Lesser known Spain
One of the loveliest ways to learn more about wine is to go to a wine dinner. These are not at all intimidating: they are as much about the food as they are about the wine. So, you get to enjoy great food, while a sommelier or host takes you through the different wines that are paired with the dishes. These events also tend to be very social and a load of fun. I have to say, I'm a big fan.
Ely Wine Bar, which has won numerous Wine Spectator awards, has been running wine-tasting events and courses for years, and at a recent Navarra wine dinner, Ian Brosnan, their sommelier, took us through the wines of the region. You may not be as familiar with the Navarra region as you are with its better-known neighbour, Rioja, and that's for good reason. Although it was an important wine-producing region in the 19th century, with 50,000 hectares under vine, when phylloxera - a pest that feeds on the roots and leaves of vines - swept through France and into the north of Spain, it obliterated the region, wiping out over 95pc of those vines.
Navarra is known for its rosado wines, a deep-coloured rosé made from the local Garnacha grape, and the Tandem Navarra Rosado (available in O'Briens), which we had with our canapés as we sat outside on the sunny terrace, was fresh, exuberant and full of fruit and rose petals. But in the past 20 years, there has been a move away from this workhorse, and now it accounts for just 30pc of the grapes planted in the region.
What makes Navarra interesting is the decision about 20 years ago to plant a diverse range of grapes, which included a number of international varieties. While you would probably have a fairly good idea of what to expect from a glass of red wine from neighbouring Rioja - a reasonably full-bodied red wine, made predominantly from the Tempranillo grape, with ripe fruit, earthy flavours and obvious oak - you can't necessarily do the same with Navarra. A red wine from Navarra could be a single varietal, or a blend of different varieties, and these blends could be of indigenous Spanish varieties like Garnacha, or international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, all of which are grown in different areas of the region.
There are five distinct subregions in Navarra, ranging from the limestone and chalky soils of the north, where you get an Atlantic influence, down to the flat, sandy plains of the south, which has more of a Continental influence. Typically, the same range of grape varieties is grown in each region, but when it comes to tasting wine from Navarra, it is more about the different styles that are made, rather than a focus on the style from a specific region. Ian suggests that if you're trying one of the bigger reds (like the Ochoa Tinto Reserve 2009 I recommended in last week's Bank Holiday selection), you should serve it just a little bit cooler than usual to show off its freshness and fruit.
This diversity is one of the region's major plus points. Because the name Navarra doesn't have the same cachet as Rioja or Ribeiro del Duero, very often the bottles carry the name of the grape variety on the label, which gives consumers a better understanding of the style of wine. And because it is a lesser-known region, many of these wines offer very good value for money. On the right are four bottles for you to try, but do ask for other suggestions from your local independent off-licence. And if you're interested in learning more about Spanish wine, there will be another wine-tasting evening on October 19. See elywinebar.ie/wine-tasting.
The awards have been piling up for Irish drinks in the last month. Teeling Whiskey won six gold medals at the 2017 Irish Whiskey Masters Awards, bringing their total number of awards over the last four years to 116. Boyle's Gin, the craft gin at industrial gin prices, which is made by Blackwater Distillery in Waterford for Aldi, bagged double silver at the International Wine & Spirits Competition. And three gongs went to the craft beers at Lidl for their Crafty Brewing Company Beer at the 2017 Great Taste Awards. The beers are brewed by Rye River Brewing Company, based in Kilcock, Co Kildare.
4 wines to try
InmÁcula 2014, €14.95
13pc, from O'Briens
A soft blend of Viura and Chardonnay with a floral and fruity nose, this white from Navarra's Yerri Valley is fermented in French oak barrels and has ripe flavours of peach, apples and pears, with a crisp finish. Great with roast chicken.
Príncipe de Viana Edición Blanca 2016, €14.99
13pc, from Gala, Next Door and independent off-licences
You don't often see a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and here it works very well, with bright peach and melon on the palate, a touch of lemon and refreshing acidity on the finish. Perfect with scallops.
Fortius Crianza Tempranillo, 2013, €13.99
13.5pc, from Next Door and independent off-licences
With 80pc Tempranillo and 20pc Cabernet Sauvignon, this fresh wine, with juicy flavours of red berries, was aged for 24 months before it was released, with nine months of that in American oak barrels. A great alternative to more expensive Riojas.
Ars in Vitro 2013, €14.95
14.5pc, from O'Briens
An unfiltered, unoaked blend of Merlot and Tempranillo, which has layers of juicy dark fruit with flavours of dark berries, damsons and a savoury balance. An interesting wine to try, and also suitable for vegetarians and vegans.