Although there are significant historical differences, Navarra is effectively a north-eastern extension of Rioja, and is centred on the great bull-fighting town of Pamplona. Like Rioja, it benefited from Bordeaux's misfortunes in the late 19th century. As in Rioja, its vines tend to be grown by smallholders, many of whom sell their grapes to co-operatives (much more dominant in Navarra than in Rioja), while its wines are bottled by one of the larger merchants.
For many years Garnacha was by far the most planted grape variety in the vineyards interspersed with the fruit and vegetable farms for which Navarra is so famous. Once temperature-control systems were introduced into Navarra's wineries, Navarra was able to churn out vast quantities of the clean, fruity, dry rosado so beloved by the Spaniards, thanks to the light-coloured Grenache's suitability for pink wine production. Chivite's Gran Feudo was Spain's pink answer to Marqués de Cáceres' white rioja and is still the standard pink in many Spanish restaurants.
The Navarrans realised, however, that it was unwise to base their future on demand for simple pink wine and, considerably aided by a local government research programme, they made a careful evaluation of grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and, especially, Tempranillo, which is now making some fine, concentrated wines, typically aged in American oak. Tempranillo has overtaken Garnacha as the most planted variety, with Cabernet Sauvignon coming in third.
The results are very respectable if only very rarely outstanding. Without a long tradition of ageing in American oak, Navarra’s bodegas have been able to invest in French oak for their French grapes and there is a host of affordable combinations of these and Spanish grape varieties, often oaked, on the market. Guelbenzu and Chivite make some of the finest examples of Navarra wine, including a sometimes stunning botrytised Muscat labelled Vendimia Tardía from Chivite who have also raised the bar in Navarra with their lavish investment in the Señorío de Arinzano vineyard and bodega in the north of the region.
This is more mixed farming country than Rioja, but as in Rioja there is a huge difference between the flatter more southerly vineyards and vineyards in the much more mountainous north where grapes may even occasionally be harvested as late as December.