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Baga for beginners 

Portugal’s Baga grape is often compared to Pinot Noir. Sarah Ahmed explains where and how it’s grown, the styles of wine it makes and recommends bottles to try.  

Portugal has a grape for every day of the year. But only one – Baga – is distinguished by an international grape day: the third Saturday of May. First celebrated on 21 May 2022, International Baga Day marks the transformation of an ugly duckling into the swan responsible for Portugal’s coolest single varietal red wines. It is the initiative of Baga Friends, a group of seven leading exponents of the variety.

What is Baga?

Often compared to Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, this thin-skinned varietal is a diva that’s similarly picky about site. Baga is thought to originate from the Dão region (where it is blended with other grapes), though it scales the heights in neighbouring Bairrada. Here, the region’s temperate maritime climate produces highly strung wines with a telltale dynamic acid and tannin structure.

How has Baga changed?

Recently, careful site selection together with a firm hand in the vineyard but sensitive hand in the winery has liberated Baga from its reputation of old for austere, unapproachable wines. The variety’s full quality potential and range has been unleashed.

Bairrada’s chalky clay soils invariably coax the best performance from Baga. Well-drained and light-reflective, they help ripen the fruit, harmoniously balancing the variety’s acid and tannin.

Baga is a vigorous, late-ripening variety, which means yields must be rigorously managed to guarantee ripening before rain around the equinox in late September. That said, save for 2014, climate change has produced an impressive run of vintages this last decade.

What style are Baga wines?

Baga wines range in hue from white to rosé and every shade of red. ‘Baga is such a unique grape because of its plasticity,’ says Vadio’s Luís Patrão. ‘We can make a very elegant, sharp and delicate sparkling wine, a fresh and juicy young red, and a bold structured wine that can age for a long time.’

Not too many grapes in the world can do the same, adds Patrão, who is the newest recruit to Baga Friends. He joins Pato & Wouters, Quinta das Bágeiras, Luís Pato Wines, Niepoort, Sidónio de Sousa and Quinta da Vacariça. Each of the Baga Friends produces a range of different Baga wines.

What does Baga taste like?

Irrespective of style, a backbone of fresh acidity is a given for Baga, informing the variety’s length and longevity. It explains why Vadio releases a proportion of its entry-level red 10 years after vintage. Even unoaked Baga can age brilliantly. Tasted this May, Pato & Wouters 2015 amphora-aged Post Quercus Baga was bright as a button.  Expect top tier wines to age for decades.

Unoaked Baga might also surprise you with a smoky accent, which should not be confused with an oaky accent. Rather, much like Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire, this smoky ‘fumé’ quality – minerality, not oak – derives from Bairrada’s chalky clay soil.

Baga is heavily associated with robust tannins. But tannin profile depends on yield, ripeness, use of whole bunch, extraction and whether wines are aged in oak – and, if so, barrel size, age and provenance.

For example Luís Pato, the father of modern Baga, de-stems his exceptionally polished top-tier Baga wines. He ages them in French oak barrels, some new. Riper but sturdier, Quinta das Bágeiras vinifies its Baga with stems (whole bunch) and matures the wines in aged, large 2,500-litre wooden ‘toneis’.

Traditional whole-bunch ferments are now back on trend. For contemporary, elegant styles which invariably have lower alcohol, this method can produce soaring incense spice aromatics. Pato & Wouters and Niepoort are cases in point.

A new era

With over 40 vintages now behind him, Pato revels in Baga’s newfound popularity. ‘It’s my life’s work,’ he says. He is excited by the shared curiosity, skill and passion for the variety shown by new players.

These days great Baga is much easier to find, especially when sourced from specialist winemakers who control the quality from grape to glass. Seek them out and celebrate the next International Baga Day in style.

Baga wines to try

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