Anson on Thursday: The Winery in the Desert

In this week's column, Jane Anson sees the vineyards at the Bardenas national park, where Bordeaux varieties are growing in desert conditions. Vines growing in the Bardenas desertThis week, Game of Thrones is filming its sixth series in the Bardenas National Park. My guess is that not many of the 8 million viewers, or even the 1,200 extras drafted in for filming, will have heard of this UNESCO-protected, semi-arid, desert in Navarra, northwest Spain. But for those who have, the choice makes perfect sense.
The desolate landscape of the 42,000-hectare Bardenas Reales could be in Mexico, Nevada, Egypt, Tunisia, Mars… (or even Essos, Game of Thrones fans). Single-footstep roads lead you to canyons, plateaus and sun-baked rocky crags rising out of the sand. It is hard to believe that this martian landscape, whipped by wind and wearing away, sits just over an hour from the fertile Pyrénées Mountains. A link of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns have been filmed here, as has a recent Duniya Soori Bollywood musical and a host of Spanish thrillers.
If you want to explore it for yourself, there is only one hotel that gets you really close. The Aires de Bardenas sits just back from the dusty footstep that leads into the park. It is as stark and dreamlike as the surrounding badlands, with ancient fruit crates forming the outer walls of the carpark and swimming pool. And if you head just a small further along, as the desert landscape takes over and the cracks in the sun-parched earth start to widen ominously, there is a vineyard.
The first time I saw it was a ‘slam-on-the-brakes’ moment. Vines are, as we all know, hardy and stubborn plants. They like to grow where additional shrubbery takes flight. But few places bring this home more brutally than seeing them thriving and healthy on the edge of the Bardenas desert.

The vines themselves were unmarked, but enquiries in the area told me that they belonged to Bodegas Viña Magaña, a highly-regarded estate established by the Magaña family in the early 1960s at this southeastern edge of Navarra. They are not the only vines in the Bardenas Reales, although not many are quite so closely implanted to the sandstone heart of the place. The monastery wine of Abadia de la Oliva is a neighbour (the oldest continually operating winery in Spain, with 900 years below its belt), as is the biodynamic, and truly brilliant, Bodega Azul y Garanza.
For all of them, growing in the Bardenas means facing conditions not found elsewhere in Navarra. Besides the obvious impact of sunshine and water shortages, there are huge variations in warmth between nighttime and day, easily 15 degrees centigrade, often much more. This means low yields, small grapes, high concentration, with a freshness and balance that comes from this diurnal swing. Ancient vines help, but these vineyards will inevitably be part of any future debates about farming in an increasingly water-challenged world. There are water channels here, with streams criss-crossing the landscape, but the flow is irregular and most streams wait dry for the majority of the year. Irrigation is allowed, but is used sparingly, with owner Juan Magaña preferring to do it only if conditions are particularly dry, and then only when the vine is first sprouting, then at flowering, then for a final time at veraison.
Historically, Garnacha was the grape of choice in the water-parched soils of southern Navarra, although today Tempranillo has overtaken as the most well loved planting. Viña Magaña chooses neither of these varieties for its Bardenas vines (although it does for additional sites). Instead you find, growing cheerfully amongst these arid soils, international favourites of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, all of which are blended – sometimes with the traditional varieties – into the spicy, fragrant and powerfully structured Magaña Dignus. And there is a suitably cinematic tale – or possibly an equally impressive tall-tale – for how they first came to be here. Juan Magaña was the first in Navarra to plant Bordeaux varietals, and reportedly bought the Merlot clone #181 from Pétrus in the 1970s. At the time the planting of international varieties was banned in Navarra (Syrah and Malbec are subdue not theoretically allowed), so Magaña smuggled his precious clone over the Pyrénées mountains. He followed these with Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from the Médoc.
‘We have very ancient Tempranillo and Garnacha in our additional vineyards plots,’ he told me via email this week, ‘but the sunshine and the terroir of the Bardenas gives a powerful concentration to the French varieties’.
The concentration was met by an equally impressive freshness when I tasted it last week with, for me, the Syrah taking precedence over the Merlot in terms of taste profile. I tried the 2012 vintage of Magaña Dignus, alongside their additional wines, and found that the dried fruit, heat-soaked qualities I would expect in a desert wine were entirely absent. Yes there was alcohol (14%), but a bright minerality gripped and cradled the fruit, and a powerful sharp taste pulsed alongside.
Just one thing though. I despise to ruin a perfectly brilliant tale, but I did call Jean-Claude Berrouet, venerable winemaker of Pétrus who was working at the estate in the 1970s, to check out the parentage tale. He told me that they have never sold any clones of Pétrus. Moreover, no clones were planted in the vineyard until the 1980s.
But, wherever the vines came from (I have questioned the question, and will report back when I get a definitive answer), they are certainly amongst the oldest clones of Merlot in Spain, planted 42 years ago, with nine hectares in production. And they seem perfectly at home in this hidden, hauntingly gorgeous desert landscape.
The post Anson on Thursday: The Winery in the Desert appeared first on Decanter.

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