The colours of the blue country

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No, it’s not just the Douro Valley. Yes, Portugal is a dream country for vines. In the Bairrada region, one grape variety is capable of anything.

THE STORY TAKES PLACE BETWEEN TWO PALACES IN CURIA, in central Portugal. I left one, where we were staying, to go to the other, a few hundred metres away. Some friends have asked me to have a beer in the bar after a day of tasting at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. So far, so good. At 10.30pm, it’s chilly, as it is every night in this wine-growing region just a few kilometres from the ocean. Arriving in the superb hall of the Curia Palace, one of the stages of the Almeida hotel group, I bump into other members of the jury whom I don’t yet know. Peter from South Africa, Lisse from London and Liam from Ireland invite me to join them. Peter called his mate, António Rocha. Even in these late hours, he agreed to open his cellar to us. He has been making the Almeida family wines for twenty-five years, looking after the bottles in Curia and Bussaco, in the neighbouring Dão region. Created to honour the clients of these two palaces, the cellar contains wines that are just right, aged for the right amount of time and served on the day they reach their peak. It’s well worth the effort. The beer at the bar (closed, in fact) fades away and the unique experience draws closer. Lisse, a tall blonde with inexhaustible enthusiasm, is all excited and tells me that the English call this kind of situation serendipitous.

DELICATE AS LACE António shows us behind the scenes of this Belle Époque hotel, still in its original state (telephone box, post office, etc.) and invites us to follow him outside into the night. He opens an old wooden door and reveals his lair. Walls of bottles without labels. He leads us through the vintages, handing us the bottles like trophies. The 1967, 1956 and 1922 vintages lie neatly in an air-conditioned room behind the hotel. António is at home. He’s keen to show us where the festivities are taking place. We go out again in the dark to walk around the old building with its whitewashed walls. The mini winery appears even more beautiful in the unawares.

Cement and granite lagares, a few French barrels (from Sylvain), a few dapper stainless steel vats, bottles of bubbles lying in a box pallet. “A trial run”, explains the cellar master. Enough to make 20,000 bottles a year, no more, all told. We return to the old bottles. Our surprise guest – thank you Peter – decides to grab a 1983 keel. “Because I like that vintage,” he says simply. Mostly red Baga. He adds: “If it’s not good, I’ll open another one”. He knows each bottle by heart, and never makes a mistake. He places the lucky one on a tiny wooden table from another century. We admire him. To do things right, he affixes a deliciously drawn label, a little crooked. It’s the contents that count. He gently removes the cork. He’s used to it. He does all the reconditioning of all his babies himself, and shows us his DIY tools. The nitrogen tank, the tweezers and even thin layers of baby cotton to clean the necks. He collects five large, round “burgundy” glasses, rinsed in the sink. The colour is tiled like that of an old pinot noir. The nose, ah the nose, Lisse nearly faints. The wine explodes and speaks frankly of its history. Raspberry, spices, a hint of rose. For me, it’s the mouth. Far from collapsing, I fly, I glide, we glide. Delicate berry lace, incredible length, formidable finesse with that saline touch that is the hallmark of great wines. A light deposit smiles at us. We exchange glances, our eyes moist. The wine is laid bare, gently, attentively, respectfully and humbly. Welcome to Baga country. It’s well past midnight and we leave António to return to his pillow. He is not the only one to reveal the greatness of wines made from Portuguese grape varieties. The oldest winery in the region, São João, has opened a 1995 for us, an elegant wine with a magnificent supple mid-palate. Almost thirty years to reach this point.

CLAY AND THE OCEAN Like Italy, the country is full of indigenous grape varieties capable of offering new and original sensations. There are an estimated 350 here. Others put the figure at 200, spread from north to south. Why would they originate in this region rather than another? It’s not always easy to know. What is certain is that here, in Bairrada (which means clay land), Baga is king. It is planted in old plots. It shares its fame with Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz or Aragonez (Tempranillo) and, in white, Bical, Maria Gomes (also called Fernão Pires), Arinto and Cercial. The Bairrada appellation was created in 1979. It is part of the Beira Atlântico regional denomination and covers 8,129 hectares (source: Bairrada viticultural commission, 2021) in the hands of small landowners who sell their grapes and around forty active producers. This figure should be treated with caution, as there are many abandoned vineyards. As in many European vineyards, the winegrowers are ageing and there is a shortage of young talent. The grapes are thriving, benefiting from the temperature differences between day and night. At the beginning of July, at the time of our report, the nights are very cool. The days are warm, but not too hot. The ocean is not far away, causing a morning mist, even in the middle of July, which is a welcome coolness. It also brings rain, which weakens the grapes and leads to outbreaks of mildew and powdery mildew. You can’t have everything. Baga is, in the same way, the region’s strength and weakness. It is susceptible to disease, ripens late and fears the Equinox rains. It is said to be rustic in its youth, tannic and acidic. Perhaps that’s why, at the end of the 19th century, a few people in the Champagne region came up with the idea of harvesting it earlier to avoid the risks and transform it into bubbles. Hence its new-found power and magic. In 1887, at the end of his life, Professor António Augusto de Aguiar founded the École Pratique de Viticulture. The first exercise was the production of sparkling wine. As a result, the Bairrada vineyards became leaders in espumante. Today, traditional methods account for 53% of national bubbly production. What a good idea. The wine’s reputation is built on its association with leitão, the local culinary speciality, a suckling pig picked from the cradle – the younger the pig, the more tender it is. The espumante is its table companion. Every Portuguese knows this. Whether they’re travelling through the region between meetings in Lisbon and Porto, basking in the sun on the beaches or enjoying a few days’ holiday, they make a point of stopping off to sample the pig’s meat, melting and covered in a crunchy coating. The skin is crispy. The conversation is going well. The wine speaks to me, not in Portuguese but in a silky, delicate attack. Everything is fine, even the fat. The bubbles, salty and acidic, counterbalance it and make it easy to digest. Slices of orange accompany the torture. It’s incredible.

MISTER BAGA Baga is the king of grape varieties, as versatile as Chenin or, even better, Pinot Noir. It gives birth to its sparkling wines early in the season, black whites, rosés and reds (always sparkling). Picked three weeks later, it’s perfect for making great still reds that can be kept for a long time. As a result, Luis Pato makes several selections from the same vineyard, just as he does for sweet wines. Luis Pato is ‘Mister Baga’. He has spent 42 years fighting for local grape varieties, experimenting with all kinds of techniques. He was born into a notable family of winegrowers. His grand-uncle Mario Pato was the first oenologist to teach winemaking in Portugal. His father João was the first to bottle wine in the 1970s. Luis in turn revolutionised the region. In 1985, he destemmed the Baga and aged it in French casks. In the early 1990s, he won over Jancis Robinson with his single-vineyard wines, then Robert Parker with his Pé Franco cuvée, a wine made from ungrafted vines planted in sandy soil. He opened doors, the right ones. At the same time, he was a judge at the International Wine Challenge, in the company of hard-nosed British critics. He had access to wines from all over the world and could compare his babies with the other big names. The insatiable Gyro Gearloose, a chemist by training, never ceased to shake up codes and push Baga to its limits. He left the appellation, like the greats of Tuscany, preferring the freedom of the broader Beiras denomination. Thirty years later, as inventive and enthusiastic as ever, he knows his terroirs, climates and grapes inside out, and has become accustomed to market forces. He cultivates his image like a chef, sticking out his tongue in front of the camera like the Einstein of winegrowing. With a British wink, he uses and abuses pato (duck) in all its forms on his labels. An eternal rebel, his other nickname on his T-shirt, he sparkles with ideas and derision as he shows us an incredible range of wines from Bical, Maria Gomes, Vercial and his protégé, Sercialinho.

STRAWBERRY SOUP He dragged many people in his wake. His daughters have all (or almost all) been infected by his passion. Luisa, 43, João, 40, who makes pet’nat and natural wines under the Duckwine brand, and Filipa, who launched her own project in 2001 at Quinta do Riberinho with the Belgian sommelier and restaurateur from Antwerp, William Wouters, whom she married in 2008. With her strength of character, she preferred to create her own winery, not too far from her father. Biodynamically. Same story, same profile as the equally charismatic Emidio Pepe in Italy’s Abruzzo region and his three daughters, one of whom, Stefania, has moved away to embrace biodynamic viticulture. Luis also founded the ‘Baga Friends’ who, as the name suggests, defend the black grape variety body and soul: António Rocha (Buçaco Wines), Dirk Niepoort (Niepoort), François Chasans (Quinta da Vacariça), Mário Sérgio Nuno (Quinta das Bágeiras), Paulo Sousa (Sidónio de Sousa Wines) and Filipa, of course (Filipa Pato Wines). Bairrada wouldn’t be what it is without a little spice. Carlos Campolargo, the local ‘Mister No’, has a stentorian voice that he swings proudly and defiantly through his vineyards. Voluble and expansive, this producer known for his resistance claims that Baga is “far too rustic” and that its surface area is actually melting like snow in the sun. He also says that Bairrada’s sparkling wines are made from “everything but Baga”: Caladoc, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, whatever. His eyebrow raises in suspicion: “I know my grapes and what’s in my vineyard. The rest…”. He prefers Pinot Noir. The huge terrace that extends from his family cellar overlooks a parcel of vines, several plots of which (nine hectares in all) look as if they are about to be uprooted. Here, he intends to replace the local treasures with the Burgundy grape variety, eventually giving it thirty-five hectares to express itself. Nonetheless, at a sumptuous dinner of oysters and a huge, tenderly-cooked meagre steak, he serves a blend of the finest Baga and Castelão, decanted for the occasion, over a strawberry soup that will knock you off your feet. In short, it’s in his blood.

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