer price, but I haven’t had the chance to try it yet.

An unusual blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, it should be good. The Nekeas winemaker, Concha Vecino, is immensely gifted.

Wine of the Week

Izar de Nekeas 2000, Majestic, £9.99 (£5.99 if you buy two).

Superb Navarra red – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Merlot. Deep and rich with a figgy nose and lots of concentrated chewy, lingering black fruit flavours. Terrific with beef, game or wild mushrooms.

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