In bygone days when I was more heavily involved with sales of Spanish wines, the UK market was, despite my efforts, less sophisticated and understanding (“Does Spain make white wine?”) about them than today.

However even then, certain names stood out. Cava was popular, driven by Freixenet and its iconic black bottle. Rioja, as it is today was recognised everywhere (often to the detriment of other regions) and some consumers even understood that within that sector there were differences: Viña Tondonia and La Rioja Alta were in the traditional camp, Allende and Roda were of the modernist school, Murrieta and Muga somehow rode a tightrope between the two.

Only the Rioja region though could have attracted this attention as everywhere else was treated at best, with mild indifference. Two companies though, neither of which were based in Rioja, rode above the ignorance and indeed their names became better known than the regions they came from: Torres from Penedés and Chivite from Navarra. My first encounter with Bodegas Chivite was in 1999, so 20 years on seems a good time to focus on the estate, its achievements and some of the wines from their impressive range.

Their history dates back to 1647 and 11 generations have since carried the baton, expanding, consolidating, innovating and adapting depending on the needs of the estate. Although 1647 is the first documented evidence of their name, it appears that Chivite already owned substantial vineyard and property holdings at that time. The mindset of not resting on laurels was particularly useful during the 1860s when oidium ravaged France’s vineyards and Claudio Chivite, the boss since 1846, took the opportunity to establish exports not just to the desperate areas but to a wider audience who were suddenly left bereft of French wines. In 1872 a new winery was built on the La Cascajera site which still exists today.

He passed on the mantle to his son Félix who established the first trade mark for Chivite and ran the business for 50 years until his death in 1928. Two years later, his youngest son Julián took control and steered the Bodega through the turbulent waters of the Spanish Civil War and World War 2, for although Spain was technically neutral, export quotas on Spanish goods were enforced. The post-war era heralded an upturn in the family’s fortunes but Julián Chivite Marco was convinced that quality not quantity would be the watchword. This was in stark contrast to other areas of Spain which were still in thrall to Franco’s promise that the state would pay for, in effect, over-production, and countries like Italy or regions such as Burgundy where replenishing the depleted wine stocks took precedence.

Many people’s first encounter with Chivite would have been with the Gran Feudo label, established in 1975 and more will be written about the wines of the Colección 125 range, founded in 1985 to commemorate their first exports in 1860. Between 1988 and 2001, the family purchased land in Navarra, the Rioja estate of Viña Salceda, and then 50 hectares in La Horra to create their own Ribera del Duero establishment. The empire expanded further into DO Rueda with the launch of Baluarte Verdejo in 2009. The expansion was undertaken during the leadership of Julián Chivite López who took over in the mid-1990s.

Of course, no empire survives without firm foundations and the Chivite reputation has been built on the quality of their wines. The estate has had a long history of making Tintos, Blancos and Rosados from acquisitions within Navarra as well as increasing their profile throughout Spain. The variety, quality and innovation of Chivite can be witnessed by highlighting some wines from their Navarran holdings and where better to start than with the awesome Chivite Colección 125 Blanco 2005? The authoritative Guía Peñin awarded it 99/100 points in their 2020 guide, a feat only matched by two other white wines in the history of the publication.

Chardonnay, drawn largely from the estates of Las Canteras, El Plano en Aberin and Finca de Legardeta, had been aged in a variety of French oak including Vosges and Nevers for 10 months. The fact that the wine has flourished further after 14 years in bottle is testament to the quality of its ingredients to start with. However, these bare facts do not cover the innovation of the estate in their ground-breaking co-operation with Denis Dubourdieu, the professor of Oenology at Bordeaux University. This collaboration dated back to 1993 and allowed Chivite (and Dubourdieu) to make a Spanish wine that would truly equal the great Burgundian whites. Geography played a large part with the acquisition of the Finca de Legardeta whose site to the southwest of the town of Estella produced Chardonnay with ideal levels of acidity and pH to maximise slow maturation. Its atlantic-continental climate and average altitude of 500 metres above sea level were key factors in the purchase of the Finca and the subsequent development of the wine.

Dubourdieu worked with Chivite until 2015, and his successor and collaborator (from 2011), César Muñoz, embraced another eye-catching partnership with Juan Mari Arzak (whose family is synonymous with 3 star Michelin ratings) to make Chivite las Fincas which first appeared in 2015. The brand concentrated on two popular Navarran varietals, Tempranillo and Garnacha, grown again at the Finca Legardeta and a Rosado was created (because Arzak loved Rosado) which was 65% Garnacha and 35% Tempranillo with lees ageing for 6 months. This blend does change depending on vintage conditions. Muñoz went on to make Las Fincas Blanco which was unorthodox in its use of 2 Garnacha grapes – Blanco and Tinto! In the words of Julián Chivite, the blend (51% Garnacha Tinto and 49% Garnacha Blanco) combined both the opulence of the Blanco and the finesse and acidity of the Tinto. The young wine was partially fermented in French barrels and spent 5 months ageing on the lees before the components were blended. By only using free run juice which emerged when the red grapes were pressed under their own weight, no contact was made between the must and the pigments of the skin which carry the colour. A white wine of mixed vinous parentage is not unique, but certainly unusual.

I’ve called Chivite “an estate for everyone” because they make many wines of different characters and hues. If you don’t like Blanco or Rosado wines, you’ll find enticing reds to tempt the tastebuds including those of the Finca de Villatuerta range. This was first released in 2013 and came from the Tierra Estella vineyards based on the hillsides around the Granja de la Legardeta. Their Selección Tinto blends 77% Tempranillo, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Merlot, which are then matured for 12 months in French oak. Their Finca Legardeta Chardonnay is also well respected and gained 93/100 points in the 2020 Guiá Peñin as did the Chivite Colección 125 Reserva. This Tinto differs from the afore-mentioned Selección by being 100% Tempranillo, given complexity by at least 12 months maturation in French oak casks of which 50% are new (imparting toast and oak flavours) and 50% 2nd use oak which puts a brake on too much jarring wood.

Dubourdieu was a master of sweet wines so it would be fitting to end the article by mentioning the Chivite Colección 125 Vendimia Tardía, a regular high scorer with Peñin. Moscatel grapes from a 50y/o vineyard are assiduously harvested in 12 different phases between October and December. The wine is fermented in French oak and spends 5 months maturing in it before release.

I’ve not included any tasting notes because I hope you’ll now be tempted to discover these jewels for yourselves and have fun writing your own.