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Bairrada – Anthony Rose
It might be unfair to brand the Douro and Alentejo ugly stepsisters, but it would not be out of place to call Bairrada the Cinderella of Portugal.
Its wicked stepmother would be the Marquís of Pombal who, in the 18th century, ordered that its vineyards be uprooted to protect the authenticity of Port. Its fairy godmother is Baga Friends. This group of quality-minded growers, led by the legendary Luís Pato and energised by Dirk Niepoort, has taken a variety of steps in vineyard and cellar to galvanise Bairrada into making the potentially excellent, local Baga grape fit the delicate, yet elusive slipper of a fine-quality, great-value, long-lived red wine.
With half of its chalky-clay vineyards planted to Baga, Bairrada – a relatively small region of 8,840ha that lies immediately south of Porto on the Atlantic – has a number of natural hurdles to overcome to achieve the necessary pre-conditions for quality red wine production. First, its proximity to the Atlantic means that September harvest rains can be a serious threat, while ripeness can vary as much as two weeks between south and north. And the vigorous, late-ripening, thin-skinned Baga grape itself is susceptible to rot if left too long on the vine and to astringent green tannins if picked too early.
Improvements in viticulture, including control of diseases, crop thinning, preservation of old vines and better management of the vineyard cycle, have resulted in better quality wine. Still in the shadow of the better-known Douro and Alentejo, the underappreciated Baga has the edge on value. As Filipa Pato, daughter of Luís, says: ‘Baga is difficult and needs a lot of attention. It’s like a kid with a lot of character – treat it well it gives you back a lot.’ She continues: ‘Baga is unique in Bairrada because it is the only grape that can really transmit the different expressions of each location.’ Winemaking decisions too, such as whether or not to de-stem, winemaking equipment, type of oak and length of ageing, have adapted to increasing attention to exposition, vine age and the vineyard potential.
These improvements have culminated in distinctive, often excellent-value wines, not forgetting a handful of fine sparkling wines made from Baga, with less astringent and rustic tannins and more distinctive, complex characters with aromas and flavours of black fruits, beeswax, olive, spice and smokiness. Among the region’s best producers are the Baga Friends themselves, namely Luís Pato, Filipa Pato, Niepoort, Sidónio de Sousa, Buçaco Wines, Quinta das Bágeiras and Quinta da Vacariça, along with Caves de São João, Adega Cooperativa de Cantanhede, Caves Primavera, Caves São Domingos, Caves Aliança and Campolargo.