Senoria de Sarria
800 years of history - today's ultra-premium wines
For as long as most wine enthusiasts can recall, the only wines from Spain that were ever counted among the finest in the world originated in Northern Spain’s fabled Rioja Region. What’s more, these lovely, classically oriented, (mostly) red wines were the only Spanish wines actually imported into the United States.
Things began to change some fifteen to twenty years ago when other wine producing areas like Ribera del Duero, Cigales, and Priorat began exporting their wines to the rest of Europe and international destinations including the United States. Shortly thereafter, another long time wine producing region called Navarra joined the bandwagon and began turning heads with some interesting Bordeaux-like reds. The ongoing success of these wines and their acceptance by the international wine press has propelled the region to equal status with other top winemaking regions. But for many years, the Navarra Region was more noted for the famous Festival of San Fermin, held in the city of Pamplona, which featured the annual running of the bulls and resultant gouging of the locals and visitors who chose to attempt to outrun the poor animals. Immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, the festival is still celebrated each July for Pamplona’s patron saint.
Another saint, the apostle St. James, also plays an important role in the region. As Spain’s patron saint, he is believed buried in Santiago de Compostella at the northern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Since the fifth century, pilgrims have made the trek from France to Spain (mostly on foot) through the town of Puente la Reina, the hometown of this selection’s Bodega de Sarria. The Bodega la Sarria itself is located a scant 30 minutes south of Pamplona and comprises a little over 100 plus hectares (slightly more than 250 acres) of vineyards and winery within larger acreage commonly known as Senorio de Sarria. The entire area is a charming location steeped in historical tradition and generally regarded among the leaders in viticulture in the Navarra Region.
The traditional aspects of Senorio de Sarria can be traced all the way back to the 13th Century, when one Garcia Espinel, then Lord of Senorio de Sarria, was recorded as fighting in a battle known as Navas de Tolosa (1212). Saint Francisco Javier, brother to then Senorio landlord Juan de Azpilicueta, recorded additional historical particulars in the 16th Century. An ancient letter refers to the fact that the holy man’s expenses as a student in Paris were discharged by the agricultural efforts of his sibling. Fast-forward to the current epoch and the now historically famous Senorio de Sarria of about 2500 acres was purchased by a well-known local businessman named Felix Huarte in 1953. Huarte envisioned a successful vineyard operation and immediately built a modern winery on the premises.
Senor Huarte was deeply influenced by Bordeaux wines and broke with tradition by planting several Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on his property. These wines were generally well accepted and even exported to Europe during his lifetime. After Huarte he died in 1971, the Bodega de Sarria eventually became the property of the Caja de Ahorros, a local bank that was keenly interested in the wine business. But by the decade of the 1990’s, the Bodega de Sarria had fallen into relative obscurity.
On January 17th, 2000 a new bank entity was formed that breathed new life into the storied Bodega de Sarria. A new and energetic management team was appointed and a new winemaker, Jesus Lezaun was appointed to restore the bodega to its former statue. New equipment and barrels were ordered and implemented and a goal was immediately set to restore its reputation. The fact that many of the existing vines were over 50 years old made Lezaun’s job a bit easier.
Lezaun also reverted to the former wine philosophy of founder Felix Huarte and began producing outstanding Bordeaux style wines that soon captured numerous international awards and met with instant critical acclaim. The story of the modern day Bodega de Sarria is filled with wonderful historical fact and a meaningful dash of present day business acumen that has certainly added to both its status and success. Many wineries would be delighted to trace its existence back almost 800 years like the Bodega de Sarria.
It is a delight to bring this International Selection from Spain to you for your enjoyment.
Bodega de Sarria winemaker, Jesus Lezaun
At 56, Jesus Lezaun considers himself a most fortunate man. He is currently the winemaker and production manager for the Bodega de Sarria, arguably the most noted and upcoming winery in the Spanish winemaking region of Navarra. Lezaun is a third generation winemaker, his grandfather having served as winemaker and general manager of a large Navarra winery and his father later acting in the capacity of winemaker for the region’s top wine cooperative. Since he was a little boy, Jesus Lezaun recalls having worked in his family’s small wine shop in Pamplona, near the streets where the famous running of the bulls took place annually. His entry into the wine business was quite natural, be believes, given his family’s longtime preoccupation with grapes and wine.
‘When I was eighteen,” he stated recently through a translator, ‘I first went to the University of Navarra and received my degree in Organic Quimics (Chemistry’) but I was really interested in wines and winemaking. I was able to get into Spain’s top school for winemakers, Terragona Rovira i Virgili and was then able to secure my degree in winemaking." With his degree in hand, Jesus Lezaun launched a thirty-plus year career in the wine business that has seen him involved in a number of activities and causes that have promoted and advanced the evolution of the Spanish wine industry. In 1982, he was one of the organizers and pushers of the Navarra Vineyards Reform Plan, the legislation that basically reshaped the future of winemaking and viniculture in his native Navarra Region. Among the changes incurred was the inclusion of a number of new varietals on the region’s approved list along with a series of adjustments involving permissible equipment and vineyard techniques that brought Navarra into the modern grape industry.
‘The changes were truly needed, ‘ recalled Lezaun. ‘It brought us into the progressive era and permitted us to be competitive with other regions and countries.” When he took over the reins at the Bodega de Sarria in 2001, Jesus Lezaun found a quaint and historical winery that was near complete disrepair. He immediately replaced the winery’s aging (literally, average age from 15-20 years old) barrel inventory with new French Oak. He also determined that the cellars and working areas be thoroughly cleaned and dehumidified. He installed a new ventilation system that afforded him the opportunity to make the kind of top quality wines he really wanted. The following year, three of his wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rose, each won a gold medal at the prestigious international Bordeaux wine judging and the Bodega de Sarria and Jesus Lezaun were off and running. Since then, the winery has amassed a large number of international accolades and has become one of the most respected wineries, not only in Navarra, but also in all of Spain.
Lezaun was also able to experience a stint in Australia where he worked at the proclaimed Mitchelton Winery in Central Victoria where, in his words, ‘ I was able to learn how to make wines on a very large scale. The Australians were not bounded by too many rules as some of us are here in Europe. In Australia, there is the freedom to do what you want with your grapes.”
Jesus Lezaun has always been guided by his simple philosophy that wine must, by its very nature, be a product that gives the consumer as much pleasure as possible. While favoring the Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) his winemaking approach is more New World in his winemaking technique.
‘The wines I make today are not consumed by oak,” Lezaun related. ‘I always attempt to place much more emphasis on fruit and structure. I have tried to employ that attitude at the Bodega de Sarria and it certainly seems to be working.” An incident nearly ten years ago always brings Jesus Lezaun back to reality. While observing some winemaking near a large old cement-fermenting tank, he slipped on a wet spot and fell into the filled tank. He was able to grab the side of the tank and pull himself out and thereby saved his own life.
‘If I had not been able to catch the side of the tank I would have drowned,” he finalized. ‘Wine is not like water and you cannot swim through the alcohol. I was a very lucky man.”