I recently went on my first trip to this ancient, rugged land that borders France in the north-east corner of Spain.
Wines have been made here from the Roman days through to the days of Arab rule and became cemented in its history by the monks who set up monasteries along the Santiago de Compostela route, which goes straight through Navarra, and needed succour for their thirsty pilgrims. And no doubt for themselves too.
They brought cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Bordeaux and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy. As Pilar Garcia-Granero, the head of the Consejo Regulador, was at pains to tell us, when these varieties were re-planted in the 80's and 90's they were merely reviving the viticulture of the 10th and 11th century monks - NOT jumping on an 'international bandwagon'.
These varieties are particularly suited to specific sites across the region's diverse lanscape but it took time for these sites to be located as local knowledge disappeared with the arrival of phloxera in C19th and the grubbing up of all the old vineyards, as no records were kept.
But with the new wave of highly motivated winemakers has come the revolution. There are some extraordinary wines being produced with such purity of terroir expression, it would be impossible to label them 'international'.
Garnacha too has had its low points. Post-phylloxera growers were anxious about re-planting varieties that were tricky to grow and so widely planted the pest resistant and high yielding Garnacha. Quality overall in the region suffered as mass-produced rosé and cheap red plonk became associated with Navarra. Since when many growers wanted to distance themselves from it. However it has found some champions recently.
The first bodega we visited, Domaines Lupier - the name itself betraying the French historical overlap in this border Kingdom - was to turn all concept of a mass-production variety on its head.
This husband and wife team, Enrique Basarte & Elisa Ucar, have painstakingly brought back to life no fewer than 27 tiny plots of old vine garnacha clinging to scrubby mountain sides between 400-750m altitude. These terraced plots
are inaccessible by tractor so all the work is back-breakingly (the vines are tiny gobelet bushes close to the ground) done by hand - including harvesting which involves a 10 minute walk to the top of the foothill with each basket of grapes, where there is a road for the tractor to wait.
This incredible passion and attention to detail - including planting lavender and chamomile among the vines to improve the soil - is brought out in the wines.
An incredible expression of what can be achieved with 100 year old vines and unbridled enthusiasm. Due to luggage restrictions I could only bring back 2 bottles - these were the 2 wines I chose.
We also visited other small-ish bodegas with fascinating stories and sharing the same passion and desire to produce world class wines - they have real belief in their land and their vines and tasting the finished product you see exactly why.
Tandem was created by Jose Fraile and winemaker Alicia Eyaralar in 2003. The Santiago de Compostela runs right in front of their property and from the glass tasting room you can pilgrim watch.
The winery itself is a thing of modern beauty. The glass, slate and concrete building is a confident, bold statement. The curve of the hillside has been used to great effect with corridors and skylights created to make the most of the natural light, which floods in to the winery. And it is partially underground which makes it energy efficient.
They make some fantastic wines. The Inmacula 2010 100% Viognier fermented in 300ltr French oak barrels over lees was a highlight, rewarding, rich and yet fresh and beautifully balanced. Also stars that day were the Ars in Vitro 2007 a Tempranillo / Merlot blend and the Ars Nova 2005 Tempranillo / Cab Sauv / Merlot. The Mars Macula 2005 Cab Sauv / Merlot was spectacular but needs several more years to achieve it's potential.
Nekeas is a mid-sized bodega set in a beautiful valley which we had to have a drive around to appreciate its full beauty even though we were running SO late.
The winemaker, Concha Vecino, has worked there for over 20 years and her dedication is immediately apparent from the moment she welcomes you at the door to her domaine - the harvest was in full flow and her excitement was palpable.
Her intricate knowledge seemingly of every vine is astonishing and when she told me that she moved into a house on the vineyard so that she can feel on her skin what the vines feel, I wanted to move in with her.
We tasted several of her wines in the apothecary-like tasting room and enjoyed them very much. Sadly only the El Chaparral is available in the UK through Majestic but hopefully this will change soon.
2 much bigger operations also showed that no matter what size you are, the devil is in the detail and if you are a pioneer of detailed research and innovation like Javier Ochoa the brand you have created will stand for quality and terroir no matter how big it gets.
Bodega Inurrieta by contrast is only a decade old but has the size and scope to match its ambition. They were also fantastically hospitable and one of the uncles cooked lunch for our rather large party in the bodega. A family affair as various members joined us. Their wines are available widely in the UK and are well worth seeking out.
And before we left we stopped off at Bodegas Julian Chivite. They have an enviable spot in Navarra and are one of the oldest family-owned wineries here with traditions dating back to the 1600s.
They have a state of the art winery which they are very proud to say blends completely into the stunning surroundings and never detracts from the natural beauty of the land. They even use wooden bottle crates instead of metal cages.
They have a vast array of wines and I have to say there wasn't a bad one among them, the superlatives around the table just got more extravagant with each round. There are 3 distinct ranges - the Gran Feudo which is a lighter style, very pretty and easy to drink.
Then the Colleccion 125 which are beautifully well-made, the Chardonnay being in a Meursault style with peaches, salty pecans, blue cheese, crushed hazlenuts, wow! And the red - mainly Tempranillo - lifted, perfumed and great delicacy overlaying the power.
And then the Arinzano blockbusters which need plenty of time. The 2001 was well-structured and complex - blueberries, sausages, spice, dried shrimp, black olives. Will be amazing but still way too young. And the 2004 was more generous and friendly - more Spanish but still too young and slightly tight. Every reason to believe it will reward patience.
I was entranced by Navarra, a region of so many landscapes and terroirs as well as its fascinating history with France, not just Bordeaux but relationships stretching as far as Champagne. Not too mention the vegetable garden from which we feasted richly - artichokes, white asparagus, tiny peas and sweet lettuces. More on the food, the coastal road trip and the Sidreria in another post.
For now I can only encourage you to check out modern Navarra - there's more to it than the San Fermin of Pamplona!