Getting to Know Navarra, One Of Spain's Most Important Wine And Food Areas

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For 30 years, my friend Robin has run with the bulls. His first time was in Pamplona, the capital of the Navarra region in the north of Spain, for the annual nine-day July Festival of San Fermin. People from all over the world converge upon this medieval city, dressed in white with red scarves, to run a half mile alongside bulls headed to the bullring. The bulls easily weigh over a thousand pounds and part of the allure of running with them is the adrenaline-pumping thrill and danger involved, for those who like that sort of thing.

By the end of the summer of 1982, Robin had run 40 bull runs all over Spain. The last one was in  the small Navarran town of Sanguesta. “We were running along narrow streets with nowhere to escape if a bull decides to turn on you." Robin told me. "And that's what happened. . .”  I'll spare you the 'gory' details (and yes, he did get gored) but, thankfully, Robin lived to tell the story and was back in Pamplona the following July to face his fears, don his white and red and run with the bulls again.

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While I wouldn't have the guts to go running down narrow streets with excitable bulls, there's something about Pamplona and the whole region of Navarra that awakens the soul and keeps people returning year after year.  A major draw is the famous Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James), a medieval pilgrimage route that runs east/west through the whole northern part of Spain, winding its way through Pamplona and the Navarran countryside. In the distant past, the pilgrimage was a religious one. Nowadays people from all over the world walk, cycle, ride horseback and drive along the route for a variety of reasons, whether for health, spiritual enrichment or as a unique vacation.

  Hiking along the Camino de Santiago

Hiking along the Camino de Santiago

  One of many colorful streets of Pamplona

One of many colorful streets of Pamplona

Pamplona is a charming and historic city that has been the capital of Navarra since the Middle Ages. You can easily spend several days wandering the narrow cobblestone streets with their brightly painted houses and intricate wrought iron balconies. There are many museums, monuments and gothic-style churches and several parks to relax in and admire the greenery.

  Pintxos (stemming from the word 'pinchar' which means 'to pierce') typically has a toothpick to keep its food from falling off the slice of bread. Above, roasted tomato with garlic, green pepper and Roncal cheese.

Pintxos (stemming from the word 'pinchar' which means 'to pierce') typically has a toothpick to keep its food from falling off the slice of bread. Above, roasted tomato with garlic, green pepper and Roncal cheese.

 

And then there's the food! The richness of the Navarran land (known as the "Garden of Spain") yields many flavorsome meats and produce — lamb, beef, game birds, foie gras, nutty, buttery cheeses like Roncal and Idiazabal, white asparagus, piquillo peppers, and artichokes. I could go on and on! What an extraordinary bounty of food. Plan ahead to visit one of the sophisticated and elegant fine-dining restaurants in Pamplona, three with Michelin stars: Rodero, Europa and El Molino de Urdániz.  Or stop in at one of the casual "pintxos" (tapas) bars to refuel with an assortment of small plates. Visit the Navarra Wine website to discover the best spots for pintxos lovers. No matter where you dine, you'll be partaking in a centuries-old Navarran culinary tradition of enjoying lengthy meals in the company of friends and family.

What goes hand in hand with delicious cuisine? Wine, of course! Any trip to Pamplona should include a visit to the stunning wine region nearby. The Navarra DO (Denomination of Origin, created in 1933) is bordered to the west by Rioja, but has its own distinct culture made up of family-owned wineries, all within an hour's drive of Pamplona. The wineries are near historical places of interest, many along the Camino de Santiago, and they all welcome visitors. 

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Why are the Navarran wines so unique? It's due to an unusual coming together of three climates — Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean. The combination of varied weather patterns, along with a diversity of soils and a range of altitudes, results in many styles of distinctive, terroir-driven wines. You'll find well-balanced, food-friendly wines — red, white and rosé — made from indigenous grapes (Tempranillo, Garanacha and Viura) as well as from international varieties (Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). These wines will surely get your appetite going! Luckily there are exciting new restaurants with imaginative cuisine and superb wine lists popping up all over the countryside, whether you're in the mood for an afternoon snack or a 5-course tasting menu.

While you may or may not be inclined to run with the bulls (I, for one, am not!) it's easy to see that Navarra is a wonderful destination for its culture, its food and its wine.

Start planning your trip to Navarra, and, in the meantime, try out my recipe for Navarran Style Grilled Ribeye Steaks.

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I received seven sample wines from Vinos D.O. Navarra and, overall I thought they were enjoyable, well-made wines and an amazing value, all retailing for under $20.  Below are suggested wineries to visit along with tasting notes of the wines.

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Wineries To Visit/Tasting Notes: Click on the name of the winery to find out more information about visiting.

Bodegas Ochoa

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In the medieval town of Olite just 40 minutes from Pamplona, the winery is now led by daughters of Javier Ochoa, a well-known winemaker. Adriana is the winemaker and Beatriz is in charge of international sales.

  • Calendas Blanco 2017 (10.99) This fresh, lively and fruity white wine is made from 70% Viura, 23% Chardonnay and 7% Muscatel. A light-colored, straw-yellow wine with a touch of green with aromas of lemon meringue pie. The initial lightness on the palate – zippy acidity with lemon/lime zest flavors — gives way to a more luscious mid-palate roundness. The Muscatel gives it subtle floral notes and the flavors linger long after the last sip.

Bodega Castillo de Monjardin

The winery is situated along the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

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  • La Cantera, Garnacha 2016 ($12) A beautiful ruby red color and wonderful aromas of fresh fruit, this wine entices you to take sip after sip. Silky tannins on the palate with delicate fruit and a touch of spiciness. The wine would be perfect with chicken, pork, fish and vegetable dishes. 
  • El Cerezo, Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($12) This aromatic, fruity wine has a lovely creaminess on the palate.  Well-balanced with nice acidity, I drank this wine over the course of a few days and enjoyed it each time, alone and with cheeses.

Bodega Inurrieta 

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The winery's vineyards are along the Camino de Santiago.

  • Inurrieta Orchidea 2017 ($13) This Sauvignon Blanc is light, lemony and refreshing. The kind of wine you would want to drink on a hot summer afternoon out by the pool.
  • Cuatrocientos Crianza 2014 ($18) This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is a slightly darker color than the other red wines I tasted but still a bit translucent. Medium-bodied and with silky tannins, this wine is all about its fresh fruit flavors. 

 Bodega Otazu

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Just 30 minutes from Pamplona and one of the few Spanish wineries raised to the quality level of "Pago" status. The winery has a spectacular private collection of art.

  • Otazu Chardonnay 2015 ($11.99) A delightful light golden yellow color, this wine is round and creamy on the palate with a slight oiliness. There is a distinct, yet subtle flavor of honey on the finish that enticed me to keep on sipping!
  • Otazu Premium Cuvee 2013 ($13) A gorgeous deep garnet red color rimmed with brick. The aroma was reminiscent of eating cherry pie at a campfire, both fruity and smoky. This medium-bodied wine is very dry and savory with big fruit flavors and a little spiciness on the finish.

Whether or not you're inclined to run with the bulls (I, for one, am not!) it's easy to see that Navarra is a wonderful destination for its beauty, its culture, its food and its wine.

 Photo courtesy of Navarra Wine

Photo courtesy of Navarra Wine

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Navarran Style Grilled Ribeye Steaks

Navarra is a region in northern Spain dotted with small, charming villages. Its capital and largest city is Pamplona, famous for the annual running of the bulls during its Fiesta de San Fermin. Pamplona is a walled city with many well-preserved monuments, bridges and the gothic-style Santa María la Real Cathedral.

The Navarran people have a centuries-old tradition of enjoying lengthy meals in the company of friends and family with great food and the locally produced wine — red, white and rosé. The red wines from Navarra have a wonderful affinity for smoky, grilled meat like these ribeye steaks which have been marinated for hours. 

Read more in my article, Getting To Know Navarra, One Of Spain's Most Important Wine And Food Areas.

 

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Ingredients

4 cups red wine

3 bay leafs, crumbled

3 Tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup minced garlic

1/2 cup shallot, minced

1/2 red wine vinegar

4 1" thick boneless ribeye steaks

Instructions

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1) Combine first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Pierce steaks with a fork and add to marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight or for at least 3 hours. Alternately, place marinade and steaks in a ziplock bag, seal and refrigerate, turning bag over every once in a while.

2) Remove steaks from refrigerator one hour before cooking. Preheat gas or charcoal grill. While grill is pre-heating, remove steak from marinade and blot dry with paper towels. Season steaks with salt and pepper. 

3) Place the steaks on the grill and cook until golden brown and slightly charred, 3 - 5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and continue to grill 3 - 5 minutes for medium-rare (an internal temperature of 135 degrees F), 5 to 7 minutes for medium (140 degrees F) or 8 to 10 minutes for medium-well (150 degrees F).

4) Let steaks rest for 5 minutes before serving with Navarran Inspired Skillet Potatoes and your favorite green vegetable.  

Enjoy!

 

La Pitchoune Makes Its NYC Debut!

  Tracy and Peter Nielsen at the Santa Rosa warehouse where their wine is processed, fermented, aged and bottled.

Tracy and Peter Nielsen at the Santa Rosa warehouse where their wine is processed, fermented, aged and bottled.

Whenever I visit wineries, I'm reminded of what hard work winemaking is. It sounds so fun and glamorous, but it's farming and that's a very tough business to be in. Many new winemakers give up another career — and a steady paycheck — to pursue a passion of making quality wine. Tracy and Peter Nielsen of Sonoma's La Pitchoune winery are two of these (some may say crazy) people! They had dreamed of starting a winery for years before their first vintage in 2012 and they're now making mouth-watering, food-friendly wines, mostly Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. 

Last November I met Tracy at the production facility in Santa Rosa where the wines are made and stored. It was just a few weeks after the devastating wildfires had ripped through Northern California. "Standing amongst rows of wine-filled barrels, Tracy begins telling me about the day she returned to the wine production warehouse. 'I wasn’t expecting to get so emotional and I just needed a minute to compose myself,' she says. 'We live twenty minutes west of here and this is as west as the fire went. If it had gone any further, this building would be gone.'" (Excerpt from my article on Grape Collective. Read the full article here).

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Tracy and Peter also produce a small amount of white wine, a Chenin Blanc, made from grapes grown on an island in the Sacramento River Delta. Tracy will be at Grape Collective, 2669 Broadway this Saturday, June 16th, from 6 - 7 PM (tasting goes from 5:30 - 8 pm). Kick off your night with a free tasting of La Pitchoune's delicious Chenin Blanc while supporting passionate young winemakers.

Surf And Turf On The Barbie — Shrimp And Lamb Paired With McGuigan Wines

Surf And Turf On The Barbie — Shrimp And Lamb Paired With McGuigan Wines

Join me on a Wine Pairing Weekend, an Aussie Grilling Adventure! Try these two fabulous recipes — lamb chops and shrimp on the barbie — from my friends at McGuigan Wines in the land down under!

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Spreading The Word Of A Great Cause: Auction Napa Valley And Its E-Bidder Experience

  Join the world's most celebrated charity wine evenT online

Join the world's most celebrated charity wine evenT online

In case you haven’t heard, it's a big week for Napa Valley with the annual Auction Napa Valley event. Since 1981, this charity wine event has invested $180 million in Napa County’s nonprofit organizations, helping to support a variety of community health services and children’s education programs. 

Chances are, if you are just finding out about the auction, you won't be able to attend in person. No worries! Auction Napa Valley’s E-Bidder Experience will give you on-line access to more than 250 incredible lots of Napa Valley wines, wine futures and one-of-a-kind experiences ranging from sports, travel, unique dining events and extravagant overnight stays.

Visit http://eauction.auctionnapavalley.org/ to find out more details and to register. E-bidding lots close at noon PDT on Sunday, June 3rd.

  One of the many amazing lots to e-bid on: A Wine & Golf Getaway for Four at the Muirfield Village Golf Club with 2 nights accommodations, 2 rounds of golf, a cook-out, dinner, massage treatments and wines from Mayacamas Winery, one of The Wine Chef's favorites!

One of the many amazing lots to e-bid on: A Wine & Golf Getaway for Four at the Muirfield Village Golf Club with 2 nights accommodations, 2 rounds of golf, a cook-out, dinner, massage treatments and wines from Mayacamas Winery, one of The Wine Chef's favorites!

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How Healthy Soils Are Making Delicious Wine At Avignonesi In Tuscany

  The beautiful Avignonesi Estate in Tuscany, now 100% organically farmed, can be visited for tours and tastings.

The beautiful Avignonesi Estate in Tuscany, now 100% organically farmed, can be visited for tours and tastings.

Nine years ago Adriano Zago, an agronomist based in Tuscany received a phone call from Belgian heiress and ex-lawyer Virginie Saverys. She had just acquired Avignonesi, an historic winery in Montepulciano, the first and oldest red wine DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) in Italy. Virginie, an avid vegetable gardener and proponent of organic farming, told Adriano about her vision of transforming the entire estate to biodynamics and putting new life into the vineyards. “Can we do it?” she wanted to know. Nine years later, the answer is clear and her dream has become a reality.

Click here to read the full interview on Grape Collective with Adriano: "Virginie Saverys Of Avignonesi Winery Is Bringing New Life To Old Vineyards In Montepulciano." 

Make sure to seek out these special wines at your favorite restaurants and local wine shop ($22.99 for the 2014 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at Grape Collective).

  The common thread of all of the Avignonesi wines is one of delicacy and mouthwatering freshness. These are food-friendly wines.

The common thread of all of the Avignonesi wines is one of delicacy and mouthwatering freshness. These are food-friendly wines.

  Tasting the wine with Adriano at Grape Collective

Tasting the wine with Adriano at Grape Collective

  The gorgeous red color of the Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is surprisingly light and translucent. This medium-bodied wine has a very earthy quality, while still being light and fresh on the palate. The delicate fruit flavor —both of fresh and dried fruits — has slight hints of licorice and tobacco along with a spiciness, especially on the finish.

The gorgeous red color of the Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is surprisingly light and translucent. This medium-bodied wine has a very earthy quality, while still being light and fresh on the palate. The delicate fruit flavor —both of fresh and dried fruits — has slight hints of licorice and tobacco along with a spiciness, especially on the finish.

Roast Chicken And Moorooduc Estate Pinot Noir Made By The McIntyres In The Mornington Peninsula (A Wine Pairing Weekend! #WinePW)

Roast Chicken And Moorooduc Estate Pinot Noir Made By The McIntyres In The Mornington Peninsula (A Wine Pairing Weekend! #WinePW)

Join me on a Wine Pairing Weekend with three “M”s: Moorooduc Estate Winery in the Mornington Peninsula, owned by the McIntyres! Wines paired with roast chicken and potato salad. #WinePW on Saturday, May 12th at 11 a.m. EST.

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What You Should Know About French Malbec

Did you know that the origin of Malbec was thousands of years ago in southwest France, most notably from the small town of Cahors? More recently though, Malbec has become synonymous with Argentina. The French vines planted during the mid-1800s took a liking to the sun and soil of Mendoza. It wasn't long before Malbec began revolutionizing the wine industry of Argentina.

For French Malbec, things took a very different turn. The grape went missing for almost a century due to phylloxera, war, frost and the replanting of other varieties. It wasn't until the 1970s that the Vigouroux family bought an abandoned Château in Cahors and helped bring Malbec back to life.

Read my interview with Château de Haute-Serre's Bertrand Gabriel Vigouroux at Grape Collective to find out more about French Malbec and how it's making a comeback.

  Top photo and bottom left: Celebrating 40 vintages of Château de Haute-Serre at Keen's Steakhouse in Manhattan.  Photo at bottom right: The Wine Chef interviewing Bertrand Gabriel Vigouroux at Grape Collective on the Upper West Side.

Top photo and bottom left: Celebrating 40 vintages of Château de Haute-Serre at Keen's Steakhouse in Manhattan.  Photo at bottom right: The Wine Chef interviewing Bertrand Gabriel Vigouroux at Grape Collective on the Upper West Side.

Discover the difference between the two Malbecs! 

A fun way to learn more about French and Argentinian Malbec is to buy a bottle of each and do a side-by-side comparison. The abundant sunshine and drier air of Mendoza make for a more fruit forward, rich wine. French Malbecs are grown in a damper climate with lots of limestone in the soil, resulting in an earthy, almost smoky wine with lots of minerality and higher tannins.

 

Click here for recommended Argentinian Malbecs. It may be a little harder to find French Malbec since less is produced. The 2012 Chateau de Haut-Serre can be found at Grape Collective. Other French Malbecs to look for: Château du CèdreChâteau LagrézetteChâteau Haut-MonplaisirClos TroteligotteJean-Luc BaldèsChâteau VincensChâteau Famaey and Paul Hobbs & Bertrand Gabriel Vigouroux (this last wine is a joint venture between the Vigouroux family and Sonoma winemaker/consultant Paul Hobbs).

Sommelier Thomas Pastuszak Is Making Some Fine Finger Lakes Dry Riesling

   Vineyards overlooking Beautiful Seneca Lake in New York's Finger Lakes Region. Photo by Lisa Denning

Vineyards overlooking Beautiful Seneca Lake in New York's Finger Lakes Region. Photo by Lisa Denning

Thomas Pastuszak, Beverage Director of NYC's NoMad Restaurant (home of the best roast chicken in Manhattan!) believes that Riesling is a misunderstood wine, often assumed to be sweet when, in fact, it is made in many styles from dry to semi-sweet to sweet. While he personally enjoys all variations of a well-made Riesling, he takes particular pleasure in turning people on to the drier styles of these aromatic, mouthwatering white wines. 

   Thomas, with his 2016 Empire Estate Dry Riesling. Photo: Lisa Denning

Thomas, with his 2016 Empire Estate Dry Riesling. Photo: Lisa Denning

"Oftentimes, I'll have a guest who comes in and says, 'I just want to have a glass of dry wine. Something not too expensive." Thomas told me during our recent video interview, "Maybe they won't pay it any attention, I'll come over and pour a dry Austrian Riesling or something from the Finger Lakes in a drier style, like Empire Estate. They'll taste it and they'll say something in the range of, "That's really good. What is it?" Then when I tell them that it's Riesling, a light has been shown, the doors are open, and they realize that Riesling can be made in a dry style. I think it's a misconception and often you just need to get the wine into people's glasses. You need to get them to taste it to realize what it can be."

Empire Estate is Thomas' own wine label, started in 2014 which produces two excellent dry Rieslings. Read the full interview at GrapeCollective.com. And, as a bonus, you'll find out if awesome hair helps to sell wine!!