Cellar Chat: Bairrada

In our smaller, more intimate new tasting format, six Collective members taste and discuss a range of wines from Portugal’s Bairrada DO

Drawing together sommeliers from great venues across the UK, our first ever Cellar Chat was a chance for members to taste and swap opinions (via Zoom) about a range of wines from the Bairrada region.

We began with a short introduction from Portuguese winemaker, Tiago Macena, who gave our members a swift A-Z of the DO.

Like most regions in Portugal (the tenth biggest producing country in the world), Bairrada has a long history, with winemaking documented by Cistercian monks back in the 9th Century. The country has many climatic influences – continental in the east, Mediterranean in the south and Atlantic in the west.

Bairrada is very much about the latter. Cooler, fresher Atlantic weather dominates.

Our guide for the day, Tiago Macena

Bairrada is not a big DO – only 6,500 hectares – but it has a wide range of styles. Red accounts for 70% of the production, but it also makes white, rosé and sparkling, too – the result, no doubt, of those cooling maritime influences.

As important as the climate, however, are the shifts in soil.

‘Luis Pato says that this is one of the richest parts of Portugal in terms of soil influence,’ explained Tiago. ‘Even small plots can vary from sand to clay to limestone.’

Key whites are Bical and Sercial, while reds are dominated by Baga – a structured, earthy variety that can veer towards Nebbiolo in style. Touriga Nacional, Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Merlot are also significant, often used to add softness and sweetness to Baga’s inherent savouriness and tannin.

‘We’re used to blending – whether that’s varieties, techniques or soils,’ said Tiago. ‘Though that’s not just unique to Bairrada. It’s common for Portugal as a whole. It’s not that common to see a single varietal wine.’

With the basics covered off, our members moved on to the tasting of what promised to be an intriguing region.

Big skies, gentle slopes, mixed terroir and Atlantic weather – the key to Bairrada

White/sparkling wines

Vadio Bairrada Branco 2020

Bibendum, £13.13 ex-VAT

From a young winemaker, who’s native to Bairrada, this is a blend of the two classic white grapes, Bical and Sercial. Bical is an early ripener, and here it’s been given a little time in old oak to add weight. Sercial is a zesty variety that keeps its acidity well.

‘It will keep citrus fruit and even a saltiness for several years,’ explained Tiago. ‘Even a few years old it has a laser like acidity.’

This was true. The wine was sharp and bright – like winter sunlight off steel. But our tasters generally found it to be a bit hard still.

‘That creaminess of the oak, followed by the acidity on the finish is a bit overwhelming,’ said Emanuel Pesqueira from Gordon Ramsay. ‘There’s a lot of acidity here.’

The Royal Cavalry and Guards Club’s Andre Luis Martins felt it was ‘a bit like grabbing a young Chablis en primeur – you struggle to get through the acidity. Though with time the barrels [will] give it an added roundness.’

Tiago, who had a 2018 to try, said that with two years in bottle the wine was perfect, so it’s worth looking for slightly older bottles if you can.

‘I agree that it’s too young, but I really like that salty note on the finish. It would be really interesting to pair with food.’

Isobel Salamon, Eden Locke

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas 2020

Raymond Reynolds, £13.30 ex-VAT

‘Luis Pato is probably better known than the region itself,’ said Tiago of this wine’s creator. ‘He’s an idol of mine, a true gentleman.’

Senhor Pato’s expertise was evident here, in what was an elegant, structured wine. It was based on the same two grapes as the first wine – Bical and Sercial – but with 25% of Sercealinho – a cross of Sercial and Alvarinho.

The Bical was grown on limestone (which brings acidity according to Tiago) while the Sercial and Sercialinho were planted on sand, for fruit influence.

Whether it was the addition of Sercealinho or the influence of the soils our tasters found this a more integrated wine, that was ready to drink now. More than one described it as ‘Riesling like’.

Our Portuguese panelists, Andre Luis Martins and Emanuel Pesqueira both felt it was softer, rounder and more approachable than the Vadio, while Number One at the Balmoral’s Damien Trinckquel declared it ‘very gastronomic – a great introduction to guests who’ve never had this type of wine.’

‘It’s so versatile. You could have it with everything from grilled salmon to poached cod. Fantastic.’

Daniel Jonberger, Headlam Hall

Aplauso DOC Bruto 2016, Regateiro Lusovini

Amathus, £9.05 ex-VAT

There is a long history of méthode traditionelle sparkling wine in Bairrada. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are both permitted, ‘though people can use them all over the world – only this region can make sparkling with Baga,’ said Tiago.

This wine majored on Baga, but had unusual partners in Touriga Nacional and Pinot Noir, all grown on limestone/clay soils.

‘Though we’re in a cool part of Portugal, we’re still significantly warmer than Champagne,’ said Tiago. ‘So we can expect more of a fruit profile.’

Our tasters were not madly in love with this wine. Andre Luis Martins felt it was a ‘commercial expression of bairrada – I’d have looked for more freshness and minerality.’

Baga, he pointed out, has a similar acidity to Pinot Meunier in Champagne.

‘There’s a lot of flavour and complexity,’ agreed Emanuel, ‘but it needed more structure. I was expecting more acidity – especially from a Blanc de Noirs.’

‘It’s not a bad wine, but I’m not sure it represents the region.’

Damien Trinckquel, No. One at The Balmoral
With centuries of winemaking, there are plenty of ‘vinhas velhas’ (old vines) in Bairrada

Red wines

Niepoort  Drink Me NatCool 2020

Raymond Reynolds, £15.50 / 1-litre bottle ex-VAT

NatCool is part of a project initiated by Dirk Niepoort, to create light, easy-drinking wines (what the Australians might call ‘smashable’). From the packaging (funky label, one-litre bottle) to the low- alcohol, low-extraction, pale-coloured wine, this is all about being different.

And across the board our tasters loved it, for its freshness, its elegance and its versatility. Indeed, much of the discussion centred on how to use it, with panellists seeing a use for it with everything from partridge and red cabbage to fish.

It could, they felt, work by the glass or by the bottle, chilled in summer or at room temperature. Emanuel Pesqueira described it as a ‘GP-making machine!’ and our tasters felt that once customers had been introduced to it, they were sure to get through at least one bottle.

‘I’d put this on by the bottle provided it was the right restaurant,’ said Isobel Salamon. ‘If you’re a small plate kind of place, it could go with so many different things.’

‘It could be a really great wine for the younger generation who like lighter styles of wine. And once it’s open they will really all want to drink it. It’s very sellable. A profit machine.’

Natasha Sernina, Chewton Glen

Marques de Marialva 2018, Colheita Seleccionada 

Not yet imported. Approx RRP £10.99

From the local co-operative in Bairrada, which deals with 700 growers, this wine was a great example of how good co-ops can be when they’re well run.

A blend of Baga (50%), Aragonez (30%) and Touriga Nacional from a warm vintage it spends six months in second-use oak. The result is a wine that is rich, ripe, and sweetly straightforward but that went down well with our tasters.

Andre Luis Martins found a freshness underneath the sweet fruit, which he attributed to the proximity of the vineyards to the coast.

Damien, meanwhile, found a ‘coffee liqueur note’ which he felt added a ‘slight bitterness and helps balance the sweetness of the fruit. It’s not entirely what I expect from Bairrada but I really like it. There’s a perfect balance between ripeness and acidity.’

‘I loved the balsamic and cassis notes. For people who like Cabernet, you can put that on by the glass and they’ll love it.’

Emanuel Pesqueira, Gordon Ramsay

Alianca Reserva 2018 

Boutinot,  £6.35 ex-VAT

There was a higher proportion of Baga in this wine (70%), backed up by 20% of Tinta Roriz and 10% of Touriga Nacional. The result is a rather more savoury wine – even from the sun-filled 2018 vintage – with Touriga adding a slight floral edge on the finish.

Damien made the observation that in this wine the Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional seemed to be doing a similar job to Merlot in Bordeaux or Tuscany – of adding softness and flesh to the muscle of the base variety – in this case Baga.

The somms enjoyed it very much – particularly at the price – and there was much debate about how best to use it.

‘It’s a lot more savoury,’ said Isobel. ‘I’d have this with lamb, rather than cheese, for instance. It’s got those nice savoury almost Italian characters, which would be perfect for a gastropub.’

Damien went down similar lines. ‘You want food with some fat,’ he said. ‘It’s a little sharper through the palate, but a little fat in the meat or the sauce will bring everything together. It’s like if you have a Nebbiolo.’

Emmanuel, meanwhile, appreciated the fact that it was vegan, which gave it an extra reason for sale.

 ‘It’s more Baga-dominated on the palate – more tannic, rustic and more earthy. The previous wine shows more Aragonez and Touriga.’

Andre Luis Martins, Royal Cavalry and Guards Club

Arco d’Aguieira 2016 

Portugalia, £13.23 ex-VAT

From the northern part of Bairrada, this was both our oldest and most expensive red wine. But its atypical varietal makeup was controversial: 95% Touriga Nacional, with 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and a splash of Tinta Roriz.

With lots of rich dark fruit and ripe tannins it was a concentrated, complex and rich wine which, of itself, was extremely good.

‘Outstanding,’ said Emanuel. ‘There’s earth, oak, and full deep blackberry and dark plum. I love it. And it would be great with a tomahawk steak.’

Isobel agreed, saying she was going to buy in some venison for the evening just to partner it.

Andre Luis, however, was less keen. ‘This for me isn’t Bairrada,’ he said. ‘I can get wines like this from Douro or Alentejo. For me, this is missing typicity.’

Damien agreed that this could be an issue – ‘If I order a Barrada I’d probably expect some Baga in the glass’ he admitted. Having said that, he also pointed out that ‘most people in the UK won’t know anything about Bairrada – and this is a beautiful wine.

‘I get wet stone, girolle mushrooms, powerful acidity and silky tannins; licorice and anis. If a sommelier poured this for a guest at £60-70 they will be very happy.’

All in all, a great – and thought provoking – conclusion to a stimulating and well-priced selection of wines.

‘Whatever you’re looking for – your menu, your style of food, your customer – there’s something here. It’s been a very versatile range of wines we’ve tasted today.’

Damien Trinckquel, No. One at The Balmoral
Winter grass in the vineyards is a good indicator of Bairrada’s Atlantic climate

Rosé shouldn’t just be about Provence

In a wine market that’s generally flat to falling, rosé has been the exception.  From not much more than a niche ten years ago, it’s grown in the UK to the extent that, according to figures I saw in the press earlier this year, we are now the fourth largest consumer of rosé in the world, buying over 100 million bottles a year.

Provence, of course, is the darling and has spawned many imitators of its pale and dry style across the globe. Some of these provide serious alternatives whilst others are just a serious disappointment.  

Certainly it can’t do any harm to look elsewhere. Partly because it’s always good to champion diversity, and partly because of the prices of  Provence pinks, which have risen significantly of late.  Many of them are positioned at ‘serious wine’ level on a list now, rather than something inexpensive, pale and zesty to glug in the sun. 

“Annoyingly quality doesn’t always keep pace with the price.”

I have been disappointed with several popular, larger volume Provence rosés. Too often they fail in fruit ripeness yet excel in tartness and dilution. Frustratingly, a higher priced rosé from these regions does not necessarily indicate better quality either. 

Head elsewhere in France, however, and there are some excellent pale, dry rosés available that mimic Provence styles without the hefty price tag.  Consider other regions near Provence around the Languedoc such as the smaller IGP Cotes de Thau. This benefits from the twin influences of the Mediterranean and Etang du Thau.  The IGP Mediterranée (formerly Vins de Pays) surrounds Provence, and it too is finding success with rosé being made in the Provence style. 

I have tasted a number of wines from these areas – with their Grenache or Grenache-dominant blends rounded with Rolle and Cinsault; their flavour profile is similar to Provence, yet you’ll find them on a merchants list around £6-9 ex VAT as opposed to the £15+ of many Provence pinks.

This is the reason why the rosé we blend for St JOHN’s Beausoleil comes from the Cotes de Thau. It is fresh and linear, can be enjoyed on its own or with many types of food, and is significantly cheaper than an alternative from Provence.

Changing mindset

If these are well-priced Provence lookalikes, could there be a case for going a step further? Perhaps now, while Brits are asking for pink, perhaps this could be the time to expose them to some genuinely different styles of rosé. Wines that might have a similar dryness, structure and palate weight, but are flavoursome and different.  Wines that will set your list apart.  Wines, too, that deliver a bit more for the money.

I’m thinking here of Cabernet Franc from Saumur – I have been impressed with Chateau de Chaintres, and Pinot Noir from Sancerre  or its counterpart from cooler climates of Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia. 

Rosé from the Yarra is worth consideration. De Bortoli is always consistent, Dominique Portet, and Giant Steps also offer characterful Pinot-dominant rosé.   

Closer to home Italy provides a wealth of styles with often drier and ‘more serious’ versions coming from the middle of the country down towards Sicily. Keep an eye out for Ramato styles too such as Specogna’s Pinot Grigio Ramato. 

And, there are an increasing number of rosés that are dry and interesting from Spain and Portugal.  No doubt now seen as a classic since it was first made just over 20 years ago and serves as a benchmark is Niepoort’s Redoma Rose. This is often darker, and has been in oak yet offers a dry, thirst quenching rose that also is a joy with food.  

From the point of view of both your wine list and value for money, the case for broadening horizons is pretty strong. But there is a caveat. Bear in mind that there is no small amount of ignorance surrounding pink wine on the part of your average consumer.

Most consumers, I’d say, don’t consider the region, only the colour and the price. And the paler a rosé, they assume that the better (and drier) it is. 

This perhaps isn’t surprising.  Even to the trained eye, trying to establish what that ‘branded’ pale ‘chateau vino pinko’ rosé tastes like is no mean feat.  In most pinks there are no indicators of sweetness, and rarely any grape varietals, just a region or newly unearthed IGP. So we shouldn’t be too critical if customers have latched onto colour as a guarantee of a style or quality.

The fact that there is interest in rosé is a significant step, and to capitalize on this interest, especially with the warm weather, post lockdown, think about tapping into this market and offering several rosés.  If you only have one (or two) by the glass, open another and offer it by the glass.  It is a talking point!  Or use it as a focus for the week.  

If you have a darker rose that is fuller bodied, try pairing it with food, something that will allow the wine to ‘freshen up’ and know the story behind the wine, the varietals and the flavour those grapes give to the wine.  Once people are engaged with the wine it flows from there.

Four Rosés That Are Well Worth A Look

1. Chateau de Chaintres, Saumur

£9.65 from St John Wines

2. Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

£13.20 from Liberty Wines

3. Avani Amrit Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula (ramato style)

£17.75 from Woodwinters

4. Niepoort Redoma, Douro Valley

£18.99 (RRP) from Raymond Reynolds – contact for nearest trade supplier

Do you have any go-to rosés of your own from outside Provence? Of course you do! So why not tell the other members of the Sommelier Collective which are your favourites and why.

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