We are all rebels at one time or another in our lives. As a wine journalist, I respect wine rebels.
One of my hero’s in this special category is Juan Magana, considered in Spain and the rest of the wine world as a Visionary. Juan is a man who understood the future of wine development in the Navarra region of Spain and its terroir. Juan Magana made sacrifices and took illegal risks to meet his wine making goal a reality.
Juan Magana’s story could be made into a movie. Juan was born into a family of farmers that grew wheat, olives and grapes. Juan was in charge of agricultural accounts for the family farm. That was not what he wanted to do. He escaped the farm life, left the family and moved to the big city of Madrid to follow his dream, which was advertising.
Through the years Juan became very successful in advertising. After sometime, he realized something was missing from his life. And that was grapes and winemaking.
Juan sold his luxury apartment in Madrid after asking himself this question: ‘”Who is making the best wines in the world?”. The answer was simple, Bordreaux.
The climate and terroir between Navarra and Bordeaux is similar. Juan decided because of the similarities to plant the French varieties of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on his land.
This created a problem. The Spanish government did not allow the planting of Bordeaux grapes in Navarra. Vineyards were forced to comply.
Juan Magana did not.
Juan found a nursery in France that sold their vines to Pomerol and St. Emillion. By fate, the nursery owner was Spanish and knew Navarra was a perfect fit for his vines. He happily sold his vines to Juan, knowing that they were illegal in Navarra. Without a permit, he smuggled the vines through the Pyrenees, safely, on a donkey, to Navarra.
He planted the vines, illegally, and named his first plot after the owner of the nursery.
His dream of having the first Merlot grapes in Navarra was history. The problem was that his money was running out and the vines needed years to mature before producing his first vintage.
To make money, Juan decided to sell these illegal clones to other winemakers throughout Spain. His contraband business was thriving, while he waited for his vines to mature. Juan knew he was creating a problem for himself by selling these vines illegally. He told me at a recent lunch at his vineyard that he created “ A problem, yes , but, a beautiful problem”.
Basically what he did was to travel to France to purchase the vines and bring them back illegally through the Pyrenees. He would then graft the vines, make cuttings and sell them to Spanish bodegas.
The Spanish government visited his vineyard, often, asking what type of vines were planted on his land. He always replied that the vines were Tempranillo.
His 1975 plantings were ready to harvest in 1978. When harvested, tasted and tested, his 1978 vintage was too bold and tannic for the Spanish people. They are used to Tempranillo. The Spanish were used to softer wines. His wines from 1979-1981 were a failure, as well.
The 1982 vintage changed Juan’s life. After his long journey, his wine was rated the ‘Best in Spain’. It made Juan famous throughout the world. And the Spanish government, eventually accepted the new clones as legal clones to grow in Spain.
What a victory for Juan’s hard work.
Now Juan had to sell his wines. He found a customer from Seattle who purchased 500 cases of the 1980 vintage. He shipped the wines, only to have the shipment returned because the bottles sent were 70ml instead of 75ml.
Due to our laws, the wine could not be sold. The 1980 vintage spent two years in customs and now sits in Juan’s wine cellar., along with his wonderful future vintages.
The wines of Bodegas Vina Magana are now world-famous and are easy to find in wine shops throughout America. Ole Imports handles his wines.
My favorites and recommended wines to try are: Magana 1982 and 1985, Dignis 2007, Baron De Magana 2007, Magana Merlot 2009 and Calchetas 2008.
by Phil Kampe