Bairrada has a long tradition of producing wines from just one grape. Until recently, the region's wines were made primarily from the baga grape, often by traditional methods. Producers crushed grapes with feet and left the stems on during the production process. The region's fortunes changed for the better in 1991, when Portugal joined the European Union and modernization of Bairrada's wineries began in earnest. Today you will find both producers that use modern, sometimes even über-modern methods and winemakers dedicated to traditional practices. Happily, when conditions are right, both traditionalists and progressive winemakers can achieve excellent results.
Bairrada, like other Portuguese wine regions, got its start when the Romans came to town. Vines grew well in the region's clay soil, and winemaking prospered here until the watershed year of 1756. That was when the Marquês de Pombal, King José I's overzealous prime minister, decided that Bairrada's vineyards had to be uprooted in order to protect the all-important Port industry. This was done, and the vineyards of Bairrada were replaced by farms. Fortunately, the prime minister retired when King José died in 1777, and the vineyards were replanted shortly thereafter.
The first school of viticulture in Portugal was established here in 1887, making this another important year for Bairrada. Phylloxera, of course, played its own role, but the region recovered and winemaking continued. Interestingly, the Bairrada DO's borders were not officially defined until 1979; prior efforts to delineate the region's boundaries typically ended in squabbling.
Prior to 2003, Bairrada's wine law emphasized one grape, and one grape only – baga. This red wine grape can be difficult to manage here because the grapes can rot on the vine if the weather is not favorable. The restrictive wine laws frustrated some of Bairrada's winemakers, who lobbied for a longer list of approved grape varieties and finally won out in 2003. Today, Bairrada wine producers can use eight red wine grape varieties in addition to baga, although wines labeled "Bairrada Classico" must be at least 50 percent baga.
Still, tradition dies hard in Bairrada, and quite a few of the region's leading winemakers – not coincidentally, also some of Bairrada's leading spokespersons – still favor the baga grape. Their wines speak for themselves; handled properly, baga makes a quality wine.
Geography, Climate and Soils
Bairrada lies in northwestern Portugal, in the area between Aveiro and Coimbra. The area's Atlantic climate is affected by winds that blow in off the ocean, bringing rains that can cause grapes to rot or ruin the autumn harvest entirely. Bairrada gets from 31 to 47 inches of rain per year, with more rain, sometimes as much as 62 inches, falling in the eastern part of the region. Temperatures are moderate, thanks to the ocean's influence. Summers are warm, with plenty of sunshine, and winters are mild. Most of Bairrada's rain falls in the winter and spring months.
Bairrada's soils are quite varied. There are large areas of calcareous clay and of sandy soils. Near the rivers there are areas of alluvium and conglomerate. Schists can be found in the northeast and east. Parts of Bairrada have loamy soils. Some people believe that the Portuguese word "barro," which means "clay," is the basis for the region's name.
Bairrada Grape Varieties
As mentioned previously, the baga grape is still the main variety grown in Bairrada. When the region's wine law was changed in 2003, the list of permitted red wine grape varieties was expanded to include alfrocheiro-preto, bastardo, cabernet sauvignon, castelão, jaen, merlot, syrah and touriga nacional. Approximately 80 percent of the wines produced in Bairrada are red wines. Permitted white wine varieties include arinto, bical, cercial, cercialinho, chardonnay, Maria Gomes (fernão pires) and rabo de ovelha.
That said, there are some wine producers in Bairrada who are experimenting with even more wine grape varieties and are bottling their wines as regional wines ("vinhos regionais"). In fact, some of the region's best-known producers are taking this route, significantly affecting Bairrada's status on the world wine stage.
Visiting Bairrada Wineries
Wine tourism is fairly well-developed in Bairrada. The Museo do Vinho da Bairrada in Anadia is a good place to begin exploring the region. You can also follow the Bairrada Wine Route, but if you plan to visit wineries on or off the route, it's best to arrange your visit before you set out. Most of the region's best-known wine producers prefer advance notice. As you travel the wine route, you'll discover that there are many cooperative wineries in Bairrada, but you'll also find independently-owned wineries, both traditional and modern.
Caves Aliança, which also owns vineyards in several other Portuguese wine regions, began the modernization movement in Bairrada, according to Portuguese wine expert Richard Mayson. This family-owned winery bottles both Bairrada DO wines under the Quinta das Baceladas label and Beiras regional wines ("Vinho Regional Beiras").
Campolargo, another family-run enterprise, has opted to completely modernize. Campolargo even uses robots to destem and crush the grapes. The winery itself is built so that gravity moves the wine through the production process. You can tour the winery and participate in a wine tasting session if you arrange your visit in advance. Campolargo offers overnight accommodations in the winery's guesthouse, Casa de Mogofores.
Luís Pato is undoubtedly Bairrada's best-known wine producer. Jancis Robinson describes Pato as "the Angelo Gaja of Bairrada," and blue Wine magazine calls him "Senhor ("Mr.") Bairrada." Pato makes some outstanding wines, taking advantage of Bairrada's varied soils and microclimates. Pato believes that baga has an important role to play in Bairrada's future as a wine region. He blends baga with other varieties in some of his wines and makes other from 100 percent baga.
Since 1999, Pato has bottled his wines as vinhos regionais rather than as Bairrada DO wines because he does not agree with the way the DO is managed. The 2003 changes to the region's wine law came about largely through his influence. You can visit Pato's eponymous winery for tours and wine tasting courses if you reserve your place in advance. There is a guesthouse, House of Óis, on the property. Pato occasionally presents "Lunches with Signature," featuring dishes prepared by well-known chefs.
Pato's daughter, Filipa, is making a name for herself as a winemaker and appears regularly on lists of up-and-coming young Portuguese wine producers. She does not grow her own grapes, but produces her wines from grapes grown in both Bairrada and Dão. Educated as a chemistry engineer, Filipa Pato carefully analyzes soils, microclimates and growing methods to determine the best ways to produce her wines.
Caves Solar de São Domingos welcomes visitors to its cellars and museum. The winery dates back to 1937, although its equipment was recently modernized. Caves Solar de São Domingos produces red and white wines and brandies as well as its original product, sparkling wines. You'll need to contact the winery in advance to schedule your visit.
For better or worse, Bairrada is still pinning its future success on the baga grape. Now that wine producers have had some time to experiment within the confines of the new wine law, Bairrada seems poised on the brink – but of what? The answer may lie in successfully combining the best of Bairrada's tradition with modern technology and careful attention to the entire growing and winemaking process, or it may lie upon a path of more innovation. It's worth keeping an eye on Bairrada's progress; the evidence suggests that great wines can, indeed, come from Bairrada.