Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Navarra Wine Adventure, Day Three: Bodegas San Martin, Otazu, And More

I pick up the travels of the #Navarra5 returning to the beautiful Palacio Guendulain in Pamplona after another great day of tasting wines, eating food, and getting cultured. Day three was a smashing success in my book, leaving me further impressed with the wines and perhaps more so, the people. I admire the passion for creating world class wines as well as the willingness to take risks in that pursuit.

As much as I've tried to write about day three of this incredible journey, the words just don't seem to want to appear tonight. Sleep beckons and the bed in my room is so comfortable that I would not mind a day spent there, with plenty of Champagne of course. This scribe must take a mental break for a night, and I'll pick up the tale in the morrow.

Reflecting upon today's itinerary makes me realize how much I'd love for my real job to be traveling the world, bringing eager wine drinkers stories from afar. Not schlepping cheap plonk at Trader Joe's. Come to think of it, I said the exact same thing about Day Two! Since I can't go out and travel the wine regions of the world..yet..I suggest anyone reading this try as many wines from around the world as you can. Throw away preconceived notions you might have about a particular grape or region and just taste wine.

We return to this blog entry more than a day after the events of Wednesday, when I've had time to sit and think about the experience, reliving some moments in particular. The day saw us visiting a Templar church, Puente la Reina along the Pilgrim's Way of St. James, Bodegas San MartinOtazu, and the best food and wine pairing I've had all year. That evening, a visit to one of Pamplona's famous fish restaurants (La Runa Sideria) was in order, further stuffing the #Navarra5 with amazing cuisine.

Starting the day off right, with a visit to the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, a 900+ year old Romanesque hermitage. Think about that for a moment..For all the self-congratulating we do here in the United States about how amazing we are for having a 230+ year old democracy, that church was ancient before this country was even a glimmer in Mr. Hancock's eye. Being able to walk those stones was a humbling, extraordinary experience.

The group's next stop was Puente la Reina, a town along the Way of St. James that ends in Compostela. Here we were exposed to more ancient churches and took a walk down to the famous bridge itself.

After a time spent at the church and Puente la Reina, we re-boarded the wine shuttle for our first stop, a co-op called Bodegas San Martin. I'd tasted their Senorio de Unx label in previous Navarra wine tastings. Those bottles would be priced around $15 here in the U.S. Like Malon de Echaide, Bodegas San Martin also makes a lower end label, called Ilagres. Beyond the Senorio de Unx, at about $25-$30 is the Alma de Unx, a truly outstanding wine despite it's ugly label.

At Bodegas San Martin I discovered a couple of wines that I'm positive would be very successful here. The co-op started in 1914 and now consists of 175 growers making anywhere between three and five million liters of wine a year. The vineyards are all at elevations of 400-800 meters above sea level, in mountainous chalky and gravel based soils. Some areas with more clay based soils are planted too, though the vines there are younger. Currently, distributors in Phoenix and Connecticut bring in the wines, though that may change soon as more progressive distributors bring in wines from Navarra.

Here are some notable wines I tasted at Bodegas San Martin:

2010 Flor de Unx Vino de la Tierra: A rosado with a bit of carbonation and some residual sugar, I think this wine would crush it in American markets. It's 100% grenache and brimming with aromas of strawberry, raspberry and rose petal. It's got sweet red fruit across the palate, a hint of bubbles, and just a touch of acid to keep things in line. At $12-$14, it's a bit pricey compared to cheap Moscato de Asti or Lambrusco but the quality is so much higher than a lot of those wines that I feel this is a smart buy for those who like a little sweet and a little bubbly.

(img: http://bodegasanmartin.com)
2005 Reserva de Unx: 100% tempranillo, aged 15 months in American and French oak. The nose is all smokey meat, spices, and dry soil. On the palate it's smooth with integrated tannin, red cherry, dust notes, cracked pepper and sun dried tomato. If you love tannic, full-bodied red wine, this would be right up your alley. My ideal pairing is a medium-rare steak fresh off the grill with a teaspoon of garlic butter on top. Put this tempranillo against a similarly priced Rioja example and the Reserva de Unx would shine for it's lack of heavy oak and more balanced character. The vines are around 25 years old and show a nice maturity in the fruit characteristics.

2006 Alma De Unx: 100% grenache, aged for nine months in Navarra oak. The nose is full of bright red fruit, mountain herbs, pepper, and a touch of oak. On the palate I picked up more of the herbal note with a streak of minerality racing along the palate. Further along, a complex mix of pepper, cherry, and very firm tannin enhanced the texture. If the bottle and label are changed I think this wine could be a commercial success here in the United States. It comes in around $30 a bottle and is the most expensive wine Bodegas San Martin makes. The price point illustrates something important about wine from Navarra, that you get extremely good quality wine without an exorbitant price tag. That theme repeated itself throughout my stay in the region.

From this co-op the #Navarra5 then went to the next winery, called Señorio de Otazu. We met Javier Banales and he proceeded to wow us with some incredible bottles of wine, equal to some of the best of ours here in the U.S. After that, we dined on a sumptuous lunch, one I chronicled in a separate blog entry because the food and wine pairing was just that good. I urge you to take a moment and read that other blog, that meal is a memory I will cherish for a long time. Incidentally, if you're looking for Otazu wines, check out New Age Imports.

Otazu is relatively new, restarted in it's current location in 1990. Today they produce around 350,000 bottles, on 115 hectares of land. The vineyards are unique, they are the northernmost in Spain and close to France, which plays a role in influencing the style Otazu makes. Javier told us that the winemaking philosophy stresses balance over extraction, and the committment to quality includes a program of controlling as many of the variables as possible. I liked the oak program at Otazu, where each barrel is used for about four years and each red wine vintage sees between 20% and 30% new French oak.

Here are some highlights from Señorio de Otazu:

2009 Otazu Chardonnay: An unoaked, Chablis-style chardonnay. No malolactic fermation takes place, leaving a nose bursting of green apple, Bartlett pear, and lemon zest. At 14% alcohol, there is some weight to the palate, but the malic acid does a great job of showcasing apple, pear, and wet river-stone minerality. The finish draws out in a very linear fashion, but that's a good thing. I would love this wine with Dungeness crab, grilled scallops, or any number of chicken dishes. For around $15, the quality is very hard to beat.

2006 Otazu Altar: A blend, 85% cabernet sauvignon and 15% tempranillo that pours inky purple in the glass. The nose is gorgeous, full of dried herb, leather, bittersweet chocolate, and black cherry. The Altar spends 18 months in French oak barrels, and the total production run is about 7,000 bottles. On the palate this is an elegant, full-bodied red. Loads of dark fruit, cedar, stunning minerality, and impeccable tannic structure create an outstanding bottle of wine. While at about $50+ it's not cheap, it's also a showcase for what the terroir of Navarra is capable of.

2005 Otazu Vitral: 700 bottles of this were made, a blend of 95% cabernet sauvignon and 5% tempranillo. Javier suggested that future vintages would not include any tempranillo at all, because the cabernet vines were finally producing the quality fruit that is needed to make this wine. The nose is full of licorice, dark earth, chocolate, ripe black cherry and blackberry, along with a whiff of smoked meat. This wine is one you could stand side by side with the best of the world and it would hold it's own. I judged this to be one of the top three wines of the entire trip. At $150+ it isn't cheap, nor should it be. Ideally a filet mignon would accompany the Vitral, with the rich meaty flavor of the steak balancing the firm tannin of the wine.

I fell asleep in the wine-shuttle as we returned to Pamplona, the combination of awesome food and incredible wine just did me in. I think each lunch we had in Navarra lasted between two and three hours, something we Americans are not used to. Upon our return to the hotel, the group was somewhat dismayed to find that we only had a few minutes to get ready for dinner. More food, if you can believe it, was built into the agenda. Our destination was a seafood restaurant called La Runa Sideria (The Rune Ciderhouse) that is also home to great casks of cider. Seafood and cider aren't what I immediately think of as a pairing but I was determined to try this out.

As we all sat around the table ordering plates of freshly caught fish, I went to a cask and drew off some of the Navarran cider. It was bone dry and had only the fainest hint of apple flavor, as well as being practically flat. While not everyone liked it, this seemed an important ritual for us and I happily partook. The #Navarra5 did of course drink wine, but I didn't have my notes with me so I cannot recall what they are. I'll end with some more shots of our delicious dinner, before we climbed back into some taxis and made our way "home".

Our fearless guide Michael Matilla of Argos Wine Consulting is seen drawing off some of the cider at La Runa. He loved this stuff! The picture was my attempt at an action shot, I feel my little Canon Powershot just wasn't up to the task..Or maybe it was me, after a long day.
Some kind of fish, freshly caught that morning, and now prepared into a delicious meal for us. Paired with a chardonnay, it was perfect. I'm glad we did seafood tonight because trying to consume more beef would have possibly been disastrous.
Another fish, also of unknown provenance, but also quite delicious. Often the "fresh fish" we get here is multiple days old, but not the fish at La Runa, or so we were told.

Each day kept getting better with new wineries and experiences. Seeing ancient bridges and churches reminded me of how old this land is. Tomorrow, day four, the group is going to another winery and an excavated ancient Roman winery. That got me thinking; people have been making wine in Navarra for two thousand years, isn't it about time we here in the United States caught on? If this area wasn't suited for wine production and didn't know how to make good wines, they'd have stopped by now.

Beau Carufel


  1. What a great trip! Seriously when I win the lottery I am buying you your own wine store that I can then just come in and purchase the wines you talk about. Getting so frustrated in not being able to find what you talk about, locally. (The first fish looks like Sole and my mouth is watering!!)

  2. Sooooo jealous!! When I heard you were going on this trip, and I was watching your tweets, I was wondering how much beyond wine you'd see on your visit. It looks like the wine was well balanced with history, architecture and FOOD. Beautiful post!