In Spain’s underrated Navarra region, an off-the-beaten-path winery boasts a contemporary art program to rival some galleries.
As we pulled up to Bodega Otazu, a historic vineyard in Spain’s under-the-radar region of Navarra, I noticed the sculptures. The iron head of the Greek mythological princess Ariadne with a crown of criss-crossing wires, a work by Manolo Valdés, sat on a patch of grass, while on another section of lawn “The Guardians,” a pair of Buddha-like figures made of iron by Xavier Mascaró sat nearby, watching over the vineyards.
This side trip was unexpected. My boyfriend and I had decided to make a quick stop in Pamplona on our way from Barcelona to Bilbao but were disappointed to find that the city Hemingway loved so much lacked the magic he had described in The Sun Also Rises. Instead of leaving Pamplona early as we’d planned, we were being driven into the countryside by Alma Pamplona hotel founding partner Joaquín Ausejo, who wanted to bring us to his friend’s winery 20 minutes outside the city. He zipped around curving hilly roads, past fields and woods, explaining the unassuming charms of Navarra, the region where he grew up, before turning onto a long path lined by vines.
As we entered a 19th-century stone building, we were greeted by proprietor Guillermo Penso, who looked for all the world like the actor Jason Schwartzman’s Spanish doppelgänger. He offered us a glass of wine and began explaining the old winemaker’s tools in the Museo del Vino. He and his family had created the little museum to display what they had found while renovating the estate, whose oldest building dates back to the 12th century.
When his family had bought the property in the early ’90s, it had lost its rich viticultural heritage and was instead producing beets for sugar. They replanted the land with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, tempranillo, and chardonnay vines and set about building a new winery. Now, Bodega Otazu is one of just 14 wineries in Spain to have the prestigious “Vino de Pago” recognition, meaning it produces its own Denomination of Origin (called “Pago de Otazu”); this is the highest distinction a vineyard can achieve. In 2017, it even made headlines for selling its Vitral vintage for $2,000 per bottle, more than double the price of Spain’s most expensive wines.
But as Penso walked us through the various rooms, I realized just how much the art set this winery apart. On the second floor of the Museo del Vino, I ogled a sculpture of two bicycles fused together that are part of a series called “Forever” by groundbreaking Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Elsewhere, there were sculptures by British artist Anish Kapoor and Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, both of whom are known for their monumental public art.
Kapoor’s “Untitled 2014” was a bright red fiberglass sphere in the vein of his spherical sculptures that show a distorted reflection of the viewer. Eliasson’s “Parabolic Planet”—a concave mirror with a chunk of lava that slowly rotated on a steel rod—gave me the impression that I was looking at the moon or some craggy planet. Fittingly, their works were nestled among wine barrels and other winemaker’s tools. And as we entered the barrel vault—which Penso dubbed the “cathedral of wine”—we saw the largest and most impressive artwork of all: red, green, and blue light flooded over the arches and barrels, each one creating a mesmerizing color field. It was a chromo-saturation work by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diez.
Yet Penso’s passion for art goes beyond collecting blue-chip pieces. From onsite he also runs the Fondación Otazu, which commissions new works, invites artists to blend their own wine in a program he called “Genios de Otazu,” runs a biennial art prize, and hosts an annual Art Weekend at the winery in February coinciding with the annual ARCOMadrid contemporary art fair.
“For me, art is life,” Penso explained. “It is the way in which human beings are able to capture and formalize nature’s intrinsic unintelligibility. In this sense, both wine and art are manifestations of culture and a tribute to human creativity.”
For the first edition of Genios de Otazu in 2016, Penso invited Spanish artist David Magán, known for his colorful geometric sculptures often made of glass, to participate in the harvest and blend his own wine, which will debut at this year’s invite-only Art Weekend. Inspired by his time at the winery, Magán created a two-dimensional sculpture made using wood from wine barrels and lights that project an optical illusion against a sort of screen. It now stands in the barrel room for all to see. In Magán’s case, the artwork was ready before the wine, which has been fermenting and aging in barrels since the 2016 harvest.
“I think that when art and wine are truly combined,” mused Penso, “the result is an experience that transcends both.”
If You Go
Travelers can visit the winery and see these works year-round by adding a weekend getaway in Pamplona to a trip to Madrid, Barcelona, or the Basque region. Rent a car or hop on one of the trains that run regularly from Madrid, Barcelona, and (somewhat less frequently) San Sebastián.
Contact the winery to book a guided tour, which usually takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11 or 11:30 a.m. but can be scheduled outside those days and times. Tours are available in English. Prices start at 34.95€ (about $40) for a standard tour, but more options—such as a VIP helicopter tour, or seeing the vineyard on horseback—are possible at different rates.
Where to stay
The Alma Pamplona—a sleek, modern hotel with a minimalist design and fingerprinting technology that’s used instead of room keys—offers excursions to Bodega Otazu. Or book a room at the Pamplona Catedral Hotel, which is only a five-minute walk to the city’s 15th-century Gothic cathedral.
What else to do in Pamplona
Art lovers should visit the Museo Universidad de Navarra on the University of Navarra’s campus. Local acclaimed architect Rafael Moneo designed the building, which houses works of modern art by Rothko, Picasso, and Kandinsky, as well as an excellent photography collection.
If you have a car, you can also visit the Fondación-Museo Jorge Oteiza, dedicated to one of the most influential Basque artists of the 20th century.
And when in Pamplona, you’d be remiss not to sample pinxtos—Basque tapas—at spots like the historic Bar Gaucho and Bodegón Sarría.