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Ric visits Bodega Otazu

November 12, 2016

What’s that? Never heard this name before? Well, neither have I, until I visited this winery (“bodega” being equivalent to “chateau” or “domaine” in France although, strictly, the word means “cellar”) on 20 September 2016 and was totally blown away by its uniqueness, attention to quality and passion in winemaking.dsc_9343

dsc_9150Located 8 km from Pamplona in the vast country of the Navarra region of Spain, bounded by the mountain ranges of Sierra del Perdón and Sierra del Sarbil and the Arga River, Bodega Otazu does not have a long history behind it. In fact, it was established less than three decades ago by its founder Patxi, although wine has been made in the Navarra region since the 15th century. Yet, in this short period since its establishment, its efforts have been recognised and Bodega Otazu was elevated to the status of Pago Appellation in 2009 (equivalent to highest cru in the Spanish wine classification system), awarded only to just a few wineries in Spain.dsc_9153

dsc_9167Still, I haven’t the faintest clue what to expect. We spent a good hour driving there from San Sebastian and when we arrived past 1000h, we were warmly received by Guillermo, a dashing young Spaniard in his 30s who speaks excellent English and who had taken over the reins from his father Patxi a few years ago. Sited about 400m above sea-level, Bodega Otazu enjoys the mild temperate climate of the Atlantic and cooler winds blowing down from the northern Pyrenees, both of which contribute to optimal ripeness of the grapes. As Guillermo proudly points out, the 115 ha of Bodega Otazu enjoys its own micro-climate. Four grape varietals – chardonnay, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and merlot – are grown on soil consisting largely of clay with pebbles and gravel which facilitates excellent drainage and root penetration.dsc_9179The first thing that caught our eyes when we arrived were large open-air modern sculptures adorning the lawn and various parts of the estate. That’s right, this is a winemaking estate that is hugely interested in music and the arts as well. Which winery in the world would name its various plots after its favourite composers? And so their signature tempranillo, divided into five plots, are named Beethoven, Mahler, Haydn, Strauss and Massenet, as are subplots of merlot named Wagner, Mozart and Bach. I have absolutely no issues with that; in fact, I am absolutely delighted in their choice of composers. Literary greats like Goethe, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Nietzsche (to name but a few) are not spared either. These are not some arty-farty B.S. done for the sake of publicity. Both Patxi and Guillermo breathe art and wine in equal measure. Talking to Guillermo, I realised he knew his music thoroughly and I found myself in deep conversation with him right away about Wagner, the Bayreuth Festival (he just attended The Ring there last month and didn’t like the production) and who sang Brunhilde best.dsc_9203

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dsc_9209We were shown first to a museum showcasing its range of wines as well as (yes, you guessed it) a vast collection of modern artworks occupying every floor and corner of what used to be its old cellar. Patxi supports promising artists from all over the world and even Ai Weiwei has an installation there. We moved on to its new purpose-built cellar, plunged in total darkness at first, where one is only aware of Bach’s organ music being played in the background. Slowly, some imaginative back-lighting came on, revealing a vast spacious facility with high arch ceilings, gradually illuminating the multiple long rows of barrels lying quietly with their precious content. If the wine being cultivated in barrel listens to Bach, it can only be good.dsc_9212

dsc_9216Bodega Otazu also practice what several other wineries around the world are beginning to do, releasing a vintage onto the market only after the wine has had 4-5 years of bottle age, as Guillermo figured that there is no point releasing a wine straight after bottling when it is not yet ready to be drunk. Of course, as a marketing tool, this effectively raises market anticipation and pricing if the vintage is excellent and the wine highly sought-after. The wine being aged in bottle are all housed within the estate and, yes, they listen to more Bach while lying undisturbed. Bodega Otazu certainly has the space and financial clout to do this but I cannot imagine smaller estates forking out money to hold back their own wines.dsc_9404 dsc_9312We were hosted by Patxi and his family to a superb lunch overlooking the cellars, where more of the 2007 Vitral was drunk. Bodega Otazu also regularly invites its guests to make their own wines. dsc_9266Thinking that this must be some sort of gimmick, I was surprised when, after lunch had been cleared, three tables were set up, each laden with numerous stemware, burettes and measuring cylinders together with 3 full flasks of red wine marked cabernet sauvignon, merlot and tempranillo. We were split into three teams, each supposed to experiment with various blends of the three grape varietals whilst taking note of the exact proportion of each. We got down to some serious work and I was surprised that small variations in blend proportions actually do result in discernible changes on the palate. When we were done, the three different blends were duly noted by the cellar master who then produced a bottle of each blend. We were made to taste the three blends blind and vote for our favourite. It turned out everyone’s unanimous favourite was a blend of 85% tempranillo with 10% merlot and 5% cabernet (Dr Ngoi’s !!).dsc_9334We then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring various parts of the estate. There was the Romanian Church of San Esteban from the 12th Century, located in the heart of the Señorío de Otazu, part of the original St James´s Way. It was the first building in this spectacular natural scenery and inside the church there is a magnificent altarpiece in plateresque style from the 16th Century. Also of interest was the Defense Tower from the 14th Century, one amongst many other medieval defence towers in Sierra of Etxauri and in the surroundings of Pamplona. And, of course, there was the Palace of Otazu from the 16th Century that was the residence of Gil García de Yániz, señor de Otazu, lieutenant of the Governor of Navarra in 1351, now the living quarters of Patxi and family. In its courtyard was a grand old tree trunk that would do very well as the World Ash Tree in Wagner’s Die Valkyrie.dsc_9243

dsc_9234We spent the rest of the lazy afternoon yakking over coffee with Patxi before trudging back to the cellar in the main building, where some unfinished business awaited us. It turned out an entire barrel of Dr Ngoi’s winning wine had been made, to be aged for 12 months in French oak before it would be bottled and shipped to us!! We were asked which kind of bottling we preferred (magnum, of course) and to design our own label. Well, I’m absolutely flabbergasted.dsc_9268

dsc_92482015 100% Grenarche tasted from barrel, displaying earthy tones, undergrowth and dark red fruits with great concentration and acidity.

2015 100% Merlot tasted from barrel, exuding powerful notes of dark berries and black fruits, a wine of immense concentration and intensity, framed by sophisticated sweet silky tannins with some graphite overtones.dsc_91842015 Bodega Otazu Chardonnay. Unwooded at 13.5% alcohol. Absolutely delicious with notes of delicate citrus and gentle pineapples, medium-bodied but beautifully intense, very well balanced between fruit and acidity with understated minerals showing up towards the sparkling finish. Very fine indeed. Excellent.

2015 Bodega Otazu Merlot Rosado. Essentially a rose, delicious with a rosy fragrance, very easy on the palate with good acidity and just the right concentration of fruit, finishing well. Deceptively simple but highly satisfying.dsc_93402013 Pago de Otazu Chardonnay Con Crianza. Aged 7 months in 60% new French oak, this wine exuded a beautiful complex bouquet of tropical fruits, rich in complex citrus and crème de la crème, rounded and highly aromatic with understated minerals, displaying excellent balance and mouthfeel. Excellent stuff.

2012 Bodega Otazu Premium Cuvee, a blend of mostly cabernet with 35% merlot and a bit of tempranillo. Selling for only EUR15, this wine carries dark red fruits, dark currants and wild berries, remarkably balanced with excellent acidity, great concentration and fabulous intensity all the way to its lastng finish. Superb value.dsc_93472009 Bodega Otazu Senorio. A blend of 75% cabernet, 20% merlot and a tiny bit of tempranillo. Quite lovely on the nose with bright red fruits, darker in tone on the palate with a spicy edge, displaying good complexity from the excellent depth and concentration of fruit along with fabulous acidity amidst traces of enamel, finishing well. Excellent.

2007 Bodega Otazu Altar. Only 20 barrels made annually, comprising 95% cabernet with the rest merlot and tempranillo. Deep and dark with a quiet brooding character. Big and bold on the palate with an abundance of dark currants, surprisingly gentle and beautifully balanced, layered with red fruits, displaying great definition and linearity all the way to its finish. There’s plenty going on here. Clearly one for the long haul. Excellent.dsc_93682007 Bodega Otazu Vitral. This is the absolute top cru of Bodega Otazu with only a few barrels made per year. In a promotional video, workers could be seen carefully selecting the grapes and handling them gingerly, each berry being uniformly rounded, pristine and full. Comprising 95% cabernet that is de-stemmed, the Vitral exudes a beautiful bouquet with a  rounded complex red fruits and currants, open on the palate with great presence and fresh acidity, layered with sweet chewy succulence and  superb tannin structure. A superb wine with huge potential. Outstanding.dsc_93522013 Bodega Otazu Vitral, tasted from barrel. This wine possesses a superb depth of dark red fruits and black currants along with some briar and deep violets, rounded with excellent body, acidity and layering, colored by some spice at the edge.dsc_9191The shadows had grown lengthy by the time we took our leave. This surely has to be one of the most memorable visits ever to a winery. Throughout my time there, I was struck by the absolute passion, zest, energy, attention to detail, discipline and organisation in the work of Guillermo and his staff . Wherever you are, be sure to look out for Bodega Otazu, an estate where its values and ethos translate into outstanding wines at every price point.dsc_9432

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