The most famous event in the erstwhile kingdom of Navarra is the running of the bulls in Pamplona, which starts each year on July 7. For at least one day, every television station in the world shows the region. Who could ask for better publicity?
And yet, Navarra's wine industry has never capitalized on it.
It's not because Navarra has the wrong climate. Navarra is just east of Rioja, not far southwest of Bordeaux. It's attractive enough that links with French winemakers go back more than 800 years, when French monasteries planted cuttings from their home across the mountains.
The Pyrenees and their cooling influences are at Navarra's northern edge. And the southern part of the kingdom can't be so bad, because 8 villages in the governmental region are part of the Rioja wine region.
The grapes grown in Navarra represent its position between Bordeaux and Rioja: 37% Tempranillo and 24% Garnacha are classically Spanish, while 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot would seem to have Navarra prepped for the world wine market.
So why has Rioja prospered internationally while Navarra made cheap wines for the domestic market?
One answer is internal politics. For many years, Navarra's grape growers and wineries had separate associations, and they distrusted each other. This held back the wines, because grape growers following their own agenda of high yield and safe early harvest, without winemaker input, won't make it easy to achieve excellence.
It also held back the marketing. Navarra has little image of its own now. Does it make Tempranillo? Bordeaux blends?
One thing Navarra does as well as anyone is rosado (pink wine). This makes sense. More than 95% of the grapes grown there are red varieties, so they have the raw material. Look on the map: Navarra is not far from the south of France, which is probably the world's acknowledged pink-wine leader.
However, Navarra hasn't come to any kind of internal agreement to throw itself behind the banner of rose, and a glance at the prices explains why. Unless you're Domaine Ott, you can't sell pink wine for $20, whereas you can easily charge $50 or more for a Bordeaux blend in a heavy bottle (whether or not you can sell it is another story).
The Kingdom of Navarra held a tasting last week in San Francisco, and I concentrated on the rosados. As a group they were quite good: most were dry and refreshing, with good balance. Maybe it doesn't seem macho enough to celebrate pink wine, but these come from the same place as running with the bulls, and you just don't get mas macho than that.
Bodegas Campos de Enanzo Navarra Garnacha Rosado 2008 ($10)
A burst of bright strawberry fruit with a longish finish, but a touch of sweetness makes me think this might be a better wine for tasting than drinking. Still, very good value at the price. 89
Bodegas Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado 2008 ($12)
Simple but likable dry rosado, made of 100% Garnacha, with flavors of wild strawberry and pink grapefruit. Readily available, won't disappoint. 88
Bodegas Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado sobre lias 2007 ($15)
Aged on its lees for 6 months, this is one of the most unusual wines I've ever had. If I had tasted it in a black glass, I'm not sure whether I would have guessed white, pink or red wine. It's made from Tempranillo, Garnacha and Merlot, but it smells more like Chardonnay than anything else, although that's mainly because I associate the strong smell of lees with Chard. The fruit is rosado-like, wild strawberry, but it also tastes more of lees (or brioche dough, if you prefer) than fruit. Good balance, and even enough tannins to give it a touch of firmness in the mouthfeel. Unique. 90
Bodegas Marco Real Rosado 2008 ($10)
Unbalanced, with cement-like aromas overpowering the raspberry fruit. 86
Bodegas del Romero Malon de Echaide Rosado 2008 ($9)
This is for people who like their wine a little wild. It has the expected elements -- pink grapefruit and wild strawberry notes -- along with strong pine needle character and a hint of animalistic muskiness. In a red wine that would be a plus; it's harder to say about a pink. It has excellent crispness, so it's refreshing as well as interesting. Not for everyone, but I like it. 89
Bodegas Ochoa Rosado ($9)
Fruity on the nose; a bit austere on the palate -- to me, that's a great rosado for a hot day. It's dry and refreshing, with the wild strawberry and raspberry character much more giving aromatically. I can see polishing off multiple bottles of this under a sun umbrella, with or without food, and that's a mouthwatering vision. 90
Bodegas Piedemonte Rosado 2008 ($9)
An initial wild strawberry flavor gradually segues into pink grapefruit with hints of gooseberry. Solid, good value pink. 88
Bodegas Principe de Viana Cabernet Sauvignon Rosado 2008 ($9)
This might be the best pink Cabernet Sauvignon I've ever had. Generally I'm not a fan; Cab doesn't usually have the acidity to make a good pink wine, and pink Cabs are often overextracted until they become baby reds. This, though, is all rosado -- pink grapefruit and raspberry flavors, a light-medium body, and a surprisingly long, raspberry finish. Excellent wine, especially at this price. 91
Bodegas San Martin Ilagares Rosado 2008 ($7)
Tightly wound wine with grapefruit and raspberry flavors and some mustiness. 87
Finca Lasierpe Vino Rosado Garnacha 2008 ($7)
Blood orange flavors with a savory, meaty note. Dry. Not bad at the price. 87