A guide to Bairrada DOC/Beira Atlântico VR
The Bairrada region is home to one of the very few Portuguese examples of a single varietal red wine grape, Baga. Historically, most growers were content to exploit this variety’s high productivity, selling by the ton to the big negociants and co-operatives who used to dominate the region. A growing band of vignerons have set their sights much higher. Small wonder when their number includes Douro/Port man Dirk Niepoort who told me, “with its soils and temperate Atlantic climate, I am more and more convinced that Bairrada has Portugal’s best terroir.” Niepoort acquired Quinta de Baixo in 2012.
The results are very exciting and, while a full quarter of the region’s Baga grapes still end up in a sizeable melting pot (it’s the variety which gives Mateus Rosé its freshness), I cannot recommend highly enough seeking out the region’s small but growing number of Baga specialists, especially the members of Baga Friends. These boutique wineries have learned how to tame the grape’s worst excesses (high yields, high tannin and high acid); you can read all about their techniques in my WFW40 Bairrada The Baga Beyond. What’s more, they have also proved themselves to be skilful white winemakers.
As for the region’s negociants (Alianca, Caves São João), they hold huge stocks of traditional method sparkling wines which have been made in the region since 1880 and, since the 1970s and 1980s, have pursued a more upmarket strategy for table wines too (including the acquisition of their own vineyards).
It is the negociants (also Campolargo, once a leading supplier to the negociants), who spearheaded the introduction of leading French varieties, especially Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes which have been permitted for DOC wines since 2003. The best can be very good.
Bairrada DOC is a small, quite narrow coastal region in northern Portugal book-ended by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Caramulo and Buçaco mountains (hills) to the east (beyond which lies the Dão region).
The Vinho Regional, Beira Atlântico, is more extensive both geographically (see this overview map of Portugal) and in terms of permitted grapes. However some leading Bairrada DOC-based producers and Baga purists (notably Luis Pato and Filipa Pato) have preferred to use the Vinho Regional designation on bottles. However, now Baga’s (and with it Bairrada’s) reputation is on the rise, there is a return to DOC labelling; for example all Pato’s single vineyard Bagas are now labelled Bairrada. Other leading producers, notably Foz de Arouce (who make very good Baga reds) are simply outside the DOC.
A pronounced maritime climate makes for a temperate, humid climate with relatively high rainfall (800-1200mm/annum); in spring and autumn, the rain can be problematic. For Aliança’s Director of Winemaking, Francisco Antunes, “Bairrada is one of the most difficult places in Portugal to produce wines, particularly reds and particularly if you are depending on third cycle [late ripening] varieties Baga, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional.” Suffice to say site selection is critical as is keeping yields low.
A low, gently undulating landscape is shaped by the free draining chalky clay soils on which premium Baga thrives (and acquires its signature “smokiness” – a characteristic which has nothing to do with wood). Whites tend to come from lower sandy soils.
Grape varieties (DOC Bairrada)
White grapes: Arinto (Pedernã), Bical, Cercial, Chardonnay, Maria-Gomes (Fernão-Pires), Pinot-Blanc, Rabo-de- Ovelha, Sauvignon, Sercialinho and Verdelho. Bold italicised varieties are those which, in my experience, produce best results/are most popular].
Red grapes: Alfrocheiro*, Baga*, Camarate*, Castelão, Jaen* and Touriga-Nacional*Aragonez (Tinta-Roriz), Bastardo-Tinto, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Rufete, Syrah, Tinta-Barroca, Tinto- Cão, and Touriga Franca.
*For Bairrada DOC wines which are additionally labelled “Clássico” the grape varieties marked with an asterisk should together or separately, represent at least 85% of the total, while Baga should not represent less than 50%.
With the recent influx of new producers and increased focus on quality, while the common thread is Atlantic freshness, the region’s potential is now being realised through an exciting range of wine styles.
Take a peek in the wine cellars and spot the difference between the traditionlists and modernistas (though the best of the latter cleverly combine the old and new to great effect). Filipa Pato now produces a red and white made in amphora under her Post-Quercus label.
Take a peek at the bottles and, while Baga remains king, Bordeaux reds, white and sparkling wines are excellent too.
Sparkling wines: method traditional wines have excellent acid drive and backbone, the best with impressive autolytic complexity. Benchmark examples: Quinta das Bágeiras, Kompassus, Caves São João Quinta do Poço do Lobo, Colinas de São Lourenço (excellent Pinot Noir rosé). Also good Luis Pato (Metodo Antigo is very good value for money) & Filipa Pato, Vadio, São Domingos.
White wines: fresh, complex mineral, saline wines with citrus, stone fruit and vegetal notes; they can offer exceptional bang for buck. Top oaked wines have a Burgundian complexity and age very well. Benchmark examples (blends): Quinta das Bágeiras, Luis Pato, Filipa Pato, Niepoort/Quinta de Baixo, Caves São João Frei Joao Reserva. Benchmark examples (single varietal): Campolargo Arinto & Cerceal, Quinta Foz de Arouce Cerceal.
Premium Baga reds: traditionally high acid, very tannic Baga reds of any ambition required years of cellaring. Today, broachable premium wines from boutique producers are bright, very fresh with crunchy red fruits and fine tannins, sometimes as a consequence of blending in a dash of a more forgiving red variety (e.g. Touriga Nacional) or even white varieties. Benchmark examples: Luis Pato Baga Rebel, Fernão-Pires & (mid-range) Vinhas Velhas, Filipa Pato FP Baga, Quinta das Bágeiras Reserva, Caves São João, Frei João, Quinta do Encontro Preto Branco Reserva, Vadio Tinto, Quinta Foz de Arouce, Outroravpuro.
Super premium Baga reds: divergent practices as to the use of stems and oak (new or old, barrels or large toneis) inform different styles. Traditional Baga styles (no de-stemming, ageing in toneis) are formidably structured with sturdier tannins, the best with no shortage of concentrated, ripe fruit – built for the long haul. Benchmark traditional examples (no de-stemming): Quinta das Bágeiras Garrafeira, Avô Fausto and Pai Abel, Casa de Saima Garrafeira, Sidónio de Sousa Garrafeira, Quinta Foz de Arouce Vinhas Velhas de Santa Maria. New wave wines are also very well structured but, with none or a small percentage of stems, less extraction and new oak/smaller barrels, tend to be less extracted and more broachable with finer-grained tannins. Benchmark modern examples (some or no stems): Luis Pato single vineyard cuvees, Pé Franco (Quinta do Ribeirinho & Valadas vineyard), Filipa Pato Calcario, Niepoort Poeirinho, Quinta da Vacariça, Quinta Foz de Arouce Vinhas Velhas de Santa Maria.
Beating its own path the Palace Hotel do Bussaco produces excellent, very traditionally styled Buçaco whites and reds sourced from vineyards in Bairrada and the neighbouring Dão region. Reds are a blend of Baga with Touriga Nacional; whites are a blend of Encruzado with Maria Gomes and Bical. These unique wines are more or less exclusive to hotel guests and well worth seeking out, not least because the hotel has an amazing back catalogue of wines. Read all about the Palace Hotel do Bussaco in my report of two extensive vertical tastings here.
Other reds: Bairrada has become nothing if not eclectic but it seems to me with a couple of kooky exceptions Bordeaux red blends and Pinot Noir can perform very well: Benchmark Bordeaux blends: Colinas de São Lourenço Colinas Reserva, Colinas de São Lourenço Principal Grande Reserva, Campolargo Calda Bordaleza & CC, Alianca Bairrada Quinta Das Baceladas. Benchmark Pinot Noir: Colinas de São Lourenço Colinas Espumante Brut Rosé, Colinas de São Lourenço Principal Rosé Tête de Cuvée, Campolargo Pinot Noir. Benchmark Portuguese varietal/blended wines other than Baga: Campolargo Roi Coisas Antigas, Campolargo Alvarelhao, Tiago Teles’ offbeat vin de soif blends Gilda & Maria da Graça (which are made at Campolargo).
Fortified wine: Filipa Pato’s excellent Espírito de Baga Uma Saga seeks to revive a 19th century tradition. Quinta das Bágeiras make a very good one too.
Find out more
The Bairrada Wine Commission website is very informative site and includes wine routes and other tourism tips.