I always champion for the underdog, and while I certainly enjoy my share of Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, there is nothing that thrills me more when I have wonderful and surprising tasing experiences with grapes that are less popular. It’s as if I’ve found some sort of secret nobody else knows about, and I almost don’t want to share it with others because I want to keep it that way.
But I simply had to write a blog post about Baga, a small, think-skinned grape variety who produced dark, relatively acidic and tannic wines, and whose home can be found in Bairrada, Portugal. In fact, as much as 90% of dark skinned grape varieties grown here are Baga, according to Jancis Robinson. As many of Portugal’s wines are made from blends, I think mono varietal bottlings are more exciting and really stand out, making me wonder why I don’t drink more of them on a regular basis.
Bairrada is a small and narrow region in north-central Portugal, and a very exciting one at that. Because of its maritime climate and limestone soils, the wines are bright with firm acidity, elegant and with lighter alcohol and an unusual finesse . These are very different from the heavier, fruit-forward dry table wines found in other regions such as the Douro, made from grape varieties used in port (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cao). I read somewhere that “B” stands for Burgundy, Barolo and Bairrada. Not bad company, and you can have Baga for a fraction of the price of the other two!
Red berries and black plums, herbs, tobacco and coffee are all flavors that can be found in a well-crafted Baga. Baga means “berry”, and is high-yielding, so much of it goes into bulk wine production. While some call it a problematic grape, as with anything – with great care and respect for the vines in the vineyard, Baga grapes can turn into the most dazzling, aromatic, high quality wine that can age for a long time, and may be reminiscent of a cross between a French Pinot Noir and Italian Nebbiolo. Investing in vineyards, and reducing yields have helped improve the reputation of this grape and now it seems to be on the lips of every wine connoisseur.
The first time I tried Baga was when I was a wine buyer for Suburban Wines, a large retail store in Westchester, NY. The bottle was from Luis Pato, a star and well-known producer in Portugal, and later I tried yet another example from his daughter, Filipa. Both were exceptional and I ended up bringing in both to the store. It was refreshing to see that these were wines that were clearly made to make the grape and terroir shine, versus just make another jammy, “internationally” styled wine that would appeal to Americans.
The other day I tried Vadio Baga 2014 made by young winemaker Luis Patrão. Luis and his father made their first wine in 2005 which was released in 2009. He focuses on local grape varieties and producing distinctive, high quality wines, something you can clearly detect in this example. To ease up on the often times astringent tannins found in Baga, Luis co-ferments the Baga with 1-2% of Sercial skins because he finds it softens the texture and gives it more vibrancy.
This is his entry level wine, is 100% organic and made with native yeast. Lots of crushed red berries intermingled with both licorice spice and earthy tones, it is indeed reminiscent of both a Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, but with an approachability that is endearing and makes you want to take that next sip. I encourage you to make Baga your new friend – you won’t regret it!
I paired it with a Mexican black bean stew, a plant-based version of caldillo, which I was very happy with. You can find the recipe for that here.