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Reds from Hemingway's region making a mark

ON the heels of Ribera del Duero, Catalonia and Rioja, Spain's region of Navarra has jumped into the global market by capitalizing on its tradition of excellent garnachas and adapting to more popular varietals like tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.

A tasting of dozens of Navarra wines last month in New York showed how fast the region's viniculture has come since the 1990s, when its wines had no international distribution or reputation.

"It's a region on the move," said Robin Kelley O'Connor, director of sales for Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in New York. "They've discovered great terroirs; now all they need is a little patience to make great wines."

Navarra, a mountainous northern region made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novels "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Sun Also Rises," ranges from the eastern Pyrenees to the edge of Rioja Baja. Pamplona is its principal city.

Today the region's total wine production has risen to 60 million liters, from 18,000 hectares of vineyards separated into five zones.

According to Ana Laguna, wine expert with the Navarra School of Tasting, 70 percent of the region's grapes are indigenous - mainly tempranillo, garnacha, graciano and mazuelo for the reds, viura and moscatel de grano menudo for the whites - and 30 percent are international varietals. Ninety-four percent of the region's wines are red.

The wines I was most impressed by were the rosados, with their true rose color, fragrant nose and flower-and-mineral flavors picked up from the red limestone that covers the region's vineyards. Ochoa - one of the more notable modern wineries there - makes an enchanting rosado for summer (US$10). Its 2007 vintage, with 13 percent alcohol, is now ready to drink, perfect with tapas, shrimp and lobster.

Every bit as good, a gorgeous pink color with a hugely satisfying bouquet, was 2007 Campos de Enanzo (US$10). Its garnacha grape juice is derived from a "bleeding technique" of sheer gravity rather than mechanical pressure.

Ochoa, an innovative winery whose vineyards date back to the 14th century, also makes a fine 2005 single vineyard blend of garnacha and graciano (US$15).

A bottle of Ochoa's 2001 Reserva (about US$18), a blend of 70 percent tempranillo with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, showed signs of oxidation, though its 2005 Crianza, 100 percent tempranillo (US$15), was stunningly rich and balanced in fruit, acid and tannins. At the same level of elegance and vivacity was the 2005 Artajona Argaray Crianza (US$12).

It's interesting that almost every Navarra wine I sampled here and in Pamplona was labeled no higher than 13.5 percent alcohol. The region has achieved a fine balance of the old with the new, making fresh, fruity wines that haven't lost the taste of their terroir.


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