The beauty of Bairrada

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This captivating region of central Portugal, where artisanal winemakers benefit from the cooling influence of the Atlantic, is a natural partner for independent merchants

 

If you were to build, from scratch, the ideal wine region to match the needs and likes of the UK’s independent wine merchants, you’d be hard pushed to come up with something that fits the brief better than Bairrada in central Portugal.

This, after all, is a place of small-scale, artisanal production, with a long tradition of winemaking, based on a mix of distinctive local and judiciously chosen national and international grape varieties.

It’s also charming: a patchwork of fascinatingly fragmented vineyards set among a picturesque concentration of woods and family-owned farms as the region moves away from the coast and up into gently rolling hills.

More importantly, this relatively narrow strip of the wider Beira Atlântico area has the ideal conditions for producing wines that balance ripeness of fruit with trademark cut and freshness. In Bairrada, the southern European sun is moderated by the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean just a few short miles away in what is a decidedly mild, maritime climate.

Those conditions have made Bairrada a magnet in recent years for some of Portugal’s finest and most creative winemakers, people with stories to tell about a region that is equally adept at producing grapes for youthful and ageworthy reds, for scintillatingly balanced whites and for Portugal’s best and most historic sparkling wines.

From Baga to Bical

That Bairrada remains slightly under the radar in the UK only adds to the appeal; it’s ripe for discovery by adventurous wine consumers looking for something new and different.

Certainly, Bairrada’s prime red grape variety, the captivatingly distinctive Baga, is perfectly cast for cult status. There’s something of Nebbiolo’s combination of aromatic prettiness and grand architectural structure (firm tannins and a spine of acidity) in the region’s best traditional Baga red wines, grown on clay-limestone soils. Robustly structured but elegant, they are capable of long ageing, taking on ever more exotic and complex scents of honey, spices, incense and woodsmoke once they get to 10 years old or more.

These characteristics make for great food wines: aged Baga with leitão, the local speciality of melt-in-the-mouth, crisp-skinned roast suckling pig, is one of the world’s classic regional food and wine combinations.

Baga is complemented on the red side by Portuguese grapes Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Aragonez as well as international Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, all of which have adapted well to the local conditions and are permitted by the DOC Bairrada rules. It’s a similar situation with whites. The traditional Bairrada white is a blend, based on a local quartet of Arinto, Bical, Cercial and Maria Gomes, and sometimes complemented by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

 

Bairrada has become a magnet for some of Portugal’s finest and most creative winemakers

 

Whether it’s youthful, early- and easy-drinking aromatic, or something more serious, mineral, pithy and long-lived, these white blends are every bit as singular as Bairrada’s reds, the combination of varieties, climate and terroir coming together to provide wines with a beguilingly natural spine of acidity.

That’s true of the sparkling wines, too. The first Portuguese region to make a traditional-method sparkling wine back in 1880, Bairrada remains Portugal’s standout producer of quality fizz, accounting for around two-thirds of the country’s total annual production of bubbles.

Here too there’s stylistic variety: Bairrada sparkling can be citrussy fresh and direct, or more aromatically pretty and floral. It can even be red.

But, like everything in Bairrada, it’s always marked by the streak of Atlantic freshness that has made the region one of European wine’s rising stars – and a perfect match for the UK’s independent scene.

 

Traditional-method sparkling wine has been made in Barraida since 1880

 

A basket of Bairrada wines

Aplauso White Bairrada DOC Brut 2016 (Amathus, RRP £15)
A three-way blend of Baga, Touriga Nacional and Pinot Noir, this characterful Bairrada Blanc de Noirs is lithe and lively and bright with appealing soft mousse and flavours of crisp apple and lemon zest, leading to a savoury-spicy ginger-biscuit finish.

Vadio Bairrada Branco 2020 (Bibendum, RRP £13.95)
A classic blend of Bical and Cercial grown on a mix of sandy and clay-limestone soils, this tightly coiled dry white is full of latent energy and verve, the steely acidity providing the backbone for pithy lime and lemon and some salty seasoning on the finish.

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Bairrada Branco 2020 (Raymond Reynolds, RRP £16.49)
The latest vintage of star winemaker Luis Pato’s justly celebrated old-vine blend of Bical with Cercial and Sercialinho is a kind of Atlantic answer to great dry Riesling, all tensile steely acidity, rocky minerals and dancing Cox’s apple and grapefruit tang. Delicious now, but built to last.

Niepoort Drink Me Natcool Bairrada 2020 (Raymond Reynolds, RRP £17.50)
From the ever-restless, ever-innovative Dirk Niepoort’s Bairrada outpost Quinta de Baixo, a 100% Baga that aims for pure drinkability and elegance and doesn’t miss. Light (12%) in alcohol, crisp in acidity, it’s bursting with just-picked raspberry and cherry and sappy ripe tannin.

 

 

Aliança Bairrada Reserva 2018 (Boutinot, RRP £8.95)
70% Baga supplemented with Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, this is aged in stainless steel to better present its fruit-burst of inky blackberries and touch of figgy sweetness, nicely contrasted with the tang and chew of plum skins and just enough tannic grip to keep things food (red-meat) friendly.

Marqués de Marialva Colheita Selecionada Bairrada 2018 (Seeking distribution, RRP £10.99)
There’s lots of sweet jammy fruit in this crowd-pleasing, warming red blend of 50% Baga with 30% Aragonez and 20% Touriga Nacional, while the plentiful tannins are well-managed and soft after six months in used French oak, with lively acidity balancing the cherry bakewell finish.

Arco Dâ Agieira Bairrada 2016 (Portugalia, RRP £21.17)
From the region’s north east, a different take on the Bairrada red, in which Touriga Nacional, grown on alluvial soils, takes the lead to sumptuous effect, the fruit perfectly ripe and fleshy without being fat, the ample tannins polished and fine, the Bairrada freshness shining through.

 

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