Sparkling Wine Session
1-3 June 2023
Bairrada, brimming with vitality and history
The town of Anadia, in Portugal’s Bairrada region, is hosting the sparkling wine session of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. Judges will evaluate sparkling wines from across the globe in the Bairrada Wine Museum from 1 to 3 July 2022.
People often forget that Portugal is the European Union’s fifth largest wine producing country. Suffice it to say that the western side of the Iberian Peninsula is home to a treasure trove of absolute gems just waiting to be discovered. Bairrada is a DOC set in the region of Beiras, in central Portugal. It is renowned for its rich, deeply coloured red wines made from the Baga, Castelão, Alfrocheiro, Camarate and Rufete grape varieties.
Beiras is a fairly extensive region, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the border with Spain. It was one of the country’s first regions to adopt and explore sparkling wines, a style that is still popular in the region. The cool, damp climate promotes production of this particular style, providing grapes that have high acidities and low alcohol.
The region’s defining features
Bairrada is located in the western, coastal half of Beiras and its climate is temperate. Its proximity to the sea lends it a typically Atlantic climate, with mild, wet winters and hot, albeit slightly windy, summers. Over the summer, there is a 20°C difference in day and night time temperatures in the region. The sea breezes hit the Caramulo mountains where they rapidly cool before dropping down over the vineyards.
The river Certima supplies water to the region from North to South. All of these factors combine to make this a cool-climate region, which is fairly uncommon in Southern Europe. The local vineyards are very fragmented, with different micro-climates in each valley. This combination of elements is responsible for maintaining high acidity in the grapes, lending freshness to the resultant wines. In terms of soil profile, most of the vineyards in Bairrada have limestone-rich clayey soils (‘barro’ means clay in Portuguese). The soil type continues eastwards to the Dão wine region, home to some of Portugal’s most highly prized vineyards. Bairrada has 2,400 wine producers.
In the Bairrada region, 65% of the grapes are red and 35% white.
Baga is the main red grape variety in Bairrada, accounting for 40% of red grapes or 26% of all vine plantings. The late-ripening variety is well-suited to the region’s soils. Its small, thick-skinned berries produce an intense, tannic wine, and Bairrada winegrowers add Merlot, Cabernet and Touriga Nacional to their vineyards in order to instil softness and depth in their wines.
Bairrada’s white wines revolve around Fernao Pires and Bical. Bical is a very popular white grape in Bairrada. As Portugal’s largest sparkling wine producer region, Bairrada produces around 7.5 million bottles, nearly 25% of them sparkling wines. Also, 53.5% of all sparkling wines produced in Portugal come from Bairrada.
The Baga grape variety is currently experiencing a revival in Bairrada. The grape variety, erstwhile renowned for its powerful tannins, has now attracted a strong following and single varietals are enjoying commercial success. Even in the United States, consumers seem to have finally realised the unique characters and specific qualities of Baga in a wine world that is increasingly standardised. The grape variety is also extremely versatile – from sparkling wines to rosés via age-worthy offerings, it offers multiple facets. The more Baga struggles and the lower its yields, the higher the quality. In this respect, it is comparable to other prime grape varieties such as Nebbiolo in Piedmont and Pinot noir in Burgundy. The new generation of winegrowers, embodied by producers such as Luis Gomes of Giz, Luis Patrao of Vadio Wines and Filipa Pato of PatoWouters, is primarily focusing on local grape varieties, using less extraction and more importantly, being more selective in their choice of sites and soils to plant traditional grape varieties.
This is especially true of Baga, a very versatile variety, which changes depending on whether the soil is limestone or clay-limestone and how exposed the vineyard is to the Ocean or protected by the Serra de Caramulo. They have made it their mission to provide a genuine, transparent image of the region with unique character by making clean, generous, pure wines. White wines made from Bica, Cercial and Arinto also offer some very successful examples. The finest wines have a lifespan that can reach 30 years, due to their tannins and very high acidity. The wine styles should also be set within their historical food context. Mealhada, one of the region’s best known towns, is popular for its spit-roasted suckling pig (leitão). Refreshing wines with substantial acidity are required to cut through the rich flavours and high fat content of the meat, which is where the region’s sparkling wines and tannic, Baga-based wines come into their own.
Unlike the rest of Europe, where south-facing vineyards exposed to the hot midday sunshine are described as having an ideal aspect, in Bairrada and Dão the best vineyards face East, so that only the cool morning sunlight warms the grapes.
The region gained DOC status in 1980, even though its first vineyards were planted centuries before. In the past, the area was a land through which conquerors passed, among Arabs when Portugal was established and the kingdom’s capital was Coimbra. It is also a land that had to defend itself from Napoleon’s armies, trapped in the Serra do Bussaco. Vines have always grown here and have been the silent witnesses to these major milestones in Portugal’s history.