Run riot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am

Years ago, a friend and I backpacked to the Spanish region of Navarra for the Festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls. On arrival, we promptly splurged our hotel funds on cheap local wine that resulted in our sleeping through the festival and the run.

Wine is not new to Navarra. It has been produced there since the Roman occupation; it's possible to visit the remains of several wineries dating back 2,000 years. In the 12th-century equivalent of the Luxe Guide, Navarra's wines were recommended to travellers en route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a destination as popular with pilgrims as Phuket is with Hong Kong bankers.

Though now subsumed by Spain, Navarra was once an independent kingdom that included Bordeaux in its portfolio. Its monarchy was displaced centuries ago but Navarra still promotes itself as El Reino de Navarra, the Kingdom of Navarra. This defunct kingdom has been referred to as the California of Spain given its diverse terrain, ranging from damp emerald hills, snow-capped Pyrenees and alpine slopes to craggy canyons and rugged desert. This is the Spain of romantic jousts, the intricate bull-fighting pas de deux and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

When Bordeaux's vineyards fell victim to a pesky louse called phylloxera in the mid-1800s, most of France relied on Navarra to supply its wine, even as late as 1898. Sadly, when France's vines regained their footing, Navarra's production devolved into rosados made of grenache. Though widely considered one of the best producers of rose in Europe, the region became better known for the annual running of the bulls in its capital, Pamplona, than for its wine production.

Don't let this dusty heritage give the impression this is an ancient kingdom focused on the past. With new infusions of capital, technology and enthusiasm, Navarra is producing some of Spain's most prestigious reds. Producers are utilising an array of grape varieties, some based on the classic Bordeaux model, while others feature the Spanish tempranillo variety in the blend, mimicking the success of the Italian 'Super-Tuscan' producers who combined Bordeaux varieties with their native sangiovese.

Navarra has been slower to rise to international prominence than neighbours Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero and Priorato, but this is due in part to its vast diversity of terrain and grape varieties. As with any wine region in flux, collectors need to select their producers with care. A number of respected Navarra producers, such as Chivite, have long been resident on our wine shelves, but last week I was quite impressed by a tasty 1995 Fernandez de Arcaya Reserva (Cofama, tel: 2368 1778, or e-mail lkypoltd@netvigator. com). This fine Bordeaux-style wine is not the red party-grog of my Navarra memories; this is a wine worthy of a once-powerful kingdom. In fact, I might buy a few bottles and go running with the water buffalo on Lantau. Just for old time's sake.