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Hamless In Navarra

by Jennifer Rosen

Pamplona, Spain: A crowded tapas bar is the safest shelter from the nightly running of the stop signs. Order a chilled Rosado – the dry, refreshing rosé swigged by local hero Ernest Hemingway. Or play Russian roulette with a plate of Pimientos del Padron, the crispy green peppers roasted in rock salt that always include a couple of scorchers. But first: the refusing of the ham. When it comes to Serrano ham, I just don’t get it. A burly cousin of prosciutto, its chewy fibers and bands of fat stick in my molars or end up grisly spitballs on my plate.

It’s everywhere: alone on a plate, paired with French bread, camouflaged in local specialties like trout-wrapped-in-ham and ham-wrapped-in-trout. There is more than one ham museum. Hams hang from the ceiling of tapas bars, fitted with paper nose cones to catch dripping fat. “Try it again,” everyone says, “You’ll love the subtle, rich flavors developed during long curing in the high hills.” I don’t know, here at the bar they’re curing by the smoke of Gauloises and Marlboros. Fresh mountain air, my hambone. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.

Local wine, on the other hand, I can handle. The Navarra region is trying to shed its reputation as a cheap alternative to Rioja and supplier of Papa H’s Rosado (actual sign in bar window: “Ernest Hemmingway didn’t eat here.”) They want to be taken seriously.

Thirty years ago, the region was planted mostly to garnacha, the bulk of it going into rosé. Now they’re switching to international varieties like cabernet, merlot and chardonnay. Native son tempranillo is shaking out to be their signature grape, strutting its stuff like it does in Rioja. They’re going for intensity along with both local tang and international heft. Unlike Rioja and Priorato, though, Navarra offers superb wines at prices as bargain as our currently feeble dollar will allow.

Wine country is a series of high, snaking ridges sweeping down to valleys where the gnarly knobs of old vines dot the bare earth like cloves on a ham. Enormous white windmills crown the ridges, sleek propellers thunk-thunking out a base line that rattles tea cups miles away. Far from the quaint, Don Quixote-era ruins of La Mancha, these babies generate over 22% of the area’s electrical power. A quandary for ecologists: fossil fuel: bad – wind: good …right? But what to do about the mounting toll of bats, raptors and smaller, migrating birds who insist on flying kamikaze missions into the blades?

Spain has the good manners to make wine labels simple: only three words to learn. Crianza, the entry-level wine, aged two years, one in oak; is young, fruity and vibrant. Reserva comes from better vineyards and grapes and ages three years, one in barrels. It’s more elegant and complex, with leather and earth joining the fruit. Gran Reserva is made only in the best years. Aged for at least five, two in oak, it’s the most mature and often ages gracefully for years. If your budget precludes age-worthy Bordeaux or Napa, stock your cellar from the Spanish aisle.

Wines to look for: Guelbenzu: an old family winery spruced into something of a cult, without the cultish prices. Bodega Nekeas: where I had to pick my jaw up off the floor when I heard prices for the fabulous wines I was tasting. Way low. (They’re labeled Vega Sindoa here; Nekeas sounded too Greek, they thought.)

A long allée flanked by majestic plane trees leads to Bodegas Otazu, with its 12th century church, enormous barn converted to show-place winery, and what export director Juan José Nicuesa calls “a very child castle,” sporting the four-turret perfection you find in coloring books under “C is for…” Boasting the northernmost red vineyard in Spain, they produce excellent crianza and Burgundian chardonnay.

In honor of the winemaker’s birthday, I’m told, there will be a little party after tasting. I’m not too jazzed at the thought of cake and ice cream at nine am. Not to worry. The special treat turns out to be a plate piled high with….Serrano ham.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jennifer Rosen - Jennifer Rosen, award-winning wine writer, educator and author of Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, and The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine, writes the weekly wine column for the Rocky Mountain News and articles for magazines around the world. Jennifer speaks French and Italian, mangles German, Spanish and Arabic, and works off the job perks with belly dance, tightrope and trapeze. Read her columns and sign up for her weekly newsletter at:

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