Advantage Spain

Paul Blow

I’ve been watching tennis with my Spanish friend Gabriel, who not only loves the sport, but also was very proud that four of his countrymen made it to the sweet 16 of this year’s U.S. Open. Passing the summertime afternoons, we’d often sip some wine during the matches—Spanish wine, of course—which allowed me to refamiliarize myself with one of Spain’s greatest and most overlooked categories: rosado from the region of Navarra. I had forgotten how brilliant these wines are, and what brilliant values, usually selling for between $8 and $12 a bottle.

Last year, I spoke out about the free pass that most rosé wines seem to get these days. It’s now fashionable to drink rosé in the summer, yet so many rosés are unbalanced and frankly unpleasant, burning with alcohol and without the flavor and concentration to carry the wine. It’s for this reason that I tend to prefer rosés from the South of France. Often they are made with more care—and are lower in alcohol—than rosés I taste from the New World.

The best rosados from Navarra are balanced like the wines from the South of France. Light in color, delicately scented with notes of strawberry and cherry, and accented with hints of dried herbs, they’re also charged with a juicy burst of acidity. Alcohol levels generally run between 12 percent and 13.5 percent, which is probably the upper limit for the wine to remain balanced. Unsurprisingly, these rosados often share a grape variety with their French cousins: Grenache. Navarra rosado doesn’t have to come solely from Grenache (or Garnacha, as they’d say in Spain), but my favorite ones do.

Where Navarra rosado may differ from the rosés of Provence or the Rhône is that according to regulations they must be made with the saignée method, in which tanks containing crushed red grapes are “bled” of some of their juice after a few hours of skin contact. This lightly tinted juice is then fermented separately like a white wine (no skins or solids in the tank) until it becomes a dry rosé, whereas the juice left in the tanks with the red grape skins goes on to become red wine. Many French rosés are made differently; the red grapes used for the wines don’t begin the journey to become red wine. They are pressed immediately after picking and thus there is no real skin contact, resulting in wines of lighter color and texture. It’s commonly said that the latter method makes finer rosé wines, but in my experience that’s not true. Great rosé wines can be made both ways. The key thing—as with all wine—is the quality of the grapes you start with.

And Navarra, with its eastern border in the foothills of the cool Pyrenees and its southern area in the dry, flat plains south of Pamplona, can grow great grapes.

Now, though, the U.S. Open has run its course and the season for rosado is winding down. “I won’t be drinking any rosado after the finals,” announced Gabriel. “The wines are not so good after one year.” The Spanish prefer to drink rosado as fresh and young as possible. So, with the grapes from this year’s harvest starting to come in, the season for 2008 wines is over. The wine we were drinking, the 2008 Bodegas Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado, with its pale strawberry color, faint berry nose, and soft but crisp palate, still tasted good. But, in spirit at least, Gabriel was right: Summer will extend a few more glorious weeks, and then it will be time to move on to more autumnal fare. In the meantime, I’ll be drinking Navarra rosado for as long as the warm Bay Area September evenings will allow.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.