Bairrada is one of those Portuguese wine regions that could well be unfamiliar to you but, once sampled, will not easily be forgotten. It’s what keeps ‘discovering wine’ such a fascinating subject – just when you think you’ve got a complete handle on a country’s wine output along comes a selection of wines from a ‘new’ region that offers an entirely new perspective. Peter Dean tastes seven wines from a region, previously unfamiliar to him.
“I love the fact that Niepoort’s ‘Drink Me’ Bairrada wine comes in a larger litre bottle too, a nice play on Alice in Wonderland, perhaps?”
The truth of the matter is that Portugal’s table wines, and indeed its neighbour Spain’s, have been undergoing a quiet revolution over the past two decades. Winemakers have found that by sticking to what they do best or rediscovering the past – indigenous grape varieties, top terroirs and traditional techniques – they are producing world class wines that are also very true of where they come from.
Bairrada comes from the Portuguese word ‘barro’ which means clay, referring to the clay and limestone soils of this region that lies threequarters of the way up from Lisbon to Porto. It’s the quality of these soils that have led some to hail them as the best in the country. Unusually the region is dominated by the cultivation of one grape, Baga, which in turn has led to mainly red wine production, although this is fast-changing with the late afternoon coastal breezes facilitating the production of fresh, food-friendly white wines and sparkling.
Baga is a grape with high acidity and profound tannins and, produced as a single varietal wine in a traditional way could be hard work when the wines are young for the uneducated palate. Times are changing, though, and pioneers like Luis Pato have eschewed small oak barrels in place of larger formats, the Duoro’s Dirk Niepoort is making Baga in a crunchy, modern, low intervention style while others are blending the grape with indigenous grapes and international varieties to make an altogether friendlier style.
Personally, I am preferring the wines that are not following trends and using international varieties. Tasting these Bairrada wines below, there are some that are thrillingly different and well worth a personal exploration.
Niepoort, Drink Me Nat Cool 2020, Bairrada DOC
A modern celebration of Baga that is a great example of how far Portuguese wine has moved on in the past 20 years, Nat Cool is an initiative instigated by top Portuguese producer Niepoort to produce light, easy-to-drink Portuguese wines – and how! Other producers are following in his wake but the first one is Drink Me, a glorious celebration of the Baga grape which, in this case, comes from 40-100 year old vines grown on clay. Very light in colour, a transparent deep pink, the nose is direct, bright, fresh and pretty with strawberries, potpourri, rose petals, and hints of marzipan and spice; in the mouth the wine is fresh and juicy with depth and minerality. Bottled unfiltered, with vinification and ageing in steel this is a pure, modern expression of a traditional wine that is just made for drinking – hence the name! Some would call it ‘gluggable’, some would call it ‘smashable’ – quite frankly it is plain delicious and I love the fact ‘Drink Me’ comes in a larger litre bottle too, a nice play on Alice in Wonderland, perhaps?
2020 was a difficult vintage in this region but the quality of the fruit is excellent, there’s good balanced acidity as well.
Drink now – 2025
Buy from Raymond Reynolds
Arco d’Aguieira, Vinho Tinto, 2016, Bairrada DOC
If you’d think that a Touriga Nacional-dominant blend would be a full-bodied, tannic, tooth-staining red wine then think again, this is delightfully elegant, red fruit-led expression that has joyously ripe tannins and an impressively light touch from winemaker Manuel Soares.
From North-East Bairrada this blend of Touriga Nacional (95%), Cabernet Sauvignon (4%) and Tinta Roriz (1%) comes from a 21-hectare estate that has a mosaic of different terroirs, but largely alluvial deposit soil, with pebbles, coarse sand and clay. The wine is fermented in stainless steel with a small percentage in traditional lagar, the wine is then aged in French oak barrels for a year.
What you end up with is a light ruby red wine with semi-transparent edging; the bouquet is intense and appealing with wild fruits of the forest, toasted marshmallow, nutmeg, vanilla and a minty lift; the palate is pure red-fruited elegance, ripe tannins, light texture and hugely drinkable. Seriously impressed and, like the previous wine, I love the look of the bottle. (Wine bottled in February 2018).
Drink now – 2031
Buy from Portugalia
Aliança, Bairrada Reserva 2018, Bairrada DOC
Baga (70%), Tinta Roriz (20%) and Touriga Nacional (10%)
Founded in 1927 by 11 associates, one of Portugal’s largest producers makes Alianca. Winemaker Francisco Antunes oversees the country’s third largest rosé brand, premium reds across the country and a number of excellent value mid-range wines such as this Baga-led blend.
To look at the wine is violet/ruby, semi-transparent; the bouquet is powerful, serious, concentrated, intense with a lifted, almost confected nose of very ripe red and black fruit, balsamic notes with a hint of liquorice; the palate is smooth, rounded and very light on its feet, flavours are dominated by black cherries and red fruits, plums with a touch of sweet butter, the ripe tannins are there but well integrated, almost disguised, with the acidity lending decent structure. The finish is dry and slightly tart giving the wine an attractive, mouth-watering quality and emphasising its gastronomic versatility with fatty dishes – lamb and pork.
Drink now – 2025
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Marquês de Marialva, Colheita Selecionada 2018, Bairrada DOC
Baga 50%, Aragonez 30%, Touriga-Nacional 20%
Like the Alianca, this is a Baga-led wine that sensibly blends with indigenous grapes rather than international varieties to give it an unique, Portuguese character.
Pale to medium ruby the bouquet offers up bags of red fruits, dark red cherries, redcurrant jelly, with toasty, nutty and creamy notes – it has a mysterious and alluring quality. On the palate, the wine is luscious, round, juicy and generous – ripe, red and black fruit, with decent structure and a nice balance keeping the ripeness and silky tannins in check.
This cooperative’s winemaker, Osvaldo Amado, has aged the wine for six months in second use French oak, which comes through on the flavour profile. This wine is good with a wide variety of food from hardy fish dishes, grilled meat, stews and cheese.
Drink now – 2028
Although Bairrada is better known for its red wines, the late afternoon breezes and proximity to the coast result in the production of fresh, food-friendly whites and increasingly popular sparkling wines.
Vadio 2020, Bairrada DOC
This is a splendid wine from one of Portugal’s best young winemakers, Luís Patrão, this fresh, food-versatile white is made from Bical and Cercial, two of Bairrada’s indigenous grape varieties planted in sandy, clay and limestone soils. It’s a flavoursome white which has bags of personality, merging a zesty, acidic structure with a broad depth of flavour. Medium yellow gold, the intriguing and attractive bouquet has white flowers, lemon zest, and a salty, sea spray note; the palate features the texture and high acidity that is typical of the Bical grape, with intense lemon zest and a slight butteriness on the tense finish.
Pairing-wise the wine could work with a variety of fish and shellfish dishes, including mackerel or smoked fish, dim-sum and gazpacho.
Drink now- 2030
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Luis Pato, Vinhas Velhas, Vinho Branco 2020, Bairrada DOC
Made from old vine Bical (50%), Cercial (25%) and Sercialinho (25%) with vines that were planted over 40 years ago and vinification that includes part-ageing in oak, this is a fascinating light white wine that is both refreshing to drink and refreshingly different.
Light straw gold to look at, the wine has a bouquet that is vinous with a toasted almond note that lends a savoury dimension to the apples, pears and white flowers. After four months fermentation in steel, the wine spends a further six months on its lees in large format French oak which gives it breadth on the palate and an attractive textural edge.
Drink now – 2025
Buy from Raymond Reynolds
Ampulheta Mágica, Aplauso White Bairrada DOC Bruto 2016
A great example of the increasingly popular sparkling wines from Bairrada, a blend of Baga, Touriga Nacional and Pinot Noir made in the classic method with the second fermentation in bottle for a minimum of 15 months and two months rest after disgorgement – in this case in 2019.
The age is visible in the bright shiny, copper gold hue, the bead is fine and elegant; on the nose you pick up orchard fruits and toasty notes; the attack is nicely balanced between ripe and rounded fruit flavours – pears, quince, ripe citrus – and intense, lithe acidity, creamy and enveloping, with a tight, tidy finish.
One of a range of sparklers from this producer that is a well-made fizz that punches well above its weight.
Drink now – 2031
Buy from Amathus