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

Discovery Tasting: Symington

The UK might be back to being shut in its houses and apartments again, and travel might be off the agenda. But our latest Discovery Tasting with Symington Family Estates provided an escape in both place and time.

Fifth generation family member, Anthony Symington, showed off a stunning range of ports and table wines that transported our lucky tasters not just from Lockdown Britain to the unmatchable beauty of the Douro, but back through the decades as well.

The Symington Family have been making ports in this part of northern Portugal for over 150 years, and with 26 quintas (estates) in the valley, are the biggest producer of premium port in the region. Every sommelier will be familiar with the great names of their portfolio: Dows, Warres and Grahams, plus the Douro’s ‘first first growth’ Quinta do Vesuvio.

But the tasting began with a couple of table wines, with Symington showing off their top wine, Chryseia, and its second wine, Post Scriptum, made in association with Bruno Prats, former director of Cos d’Estournel.

In fact, the latter is the reason why the wines were ever created. Visiting the family as a fellow member of the Primum Familiae Vini, he took a look at the Douro and asked bluntly, ‘why don’t you make red wine here? You’re crazy! You have this incredible unique terroir and varieties that aren’t used anywhere else.’

The two families teamed up to make Prats + Symington in 1999 and have been making Chryseia in the best years ever since, and Post Scriptum in the others.

The wines come from the Quinta de Roriz vineyard, which is the site of an old tin mine, and has an incredibly high mineral content.

‘You can taste this in these two wines,’ said Anthony. ‘Obviously they are Douro in style, but they have a fresh, graphite minerality running through them. From 5-10 years old it still has youthful fruit, but from 10-14 years it gets more secondary characteristics.’

Our tasters sampled the 2015, which is now starting to show really well and clearly has many decades ahead of it.

From here it was on to Port. All of the wines were from Grahams which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. Though Covid scuppered any actual celebrations.

First up our tasters had a real treat with two single-vintage tawnies (aka colheitas), from two of the best port vintages of the last century: 1963 and 1994.

‘A colheita is a snapshot in time,’ said Anthony. ‘We don’t release the wines to coincide with an anniversary – just where we feel they are showing incredibly well.’

The ‘snapshot in time’ was particularly poignant for the older of the two. Not only were none of our tasters or panellists born in 1963 but the Douro was still incredibly isolated – a rural backwater six hours from Porto, with sporadic electricity. It was a wine with a finish that was measured in hours.

Yet the star for most tasters was the 1994. At 26 years old, it was at what many observers consider the peak age for tawny port. Food matches flooded in for these wines, from myriad desserts and cigar styles to beer-battered oysters.

They’re clearly a really useful style for restaurants, since once opened they can last happily for a month, so there’s little pressure on teams to sell them fast.

Speed of sell-through is more of an issue for bottle-aged ports, such as our final two vintages. But Anthony suggested three really great tips.

Three sell-through tips

  1. Decant the bottle on a Friday and sell it as a ‘special’ throughout the weekend – vintage port is fine for three days.
  2. Take advantage of their ‘half bottle’ presentation set, which features 37.5cl of vintage port, a decanter and a wooden presentation board. ‘It can sit on a list around £35 or £15 a glass.’
  3. Employ a Coravin using the same process as for ordinary table wine. ‘There’s no need to decant in advance. When you start getting near the bottom of the bottle sediment can sometimes partially block the needle but simply moving the bottle slightly dislodges this. When you near the end of the bottle you can decant the remaining few glasses out.’

Interestingly, Anthony also suggested that the traditional ‘Stilton’ match might need a rethink.

‘The older ports are more delicate wines,’he  said. ‘I don’t think you’d want a blue cheese with them, even though that’s the tradition in the UK. We often have it with a creamy sheep’s cheese.’

While the magnificence of the 1983 Grahams was not a surprise – it’s a top port from a great year – the quality of the Quinta do Malvedos raised eyebrows – particularly for the price. Though this wine is made to be drunk slightly younger (and really starts to drink well from ten years old) some tasters had examples from the millennium which they said were still fantastic.

All in all, it was a spectacular tasting of myriad wine styles, united only by their age and excellence. After all, how often do you get to taste six wines with a combined age of 150 years?

Star wine

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

White Port: what it is, and why and how to serve it

Usually as kids when we went on holiday back to Portugal my dad would order a sparkling Portuguese white as an aperitif before dinner. But once, visiting a friend’s restaurant in the Algarve, they didn’t have any chilled so they suggested a drink with some ice while we were waiting for the espumante to chill down.

It was 7pm and 40 degrees so we were all thirsty and hot. The drink that our friend recommended arrived and I dived in. ‘God that’s good,’ I said. ‘What is it? ‘It’s a white port – Nicolau Antonio de Almeida,’ he said. I was 15 and I was hooked.

Back then, when I was starting to learn about wine, books and magazines were all Bordeaux or Burgundy and I remember thinking that my new friend white port seemed to be something of an outcast – rather unloved and unappreciated.

Sadly, it still is today. Porto branco makes up less than 10% of total port production and there are only around 30 brands to look out for.

The beauty of being a somm is that you have the power – the same as any great chef – to put a huge amount of joy into your customers’ lives by what experience you give them, and white port can bring something seriously different.

The amazing thing about white port is that it has a great breadth of styles to choose from, from very dry with single figure residual sugar to lagrima which can have around 50g of RS. This means that it can genuinely be used for the entire meal.

The drier styles pair really well with charcuterie, salads, shellfish and hard cheeses. Sweeter and older versions can match with duck with blackberry and red wine sauce, goat curry, rack of lamb, spicy chicken, octopus and then foie gras. Dessert wise, you’re looking at creme caramel, chocolate and blueberry trifle, chocolate and orange cheesecake and sachertorte.

Interestingly, there is no critical point of temperature when serving. You can serve it anywhere from 6-14 degrees Celsius depending on the environment and food choice. So try experimenting with it at different temperatures and see what you like.

Graham’s No 5 is designed to be mixed with tonic

White Port is a great bottle to have in the bar, too. Personally I still have a dry white with a few cubes of ice pre dinner but I like to offer customers white port and Mediterranean tonic with a sprig of mint leaf.

For aperitif purposes, I tend to use Churchills dry white 10 year old, Dows dry white which I serve with ice or, for tonic, Grahams blend no 5, which was specially created for that purpose.

Dalva golden white, Andresen Porto Branco and Kopke are all worth a look too. You have a gamut of styles from very dry and 10, 20, 30 or 40-year-old versions to colheita which comes from a single vintage. The oldest I have tried was 1895 and if your list can take something special I’d suggest looking out for 1935, 1952, 1963, 1971 and 1989.

Kopke are masters of aged white port. I’ve tried their Very Old Dry White which was a blend of rare wines from the last century, cask aged for at least 50 years in 300-litre casks. It was, quite simply, mindblowing. They still have some small batches of white port going back over 380 years.

White port is a wonderful, flexible and fascinating wine style that totally deserves to be more widely appreciated, listed and used. It might not be the next big thing, but maybe you could make it your next new thing. Saude!


Esgana Cao: Canines beware

1 Grape varieties – there are 46 (!) approved varieties for white port, but the most common are Malvasia, Rabigato, Codega, Viosinho, Arinto, and Folgosao (Terrantez in Madeira). Esgana Cao (aka Sercial in Madeira) isn’t used much, but since its name means “dog strangler” we thought you’d want to know about it.

2 Ageing – all white port is aged for a minimum of three years; colheita for at least seven years – though many houses age for a lot longer than this.

3 Barrels – are crucial to white port, since these are barrel-aged, not bottle-aged wines. Containers vary from 225-litre casks to 7,500-litre vats.House style, on all ageing matters, is crucial.

4 Age statements are 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old, plus Very Old White Port. The age statement is an AVERAGE age of the wines in the bottle. Colheita wines are barrel aged from a single vintage.

5 Preservation – because these are an oxidised style they don’t depreciate once opened. Young white ports can last for a couple of weeks; colheitas (under 15 years) for a couple of months. Older colheitas and aged whites can last 2-4 months. Obviously, this is great news for restaurants.

6 Sugar levels – Extra dry – 17,5 to  40 gr/l; Dry – 40 to 65 gr/l; Semi-dry  – 65 to 90 gr/l; Sweet  – 90 to 130 gr/l; Very Sweet or Lágrima – >130 gr/l

7 Flavours – younger ports are quite forward, with flavours of citrus, tea, white flowers, honey and preserved fruit. Older ones move into dried fruits, figs, walnuts, almonds, orange peel and spice.