The Autonomous Community of Navarra in northern Spain extends from just south of the Ebro River, northwards to the French border in the Pyranees. Wine growing is restricted to the southern half of the Community and becomes more concentrated near to the Ebro. Vines are divided geographically into two Denominacións de Origen (D.O.), with approximately one third belonging to D.O. Rioja and approximately two thirds belonging to the contiguous D.O. Navarra.
Wine growing in the region of D.O. Navarra dates back to Roman times and flourished in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago were both consumers and advocates of the wine, which became well known throughout northern Spain. The vineyard had to be replanted in the early 20th century following the arrival of Phylloxera in 1892. The new vineyards on American rootstocks were given over almost entirely to Garnacha, whereas the pre-Phylloxera vineyard is believed to have been much more diverse, though details are sketchy.
For most of the 20th century, the wine industry in Navarra was dominated by co-operatives who produced much bulk wine for export. Garnacha Tinta with its drought tolerance and high yields, was largely treated as a workhorse grape. In 1974, Garnacha Tinta made up 93% of the then 25,016 ha of vineyards. Much of the fruit was vinified to produce rosé wines, destined to be drunk not long after production and often showing oxidised notes. White cultivars then totalled 650 ha, roughly 2.5% of the D.O. Navarra vineyard.
Since 1990 the overall size of the D.O. Navarra vineyard has ebbed and flowed in response to economic factors. In response to changing consumer taste, winemakers have shifted from Garnacha-based rosés to red table wines based on a broader grape palate. To achieve this, many Garnacha vines have been removed and new cultivars, especially Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, introduced into the D.O. Navarra vineyard. From 23,336 ha in 1974, to ca. 10,000 ha in 1995 to 2,632 ha in 2012, the removal of Garnacha has been ruthless and relentless.
Part of the transformation has been facilitated by the increasing availability of irrigation water which, in 2005, meant that for the first time more vineyard area was irrigated than dry farmed. This has given farmers greater opportunity to plant non-Garnacha cultivars, as well as non-vine crops.
The D.O. Navarra vineyard of 2012 is almost unrecognisable compared to how it was composed forty years previously. Is this a good thing? If you hold to the view that a region’s vineyard composition reflects centuries of experimentation by small farmers and gradual selection of cultivars to those most suitable to the available terroir, then this could be the stuff of nightmares. Much of the work on determining suitable cultivars and clones has taken place in the last 25 years at La Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Navarra (EVENA). There can be do denying that the region is now producing many excellent wines, especially full-bodied reds. Navarra has reinvented itself and is now an exciting wine region producing wines in a variety of styles and at a range of price points. Let’s hope that climate change does not scupper the ambitions of experimental viticulturalists and wine producers alike.