Navarra: from nasty to nice

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The wine was so disgusting I wanted to spit it out. But I couldn't. I was a fledgling wine-writer, on a Spanish wine trip with a bus-load of male English wine writers. And I had been put at lunch in the place of honour to the left of the elderly president of the winery. Vinicola Navarra, one of the biggest wineries in the region of Navarra (next door to Rioja in northern Spain), was filthy and run down, with evil smells lurking round the corner of every ancient wooden vat. Lunch lasted three hours, and the food was fantastic. There was dish after dish of asparagus, roast peppers, baby lamb - and one nasty wine followed another with each course. I grinned and bore it.

Nowadays, 15 years on, I'd tell him, gently and constructively, what he might do to make his wines better. But it's too late. They've done it already. On my last visit five years ago they were burning the old vats, the winery had had a complete refit, and a clued-up young winemaker, Jesus Lezon, was working wonders.

The transformation of Vinicola Navarra was just a part of the transformation of the whole of Navarra's winemaking. Early in the 1980s, the local government set up a vine and wine research station, then and now one of the most advanced in Spain. It tested 30 grape varieties in different parts of the region, and advised growers and wineries on what to plant, and how to get the best out of their grapes. The best of the modern Navarra wines are often blends of French grape varieties with the local grapes. Many other regions of Spain have banned foreign grapes, but the Navarran authorities are broad-minded. And even the local varieties alone can be made to taste good, given modern winemaking.

Asda's white 1995 Remonte Navarra Blanco (pounds 2.99 Asda) is made with the undistinguished local Viura grape, but it's crisp, fresh and lemon zesty. A dash of Chardonnay and a spell in new oak barrels can turn out the likes of 1994 Agramont Viura/Chardonnay, Navarra (pounds 4.79 Safeway), a tangy white.

Chardonnay on its own in Navarra can be stunning. The best is the remarkable 1994 Nekeas Barrel Fermented Chardonnay (pounds 5.82 The Real Wine Company of Royal Leamington Spa, pounds 5.99 Eckington Wines of Sheffield, Noel Young Wines of Trumpington and Holland Park Wine Co of London W11, pounds 5.99 by the case only Arriba Kettle of Honeybourne, Evesham, mail order only 01386 833024, pounds 6.11 Tim Morrison Fine Wines of Maybole, Ayrshire). This is an incredibly complex wine for this price, with oak and lemony, buttery, toasty flavours - it would still be good value at twice the price. (Also look out for the newly arrived 1995 Vega Sindoa Chardonnay - pounds 4.99 Oddbins - likewise from the Nekeas winery). Also very good is the fairly complex, unoaked 1994 Chardonnay Castillo de Monjardin (pounds 5.76 Laymont & Shaw by the case only, mail order 01872 70545, pounds 5.99 Pierre Henck Wines of Wolverhampton, Corks of Cotham, Bristol, Bentalls of Kingston, pounds 6.45 Gastromania of Cirencester).

Traditionally, reds and roses have been Navarra's stronger points. Navarra used to grow little other than Garnacha vines, whose red grapes produce rather heavy, alcoholic red wines unless cleverly handled. Now, much of the Garnacha has been replaced by Spain's best red wine grape, Tempranillo (not much grown in Navarra formerly), as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

But the Garnacha, too, in the right hands, can make good wine. For a refreshing dry rose try the soft, creamy 1995 Gran Feudo Rosado Garnacha, Julian Chivite (pounds 4.19 Oddbins, pounds 4.60 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke), and for a simple, gentle, juicy-fruity red, the 1995 Remonte Navarra Tinto (pounds 2.99 Asda). Garnacha made from really old, gnarled vines can be so wonderful that it is a pity they tore out so many of the old Garnacha vineyards. 1995 Guelbenzu Jardin (pounds 4.99 Majestic and Moreno Wines of London W2 and W9, pounds 5.99 Wine Cellar and Berkeley Wines - still excellent value at the higher price) is one and is intense, dark, firm and plummy, and 1995 Agramont Garnacha de Viejas Vinas (pounds 4.99 Villeneuve Wines of Peebles, pounds 5.40 In The Pink by the case only and also mail order 01986 872908, pounds 5.46 Laymont & Shaw, pounds 5.49 David Byrne & Co of Clitheroe and Winos of Oldham, pounds 5.99 Gastromania of Cirencester) also has intense, cherry and raisin fruit. Both are ready to drink now.

From the new grapes, 1992 Remonte Navarra Cabernet Sauvignon Crianza (pounds 4.99 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Thresher) is easy-drinking, with figgy, blackcurranty fruit; 1994 Tempranillo Sin Crianza, Palacio de la Vega (pounds 3.99 Europa Foods) good value, soft, fruity and appealing; and 1995 Ochoa Tinto Sin Crianza Tempranillo Garnacha (pounds 4.59 Wine Cellar and Berkeley Wines, pounds 4.95 Majestic and Europa Foods) an easy-drinking, fruity blend made by the former head of the research station, Javier Ochoa, in his own family winery.

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