A visit with Vadio, Bairrada
This current (November edition) of Decanter magazine reports on a panel tasting of ‘Best Buy’ (£8-25) Portuguese red wines, all of which are retailed in the UK. It made my day that the top wines featured lighter Atlantic reds from Colares, Bairrada and the Azores, as well as the Douro and Alentejo, whose fuller-bodied reds perform so consistently well at Decanter World Wine Awards. The oceanic reds deserved their day in the sun. Many more, I hope, as appreciation grows for these evocative, fresh, fleet of foot aromatic wines and, bigger picture, the thrilling diversity which excites me about Portuguese wines.
Two Bagas from Bairrada’s Vadio made the cut, as did Filipa Pato’s Post Quercus (amphora) Baga. During my Simplesmente Vinho trip in February, I enjoyed my first visit with Vadio’s Luis Patrão and his wife Eduarda Dias . We toured the couple’s fast-growing collection of vineyards (alas, not by moped) and swung by the winery – a capacious converted warehouse belonging to Dinis, Luis’ father, who used to sell agricultural products. Luis and his father made the first Vadio wine in 2005, which was released in 2009. Until 2008, the wines were made in Dinis’ garage.
Born and bred in Bairrada, during his youth, Patrão worked for the local Vilarinho Co-operative in his summer holidays and helped his father make wine at his grandmother’s house from family vineyards. “Every house in this town has a winery,” said the winemaker; grapes were sold to the local co-operative and wine to the big negociants – Caves São João and Caves São Domingo. When the co-operative closed around 2009/2010, people started making their own wine at home again, he added. The wine and vine culture is strong in Bairrada.
However, after studying oenology at Vila Real in the mid-nineties, Patrão headed south and, for some years now, his full-time job has been in Alentejo. Until last year, when he was appointed Chief Winemaker at Herdade de Coelheiros (also in Alentejo), he was responsible for red winemaking at Esporão, one of the country’s most progressive and biggest privately-owned players. That’s a lot of wine, so there can be little doubt about Patrão’s juggling skills! He told me that he spends three days a week at Coelheiros and comes to Bairrada every week, where he has one permanent member of staff and another worker to call upon as and when.
Meanwhile Eduarda, whose family own a wine distribution business in Brazil, brings her knowledge of wine commerce (Esporão was a client and you can guess the rest!) She came to live in Portugal 10 years ago and told me her grandfather came from the Dão, next door to Bairrada, so her family had a strong wine culture too. The couple strike me as a formidable team – super-professional – with a clear vision for Vadio’s style and market position.
Back in 2013, when we exchanged emails about this vision, Patrão told me that Vadio builds on a most important trend – “the interest and the focus to work with our local grape varieties, like Baga on the reds, and Cercial, Bical and Maria Gomes on the whites.” In his opinion (and I agree), “[T]his is moving Bairrada to a region known by the consumers for growing traditional local grape varieties and for producing quality and distinctive wines, which for me, are the two most import features for making a region unique.”
Plus Patrão has his own spin on Baga. Perhaps influenced by the winemaker’s time in Alentejo, Vadio’s reds have a relative softness which is uncommon in Baga from Bairrada. He agrees, “it’s a driving line in the wines because it is important to show that Baga can be drinkable when young, but can still age – you don’t need huge, green or rustic tannins.” Since 2013 he has co-fermented Baga with a tiny percentage (1/2%) of Sercial skins because “it softens the wine in texture and gives a bit more elegance and vibrancy in the nose.”
Patrão told me he received “a lot of criticism in the region that my wines cannot age for a long time.” Instead of being cowed, this quietly determined winemaker held some back for 10 years. It was hard to argue with Exhibit A – Vadio 2007. It was drinking beautifully, but having since re-tasted the 2013 (at the Decanter panel tasting), I’m not convinced that this vintage is ageing so well (though, to be fair, my fellow Decanter panellists loved it, comparing it with Barolo. Plus 2013 was “a tricky year…it rained for a month” according to Luis Pato, speaking at the Baga master’s recent vertical tasting).
Like another contemporary quality-focused vigneron, Filipa Pato, Patrão has steadily acquired old vineyards (Vadio still buys in some fruit to help with continuity whilst vineyards are being renovated). However, unlike Pato, he has decided to replant all but one, which is planted to a very old, small bunch/berry less productive Baga clone known as ‘Poeirinho.’ Why? Because, although initially excited about old vines, he has found them “difficult to manage, because it’s difficult for the sun to get to the grapes…they are a forest of leaves, so most of the bunches have no light.” Problems which, he reports, stem from old vines having been trained for quantity not quality (with lots of canes and lots of buds) and Baga’s naturally high productivity. Ironically, precisely the qualities which made Baga a valuable workhorse in the past, when growers were paid by the pound and grape growing was an agricultural sideline alongside growing corn, potatoes and other vegetables. “An amateur, weekend job,” said Patrão.
Pato has been re-working her ‘new’ old vineyards, which involves hard pruning to reduce production and open up the canopy. However Patrão, who changed the pruning on Vadio’s sole, small remaining old vine parcel, says it can sometimes kill the vines. Since he is not a fan of green harvesting (“because the vine is not balanced”), his solution has been to plant at higher density (5,000 vines/ha), plant the ‘Poeirinho’ clone, use cover crop and cordon-train new vines (spur pruned) on a high trellis. These techniques reduce yields (the latter also opening up the canopy), which is “good for maturation and to avoid disease.” “No-one else is trellising like this,” said Patrão. Comparing and contrasting the output of grubbed up old vines with his renovated vineyards, the former could produce over 10t/ha, whilst regular yields for the young vines are around 7t/hectare and strikingly lower for his best Baga vineyard. Planted in 2009 on 100% clay soil, it produces a measly 1t/ha. While Patrão is ecstatic about the “absolutely amazing” quality, he joked that the yields (and the renovated vineyards’ ‘untidy’ inter-row cover crop) embarrass his mother. It’s not easy switching from a quantity to quality-focused culture!
I suspect Filipa Pato’s and Patrão’s different approaches also reflect rather different circumstances. He is the first to admit that he sometimes has a short window to work in the vineyards, while Pato is based full-time in Bairrada and working exclusively for herself. When I visited with her last year she told me, “when you really decide to do biodynamics, you need to be here for follow up all year round.” It’s no coincidence that the commitment to working biodynamically came about when she and her husband William Wouters stopped shuttling between Portugal and Belgium (where he had a restaurant) and settled in Óis do Bairro in 2015.
Pragmatism inevitably informs what is possible. It’s why the Vadio game plan is about staying small, “so we can cultivate the vineyards properly.” That said, the Patrãos are nothing if not ambitious. Vadio currently has 4.5ha of vineyard, up from 0.5ha in 2005. Looking ahead, the target is to be 100% self-sufficient in grapes from vineyards which will be certified organic (“everyone is asking for organic,” said Eduarda). To that end, the goal is to produce 50,000 bottles a year from 8-9ha, “so we are halfway there,” says Patrão.
Looking not quite so far ahead, watch out for the 2016 vintage – Patrão reckons Vadio’s best yet (30 degrees, no rain, he said). The tank and barrel samples I tasted looked very promising. For the reds, it was super-interesting to taste Baga from the different vineyards which I’d visited (Patrão vinifies each parcel separately). The example from Vadio’s sole old vine parcel at Vale do Forno on chalky clay soil was very classic – smoky with oyster shell and violet notes – bright and elegant, with ripe but present tannins – light grip. Another sample from a hillside vineyard on chalky clay showed more structure, density and depth – much more on the back palate. Bought in fruit from a very old vineyard (in Anadia?) showed redder fruit, sweet and intense, with a chocolatey character and hint of pine.
Here are my notes on the wines. Patrão describes his approach as “very minimalist in the winery…we work very hard in the vineyards.”
Vadio Branco 2015 (Bairrada)
Patrão has increased the Bical component year on year, looking to this local grape for structure (acidity and phenolics), “to support the wines’ ageing.” He explained, “Bical loves clay and limestone, but our priority was to plant Baga; now we start to reach the point where we can plant Bical.” With more Bical, he expects the wines to be less fruity than in the past, on which note he has pulled up early trial plantings of Verdelho and Arinto preferring to keep focused on local varieties. This blend comprises 60% Cercial (which brings more lifted fruits) 40% Bical. It is mouth-watering, with crisp acidity on the attack, juicy apple fruit and a lick of salty minerality going through. Nougat/dried honey notes add texture and complexity. The Bical is part-fermented in barrel; overall around 80% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel. The stainless steel element is inoculated, but the barrel component (and all reds) are naturally fermented. Well done. 12.5% £15.50 at A Portuguese Love Affair
Vadio Bruto Espumante (Portugal)
Though Patrão is not a fan of sparkling wine from Bairrada (which lays claim to making Portugal’s first method traditional fizz in 1890), when in Bairrada….But he has opted for a different, innovative style, based on barrel-fermented base wines, a solera system, Bical as the dominant blending partner and no Maria Gomes. In his opinion (Mario Sergio’s at Quinta das Bageiras would doubtless differ), “it can be very fruity, exuberant, expressive, but usually doesn’t age well.” The oldest base wines in this release of Bical (60%), Baga (30%) and Cercial (10%) was from 2007, whilst the youngest was from 2013. Though all the fruit comes from Bairrada, the DOC regulations only recently conferred DOC status on non-vintage wines, hence this wine is simply designated Wine of Portugal. The blend underwent a second fermentation prior to being aged for 18 months on lees; it was disgorged in July 2016. It is a pinkish gold hue, with the depth and weight one might expect from barrel- fermented base wines and a solera blend. It reveals complex layers of acacia honey, bruised apple, dried banana and grapefruit. Though it is dry, there is a broadness and sweetness to the palate. Cut with the region’s incisive acidity, it has body, line and length with a persistent bead. Lots of interest. Good work. I also tasted a sample of a work in progress firm, dry, pale Rosé Espumante with waxy petal notes (based on 2014 Baga) which had yet to be disgorged. Patrão is looking for a food friendly style so, while hard to judge now, the dryness and texture look promising. Back to the solera-aged wine, it is 12.5% abv. I liked it very much. £18 at A Portuguese Love Affair N.B. The example currently listed is not the one I tasted, since it does not include Baga.
Vadio Tinto 2013 (Bairrada)
This is the entry level Baga and, said Patrão, the aim is for “a Barolo style of oxidation [it sees a fair bit of time in barrel], whilst Vadio Grande Baga is more restrained and reductive.” His words had great resonance for my fellow Decanter panel tasters, Taberna do Mercado’s Ieva Markaityte and Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, who both compared it very favourably to Barolo at the price. I was the odd one out. It has liquorice spice, leather and plum notes for sure, a touch of chocolate and saltiness too, so nice Barolo-like layers of flavour, but I found the example I tasted in Bairrada a little soft/diffuse for my taste and the one at Decanter too forward and lean. The grapes come from vineyards on chalky clay soil. They were 100% de-stemmed (with crusher rollers open, so it only lightly crushed) and fermented in stainless steel, then pressed straight to French and American barriques (225l) where it is aged for about 12 months, then transferred to 3500l toneis for six months. It then spends another eighteen months in bottle prior to release. 13% £11.50 at The Wine Society, £15.50 at A Portuguese Love Affair
Vadio Grande Tinto 2012 (Bairrada)
Patrão has released just two vintages of Grande thus far, the 2011 and 2012. Sourced from just one vineyard (an aged one), the aim of Grande is “to show the best expression of a vineyard in one year.” It has a complex nose with pine resin, tomato plant and peppery nuances to its sweet red berry, cherry and plum fruit, which follow through on the palate. In the mouth, a gentle but persistent push of acidity slowly unravels layers of sandalwood, subtle clove and a touch of bloody/earthy minerality and salt to the finish. The fruit has a tertiary membrillo sweetness about it. Nice intensity and length. It aged for about twenty-four months in used French oak barriques and another twelve months in bottle. 13%
Vadio Tinto 2007 (Bairrada)
Patrão is holding back 10% of every vintage to cellar it for another 7 years and release it at 10 years old. He describes 2007 as a fresh year (it rained at the end of September). The winemaker told me he always picks “on the limit of the rain,” because “I can leave Baga for a long time and the sugar does not go up; it stops and then you get the phenolic maturation.” He adds, “it’s very difficult to get wines above 13% – only a couple of times have I got that.” True to the vintage, this has cool but very attractive spicy, vegetal notes, including tomato plant, green peppercorn and liquorice; balsamic too. Still, in the mouth, it has Vadio’s signature softness and yielding palate with an elegant, long push of acidity and evocative earth/mineral old vine complexity going through. Drinking very well now. Like the 2013, this wine was fermented in stainless steel, then aged for about eighteen months in French and American barriques and another eighteen months in a bottle. 13% Vadio’s importer Miguel Leal of Casa Leal tells me that this museum release will be stocked by The Wine Society and that all wines save Grande Vadio are stocked by A Portuguese Love Affair, either instore or online.