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FROM SPAIN, WORLD-CLASS WINES AT GREAT PRICES

Of all the countries of Western Europe, Spain is perhaps the least susceptible to frivolous fads and capricious changes. This is partly a consequence of geography, as the Spanish were long insulated from extraneous influences by the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains along their border with France.

Modern transportation and communications may now be making these barriers less formidable in practical terms, but the Spanish retain long-standing habits of mind that favor tradition over novelty.

Against this backdrop, the current pace of change in the wines of the Navarra region is nothing short of astonishing. Today, Navarra is igniting export markets with world-class table wines at thrilling prices from Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, while also making great strides with such traditional varietals as Garnacha (Grenache) and Tempranillo. Even the rose (or rosado, in Spanish) has moved from a laughingstock to an out-of-stock winner.

The principal engine of this transformation has been the regional government. This is piling oddity upon oddity, since governments sometimes offer stability but almost never provide trailblazing energy in the wine business.

However, in this case, officials have instigated impressive efforts in research and experimentation. These have been furthered by EVENA (the Estacion de Viticultura y Enologia de Navarra), a formerly humble cooperative and, as such, an equally unlikely source of dynamism.

In sum, the new wines of Navarra are among the most incongruous products in the world of wine. Thankfully, they are also among the most delicious and affordable. Make a mental note to watch for the excellent 1997 Rosados from Navarra. Recommended wines are listed in order of preference within categories, with approximate prices.

Reds

Bodegas Ochoa Reserva 1991 ($14): This perfectly mature blend of Cabernet and Tempranillo shows delicious blackberry and black-cherry fruit with notable but well-balanced oak. The combination of deep, strong flavors and soft texture make this a very versatile wine that will work with everything from roast chicken togrilled steak. Sensational quality at an excellent price.

Guelbenzu Crianza "EVO" 1993 ($22.50): The Cabernet-based flagship of one of Navarra's greatest bodegas is a powerful wine with great complexity and finesse in 1993, despite rains that struck right before the harvest. The 1994 and 1995, tasted in Spain in December, are even greater wines that will trounce almost everything in their price category.

Bodegas Ochoa Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Crianza 1994 (all $12): This trio of varietal Crianzas from Ochoa are all outstanding in 1994. The Tempranillo was a favorite on grounds of superior aromatics and finesse. The Merlot is slightly less interesting overall, but is sensational when compared with other Merlots (from anywhere) in this price range. The Cabernet is also an exceptional value, with admirable restraint and sophistication.

Guelbenzu Tinto 1995 ($12): Vivid red- and black-cherry fruit drives this intensely flavored, powerfully structured wine, which is a Cabernet-based blend incorporating roughly equal parts of Tempranillo and Merlot and a dash of Garnacha.

Bodegas Julian Chivite Crianza 1994 ($10): Aromas of plums, dried cherries, wood and spice, with nice freshness and breadth on the palate. Fine, slightly dry tannins firm up the finish and make this a promising partner for red meats.

Bodegas Ochoa Tinto 1996 ($7.50): Fresh, vibrantly fruity aromas are reminiscent of Beaujolais, but gutsy black-cherry fruit makes this a more serious wine and a great choice for spring grilling.

Las Campanas Crianza 1992 ($6): This is a nice wine at a great price for those who prefer the old school of very soft, faintly oxidized, slightly earthy Navarra reds.

Whites

Vega Sindoa Chardonnay "Cuvee Allier" 1996 ($11): A wonderful Chardonnay from this outstanding producer, with lovely fruit well-supported by toasty oak and zesty acidity. Also watch for the new crop of reds arriving this spring that are led by a fantastic 1996 Merlot.

Bodegas Ochoa Vino Dulce de Moscatel 1996 ($8): A wonderfully aromatic, remarkably inexpensive, very sweet dessert wine with scents of flowers and tangerines.

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