The Atlantic climate imbues these reds and whites — made from little-known Portuguese grapes — with elegance, grace and the potential to age.
For many Americans, the wines of Portugal are a great unknown.
Unlike those of France, Italy or Spain, Portuguese wines do not carry with them much of an identity. A mention evokes no particular image except perhaps for port, the famous fortified wine. The problem is few Americans drink fortified wine anymore. If consumers do, my impression is that they are more likely to be interested in Madeira (also from Portugal, but produced on a far smaller scale than port) or sherry from Spain.
One Portuguese wine Americans may know is Vinho Verde, from the Minho region of northernmost Portugal, which has become a moderately popular, inexpensive summer refreshment. But I would wager that many people are not certain about where Vinho Verde comes from, particularly those wines made with the alvarinho grape, better known under its Spanish identity, albariño.
The confusion is partly a result of Portugal’s greatest strength: its reliance on grapes that have been indigenous to Portugal.
A tried and true strategy of winemakers in underappreciated but ambitious regions in the last quarter of the 20th century was to gain global attention by planting well-known French grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and then making wines in internationally popular styles — potent, oak-aged reds, for example.
After gaining critical approval, primarily from Americans, producers eventually reverted to grapes that were historically identified with their areas.
But Portuguese winemakers never played that game. Although some international varieties can be found, most regions stayed true to their own grapes, which perhaps hampered efforts to market Portuguese wines outside of the country.
A second hindrance surfaced, however, particularly in the Douro region in the north (port country), where many producers were increasing their production of still wines, using the grapes that had long been associated with port. Even relying on the indigenous grapes, many producers aimed for an international style: powerfully fruity, oaky and heavy on the polish and gloss. The result was wines of undeniable quality that were somewhat soulless.
I offer this background in a quick effort to explain why it has taken Americans a long time to develop an emotional connection with Portuguese table wines. For me, it has not been easy. I love the wines of the tiny, singular region of Colares, which are made in minute quantities and unlike any other wines in the world. And I have developed an affection for encruzado, a rarely seen grape that makes excellent white wines in the Dão region of northern Portugal.
But only in the last couple of years have I become truly excited about the wines of Bairrada, a region in northern central Portugal bounded by the hills of Dão to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
The maritime climate, along with the clay and limestone soils, is the key to the red wines of Bairrada, which are characterized by a natural freshness that in the best examples is retained as the wines age and leads to a rare elegance and grace. The climate can also be a curse, as humidity can be trapped between the ocean and the Dão hills, and the leading red grape, baga, is susceptible to rot.
“If it rains in September, the whole crop is gone,” said Naama Laufer, a wine importer whose company, NLC Wines, specializes in the wines of Portugal. “There’s very little wine from 2014.”
Because of the risks of waiting to harvest baga at full ripeness, growers historically picked early. In the 20th century much of the crop was sold to cooperatives or to big companies making cheap wines. If, like me, you once had some close encounters with Mateus, a cheap Portuguese rosé that in the 1970s was one of the best-selling wines in the world, you have already tasted baga.
Farmers who made their own wines back then used traditional techniques, involving long macerations of the juice with the skins, producing wines that were profoundly tannic and rustic, though rarely high in alcohol.
In the 1980s, Luis Pato was among the first growers to start bottling a more modern form of baga, made with shorter macerations, that demonstrated the grape’s potential for elegance. They made an impression on those who tried them. In the 1990s, Savio Soares was a server at Gotham Bar and Grill when he first tried a Bairrada from Luis Pato.
“What I remember was the vibrancy of the acidity and the balance,” he said. “They reminded me of nebbiolo.”
Mr. Soares went on to become a wine importer whose company, Savio Soares Selections, is dedicated to small producers. Among his Portuguese selections, he has two from Bairrada: Tiago Teles, whose wines are already sold in the New York area, and Casa de Saima, whose wines will be available in New York in September.
The Tiago Teles reds uncharacteristically are not made of baga, but of other Portuguese grapes. I love them nonetheless. The 2016 Gilda — 70 percent castelão and 30 percent alfrocheiro — is earthy, floral and fresh; medium bodied and complex enough to require repeated sips to try to get to the heart of its mystery. The 2015 Maria da Graça is 90 percent alfrocheiro with a touch of merlot and the remainder bical, a white grape, likewise fresh and floral, with a high-toned citrus quality that lifts the wine. Both bottles are around 12.5 percent alcohol and cost around $20.
Ms. Laufer has one Bairrada producer in the NLC portfolio, Sidónio de Sousa, a small, family operation that makes a fascinating array of wines, including a rosé brut nature, a lightly fruity, spicy pink-tinged sparkling wine made from young baga vines that is a steal for under $14.
The same might be said for the 2013 de Sousa Colheita baga, under $15, tasting of fresh, ripe, dark fruit, with a slight vegetative touch — it reminded me of charred jalapeño — that added complexity.
De Sousa also offers an occasional experimental baga. A 2009 Vinho d’Autor ($40), was made from baga grapes that Paulo Sousa, the winemaker, believes did not fit into either the Colheita or the Garrafeira, its higher-end baga. The Vinho d’Autor was decidedly old school: structured and tannic, rich and mouth-filling (but not heavy), long and delicious, just what one would want with roasted meats.
Maybe my favorite de Sousa wine, however, was a white, the 2016 Reserva Branco, lively, linear and mineral, with the aroma of fresh flowers. The ’16, about $20, was the first vintage of this wine, Ms. Laufer said, and only a small quantity was produced.
Sadly, not that many Bairrada wines are available in New York. Among the worthy producers I was able to find were Quinta das Bágeiras, whose 2012 baga was beautifully perfumed, with great fruit and acidity — a great value at $13.
Campolargo makes an array of wines, including the fresh, smooth, gulpable Entre II Santos ($15), made primarily of baga with a little castelão and merlot thrown in; Termeão Pássaro ($17), made mostly of touriga nacional, a leading port grape, which is denser and more tannic, with aromas and flavors of violets and red fruits; and a fresh, elegant and substantial baga ($25). A 2013 still seemed young, its complexity yet to be unlocked.
Otherwise, Luis Pato is still around, making very good wines. His daughter Filipa Pato is also making Bairrada wines under her own label. I am looking forward to trying her sparkling wine and her baga.
One producer whose Bairradas I have not found in the United States is Dirk Niepoort, perhaps Portugal’s best-known winemaker. His family has produced port for generations, and he has branched out to making still wines all over Portugal and beyond.
It was in Portugal in the spring of 2017 that I tried Niepoort’s 2012 Poeirinho, an enchantingly fresh, precise and graceful baga. I asked him by email what drew him to Bairrada.
“It was always my big love,” he said. “I always was amazed by the soils, the climate (difficult) and particularly baga.
“It is the finest terroir in Portugal with the perfect grapes suited to it,” he continued. “It ain’t easy, but when right, it can be some of the best in the world.”
Alas, though a few Niepoort Bairradas can be found in California, they are not available on the East Coast. His importer in the New York area, Polaner Selections, has been focusing instead on Niepoort’s ports and still wines from the Douro.
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.
An earlier version of a photo caption misstated the surname of the winemaker at Sidónio de Sousa. He is Paulo Sousa, not Sidónio.
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