Sipping and Cooking with Pacharán: A Taste of Ancient Navarra (#winepw)

Have you traveled to Spain? If so, you’ve likely visited the bustling metropolis of Madrid or the sophisticated streets of Barcelona; perhaps you’ve wandered through the towns of Andalucía, enchanted by the plaintive notes of Flamenco guitar floating on the breeze. But there’s another place, nestled in the northeast corner, where nature preserves sit next to world-class vineyards. It’s called Navarra, and it has a real story to tell.

Navarra Wines Site
Exploring the Terroir of Navarra (

The Wine Pairing Weekend group heads to the region this Saturday, April 14th, to discuss the culture, wines, and food traditions of Navarra. Our host is Gwendolyn from Wine Predator, and you can read her invitation post here.

As we do on the second Saturday of each month, we’ll sync up on Twitter at 11 am ET, following the hashtag #winepw. What follows is equal parts travelogue, history lesson, and gastronomic wanderlust. We’d love for you to join us! Feel free to chime in and add your comments or, if you prefer to just watch and learn, that’s cool, too. Just be sure to add #winepw to your tweets so we can welcome you.

Here’s what the gang will tempt us with on Saturday:

Jill Barth of L’Occasion: “Eat and Drink like Hemingway in Spain’s Navarra Region

Nancy Brazil of Pull That Cork: “Wines of Navarra and a Meal to Match

David Crowley of Cooking Chat: “Steak with Manchego Mushroom Sauce with Red Wine from Navarra

Jade Helm of  Tasting Pour: Lamb Sofrito Nachos Night of Navarra Wines

Nicole Ruiz Hudson of Somm’s Table: “Cooking to the Wine: Senorio de Otazu and Broiled Skirt Steak with Romesco Sauce” 

Wendy Klik of A Day in The Life on the Farm:  “A Taste of Navarra Spain

Camilla M. Mann of Culinary Adventures with Camilla: “Pacific Rock Crab Claws + 2016 Otazu Merlot Rosado

Jennifer Gentile Martin of Vino Travels:Pilgrimage to the Navarra with Bodega Inurrieta

Jane Niemeyer of  Always Ravenous: “What Foods to Pair with Wines from Navarra Spain” 

Sarah Ozimek of Curious Cuisiniere: “Basic Spanish Flan and Navarra Wine

Cindy Rynning of Grape Experiences: “¡Salud! to Tapas Night and the Wines of Navarra

Julie Santiago of Wine N Friends:  “Taste of Pintxos and Navarra Wines

Rupal Desai Shankar The Syrah Queen:  “Navarra – Spain’s Hidden Gem

Gwendolyn Alley The Wine Predator: “Along the Way with Wine and Food from Navarra Spain.”

Here at  The Swirling Dervish: “Sipping and Cooking with Pacharán: a Taste of Ancient Navarra” 

A Brief History of Navarra

Navarra was once an independent kingdom that stretched from Bordeaux to Barcelona. In fact, a series of French monarchs ruled the realm in the middle ages, permanently linking the cultures together. Wine has been made in Navarra since Roman times, when just enough was made to satisfy the needs of the occupying armies. Consumer demand for wine came later, rising with the flood of pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela via the Route of Saint James.

In the 1800s, when phylloxera decimated the vineyards of nearby southern France, vintners in Navarra stepped in to assist: much of their production was sold to French growers, helping keep their trade afloat. That is, until phylloxera made its way into Spain, and laid waste to the vineyards there.

Rosado Glass 2
I’ll gladly sip a Navarra Rosado – any day!

During the 20th century, Navarran winemakers were celebrated for their crisp, refreshing Rosado wines, made primarily from Garnacha. Those wines are still commercially important today, although they comprise a smaller percentage of production. These days, classic French varieties claim top billing, especially Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo, has made a name for itself as well.

Arinzano Line Up
International-style wines from Pago de Arínzano in Navarra

While this may sound like the familiar story of international superstar grapes invading a region and displacing its native varieties, that’s not really what happened in Navarra. Because of its unique location in the northeast corner of Spain, this relatively small patch of vineyards represents a wide variety of climates and soil types. Translation: from one parcel to another, the grapes best suited to the land vary greatly.

There are five distinct subzones in the Navarra DO, a nod to the multiple factors affecting climate here: within the region, vineyards may be exposed to any combination of Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Continental influences. A grape that thrives in a cool, continental spot would probably not fare as well in a hot, dry Mediterranean plot. Different grapes for different ‘scapes, if you will.

The Wines of Navarra DO and Pacharán Navarro

I have written previously on the beautiful wines made in Navarra: once, when #winestudio visited Pago de Arínzano; and again, when I paired a few Navarra wines with a Thanksgiving menu. And my fellow #winepw bloggers will be writing about their experiences with a host of wines from the region this month.

In light of that, I have opted instead to write about Pacharán (aka Patxaran in the neighboring Basque region), a spirit made from the fruit of the blackthorn plant. This plant, which produces small blue-black fruit the size of a hazelnut, grows wild on the plains of Navarra, and was not cultivated for commercial production until the 20th century. Many of us know the fruit as sloe plums, the main ingredient in sloe gin.

Martin Olsson licensed inder CC 3.0 Blackthorn Plant
Blackthorn Bush with Fruit (credit Martin Olsson via CC 3.0)

Medieval kings and queens sought refuge in Pacharán, believing in its power to treat stomach ailments and digestive problems, as well as its analgesic properties. Peasants sipped small glasses of the cherry-pink liquor at the end of a meal, dipping into earthenware jars brimming with their homemade (and secret) recipes.

How Is Pacharán Navarro Made?

Product quality and marketing are overseen by an organization called the Consejo Regulador D.E. Pacharán Navarro formed in 1988. The Consejo mandates the zones of production, quality control during the preparation, packaging, distribution, and marketing phases, and directly supervises the companies listed in the Pacharán Navarro Processors and Bottlers Registry.

Pacharan Navarro Logo

According to the regulations established by the INTIA (roughly, Navarra Institute of Technologies and Infrastructure – there are tons of rules here!) any bottle bearing the label Pacharán Navarro must also:

  • Include 125-300 grams of sloe plums per litre;
  • Include 80-250 grams of sugar per litre;
  • Include no additives whatsoever;
  • Macerate the sloe plums for at least one month, but for no more than eight months;
  • Achieve a spirit strength between 25% and 30% abv;
  • Use glass or ceramic bottles of no more than 3 litres’ capacity (i.e., no bulk production);
  • Label each bottle as Pacharán Navarro and include the official logo;
  • Display the control number issued by the Consejo on the label.

That sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo for a recipe that most people still make in their homes, soaking the plums in an anise spirit with a few coffee beans and a vanilla pod. But I suppose that’s the point: to create a professional standard for a product that warrants a geographical indication on the label.

Pacharan Neat and Bottle
Pacharán Navarro from San Cernin served in the classic way: chilled, neat.

San Cernin Pacharán Navarro (25% abv; $24.99 retail; 500 ml)

The Munarriz family, which has been making Pacharán Navarro for 70 years, tries to borrow from the best of both worlds. Hewing to traditional production methods, Fernando Munarriz, who now manages the firm, takes advantage of modern agricultural techniques to select the optimal varieties of prunus spinosa – the same genus as almond, cherry, and plum trees, by the way – to bring forth the best fruit.

A particular challenge in making Pacharán Navarro is determining when to harvest the fruit. Unlike wine grapes, which change color as they ripen, sloe plums all look alike on the outside – bluish-black berries, regardless of their progress. Pickers must test individual berries by squeezing them, to assess whether they are ready for harvest or need more time on the bush. It’s labor-intensive, to say the least!

Ensuring a ripe, healthy crop is critical to Munarriz, as he uses the maximum amount of fruit in his Pacharán: 300 grams per litre of anise spirit – which, at San Cernin, is always at least 28% alcohol by volume. Using a higher-volume anise lends structure and body to the Pacharán, always helpful in balancing the sweet sloe fruit. He macerates the fruit for at least six months, and stirs it regularly to encourage more extraction.

San Cernin is one of only eight companies listed by the Consejo as approved producers of authentic Pacharán Navarro.

Pairing Pacharán Navarro with Food

While Pacharán Navarro is usually served cold and neat as a digestif after dinner, the spirit has made its way onto trendy cocktail lists everywhere. I enjoyed the drink as traditionally served – chilled, in a small glass. But I do rather like the idea of blending a drop or two of Pacharán Navarro with a flute of Cava – it might be the perfect aperitif!

What does it taste like? Up front there’s lots of soft cherry and plum, followed by a rich melange of baking spices, vanilla, and bitter almond. The finish is warm and spicy-sweet, with a final note of tart bitter fruit (think Campari). It’s refreshing and lighter than you might expect. I quite liked it and found myself intrigued by the flavor combination: it’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before.

But, since this is a post about wine pairing, I’ve got an interesting idea for you: Iberian Pork Cheeks Stewed with Pacharán. I came across this video from Victor Muñoz that shows you, step by step, how to do it. Unfortunately, there’s no written recipe to rely on, and no voiceover: you have to kind of wing it.

I was intrigued by the idea, but also knew my husband would never consent to eating cheeks – of anything! So I adapted the recipe a bit, making a version of chicken marsala that substitutes Pacharán for the Italian dessert wine. It came out pretty tasty, if I do say so myself. And my husband was reassured that nothing “weird” was on his plate.

Note: If you’re feeling adventurous and would like to try a pork cheek recipe that will easily incorporate Pacharán, check out this version of Osso Buco-Style Braised Pork Cheeks from Johan Johansen at his pretty cool blog The Johan

Chicken Marsala and Pacharan
Chicken Pacharán with Duck Fat Roasted Potatoes. Oh yeah!

If you don’t already have a favorite chicken marsala recipe, try this one from the New York Times – it’s simple but good, and the only annotation I’d make is that it needs more sauce. Go ahead and add more Pacharán – the flavor is wonderful with the mushrooms and chicken.

Because Pacharán carries a high alcohol level, I wouldn’t advise drinking it with your meal, though. We opened a nice Pinot Noir from Sonoma, and the cherry-berry flavors complemented the dish quite well.

My explorations online turned up another simple recipe meant to highlight the bright fruit flavors of Pacharán. It comes from the Tapas Lunch Company, and it’s for Roast Figs in Pacharán. I’m putting this on my must-make list as soon as fresh figs reappear in my market.

Pacharán and Dessert

A few nights after we had the chicken, I surprised the hubby with a simple dessert: vanilla ice cream drizzled with Pacharán. It was delicious with a side of espresso and crunchy biscotti, and it couldn’t be easier to make. Scoop, drizzle, serve, enjoy. The Pacharán presents a bittersweet counter to the soft, sweet vanilla in the ice cream. It’s a case in which opposites most definitely do attract!

Dessert Line Up
Some crushed amaretti cookies would have been perfect on top!

Thanks for joining me on my trip to the wilds of Navarra, Spain. I hope you’ve been inspired to visit the region – either in real life or via your kitchen.

Next month the Wine Pairing Weekend group pivots to Wines that Start with M – perfect for the month of May. Merlot, Mourvèdre, Marsanne – there are so many delicious wines to choose from – I can’t wait! Our host will be Lori from Dracaena Wines. Keep an eye out for her invitation post and circle May 12th on your calendar. See you soon!


    • It’s well worth trying, Wendy. Different from anything I’ve had. And I love that people in Navarra make their own, according to secret family recipes handed down from one generation to the next. Let me know if you find some!


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