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Bairrada Masterclass: 
serious red wines from Portugal's most misunderstood wine region

Baga is pronounced ‘bugger’. [Well, that's not strictly true, as a Portuguese reader recently pointed out very kindly, but it makes a good start to this piece.] And this uniquely Portuguese red grape variety has a reputation as a bit of a bugger, by all accounts. It’s thick skinned, with a tendency to make wines high in acidity and tannins. Combine this with the local practice of including the stems in the fermentation, and it has the potential to make challenging, tough wines. It’s also Bairrada’s key grape: some 80% of wines from this region are red, and almost all of these (95%) are made from Baga. But while many Baga-dominated Bairradas are overly astringent, the fact that the better producers can do great things with it suggests that some of the blame lays at the door of the less competent producers rather than the grape itself.

Bairrada is the region of the smallholder. There are a staggering 4700 registered growers, and the average plot size is a tiny 0.2 ha. Most of these sell their grapes to the cooperatives that dominate the region's production, and make a lot of uninspiring wine. But some estimate of the potential of this region can be gained from the observation that more than two-thirds of the vineyards here are over 50 years old. Just think: if more of these vineyards were to come under the control of quality-minded producers like the three represented in this tasting, it could be very exciting.

Some details about the region. It’s in the north of Portugal, with Porto 60km north, and Lisbon 150 km south. There are 20 000 hectares of vines, but 7000 of these are currently abandoned. The development of the vineyards was largely the responsibility of monastic orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. Continuing with this historical theme, a very important year in Portuguese viticulture was 1756. This was when the Marquis de Pombal (a modernizing prime minister who by all accounts was also a bit of a nutter) demarcated the vineyards of the Douro. The motivation for this was that the Douro was losing its reputation through fraud, for two key reasons. First was the use of the elderberry bag to give colour to the wines. This is the practice by which a bag of mushed-up elderberries was suspended in the lagar (the stone trough that grapes are trodden in): that this is still ongoing in the Douro is indicated by the fact that elderberries currently sell for more than Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesca grapes. The second source of fraud was that other wines, principally Bairrada’s, were being passed of as Douro wines. So Pombal uprooted all the elderberry trees and just about every vine in Bairrada. A little extreme, but no doubt effective.

Bairrada bounced back, and by the 1860s had become the most important table wine region in the country. In 1887 it was the home of Portugal’s first viticultural school, and in 1890 it was the source of the country’s first method Champenoise sparkling wine. But it was one of the last regions to be awarded the DOC in 1979, fully 70 years after Dão. Now, most Bairrada wine is consumed within the region, and it’s widely misunderstood by everyone else.

The wines tasted here come from three of the leading producers in the region. Casa de Saima is probably the best known of the three, and is located in Sangalhos in the north of the region. Here Graça Miranda and her husband Dr Carlos Almeida e Silva tend 18 ha of vines. The red wines are foot trodden and fermented in lagares before ageing in old vats. Quinta de Baixo, from the more southerly Cordinhã, is run by eye surgeon João Alberto Póvoa, who owns 10 ha of which 8 are currently in production. Again, these are wines very much in the traditional mould (foot trodden), and first vintage here was 1990. Quinta das Bágheiras (Sangalhos) is also a relative newcomer: it was founded in 1990 by Màrio Sérgio Alves Nuno in 1990. Vineyard area has increased to an impressive 24 ha, spilt between red and white varieties.

There are some very fine wines described below, but you couldn't accuse them of being crowd-pleasers. They aren't immediately accessible, in the mould of so many expensive international-styled wines these days; but nor are they deliberately obtuse. A bit of understanding and patience with these wines is amply rewarded, and I can imagine that they'd make a great match for the local speciality of roasted suckling pig, Leitão (there are some 800 restaurants in the region who offer this dish). Prices given are those of La Vigneronne, who hosted the tasting. The wines were presented by Danny Cameron of Raymond Reynolds, who are the importers.

Casa de Saima Super Brut Espumante 1999
Many of the white grapes from Bairrada are used in the production of sparkling wine. This example is a blend of Maria Gomes, Bical, Cercial and others, including 3% Chardonnay. The nose is quite intense, with savoury, bready, yeasty notes and a touch of butterscotch. The full, refreshing palate has firm acidity. Clean, intense and full of flavour, showing just a touch of coarseness perhaps. Very good+

Casa de Saima Branco Especial 1999
Interesting modern nose shows some sweet floral elements, lemony fruit and a creamy, herby edge. Rich, full flavoured palate displays lemony, waxy, savoury fruit. Intense and clean, there's plenty of interest here. 700 cases made. Very good/excellent (£7.95 La Vigneronne)

Casa de Saima Branco Reserva 1996
A barrel-fermented blend of 95% Bical and 5% Chardonnay. Quite an old fashioned, mature savoury nose with just a touch of oxidation. Clean, fresh palate doesn't show any sign of oxidation, although the mid-palate is beginning to lighten up. There's some herby character with a bit of lemony fruit. Nice wine: in an older style, but well made. Very good.

Casa de Saima Tinto 1999
This is predominantly Baga (as are all the Saima reds), with a dash of Tinto Pinheira, from vines with an average age of 40. Quite a pungent, herby, savoury nose with a slightly medicinal edge and some caramel notes. The palate shows attractive juicy cherry and raspberry fruit with a very savoury, earthy edge. Tasty stuff: not too complex but with good acidity and dry tannins on the finish. Not a fruit-driven wine. Very good (£7.95 La Vigneronne) (1100 cases made)

Casa de Saima Tinto Reserva 1994
No Garrifeira (Saima's top wine) in 1994. Lovely savoury, slightly spicy nose with some leathery notes. Palate shows tight, firm tannins and high acidity, with an intense herby character. Good concentration and intensity: almost austere, and not much sign of evolution. Very good (670 cases made)

Quinta das Bágeiras Reserva 1999
100% Baga, 350 cases made. Nice, open nose with some sweet herby, slightly spicy fruit. The palate is rich, intense and herby with a spicy finish. Not as austere as Casa da Saima, but still plenty of dusty, spicy tannic structure. Complex, but still very tight; with good density and concentration, there’s real potential here. Very good+ (£14.50)

Quinta das Bágeiras Reserva 1998
Just 250 cases made of this varietal Baga. There’s a rich, minty, herby edge to the nose with some sweet fruit: this is almost perfumed. Palate is lively and juicy with some firm tannins and high acidity. Quite austere, but concentrated and with great intensity. Spicy finish. This is serious stuff; extremely youthful and needs loads of time to open out. Very good/excellent (£15.95)

Quinta de Baixo Garrafeira 1997
Made from 80-100 year old vines; 370 cases produced. Rich nose with sweet cinnamon and menthol notes, together with herby, caramel-edged complexity. Complex palate with tannins, acid and spicy character. Chewy, earthy stuff. Pretty serious and with more richness to it than most Bairrada wines. Very savoury and potentially very long lived. Very good/excellent (£25.00)

Quinta de Baixo Garrafeira 1996
430 cases made. Slightly muted nose. Dry, rather austere palate with firm, dry tannins and high acidity. The palate shows a bit of herby, earthy fruit with a spicy edge, but this is a little closed now and is quite hard work. Potentially very long-lived but a little bit austere now. Very good (£18.75)

Quinta de Baixo Garrafeira 1991
Still an incredibly deep colour: this has hardly faded at all. Lovely open nose with delicious sweet, herbal fruit showing a caramel edge. Quite alluring. Palate is rich and quite dense: the tannins are beginning to relax their grip a bit. There’s a nice cinnamon spiciness, too, and some herbal complexity. Dusty dry tannins on the finish with good acidity. This is still pretty savoury with the potential to develop more. Very good/excellent  

Tasting held at La Vigneronne, 105 Old Brompton Rd, London SW7 3LE, Monday 19 November 2001

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