Night of the living red: How Baga made a comeback

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

08 July 2019

Wine styles drift in and out of fashion, and some varieties that looked down and out 20 years ago are starting to come back to life. Darren Smith presents five grape varieties that came back from the dead

Baga - Bairrada, Portugal

When it was famous

In the early to mid 1700s, merchants made plenty of money selling Bairrada Baga fraudulently as port. This deception resulted in an order for all the region’s vines to be uprooted, and it took 200 years for Bairrada in general and Baga in particular – by far the most dominant grape variety in the region – to recover.

According to Mário Sérgio Nuno, co-founder of the Baga Friends group and owner of Quinta das Bágeiras, the grape’s zenith was in the 50s and 60s. The best wines of this era were the garrafeiras – long-aged reserve wines made only when vintage conditions permitted. In particular 1961, but also ’66, ’67 and ’69, produced garrafeiras that remain excellent to this day.

Why it declined

Until Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, most Bairrada Baga went either into the blend for – ahem – Mateus Rosé, or into bulk wines sold to Portugal’s African colonies. Withdrawal from these colonies killed the market. Then, in the 90s, Bairrada fell behind amid the modernisation of the Portuguese wine industry.

This modernisation was led by regions like Alentejo, which embraced industrial processes to produce accessible, affordable, modern styles of wine in high volumes. The small growers who made Bairrada Baga famous started either selling their grapes to the local co-op, or left the business.

How it came back

Luis Pato stubbornly resisted this decline. Focusing on the right sites and lower yields – Pato was the first producer to introduce green harvesting – he launched his first Vinho Tinto in 1980.
Following in Pato’s footsteps and boosted by EU funding, other small producers began to emerge.

The most significant development was the establishment of The Baga Friends group in 2010 by Filipa Pato (daughter of Luis) and Mário Sérgio Nuno. They sought to promote the variety and preserve Bairrada’s old, often centenarian, Baga vines.

The endorsement of Dirk Niepoort, who bought Quinta da Baixo in Cantanhede in 2012, also put a spotlight on the region, cementing its comeback.

Why it’s good

Baga has a reputation for making dark, forbidding, tannic wines, but its current champions are revealing this to be an over-simplification of what the grape has to offer.

It has good natural acid and tannic structure, while Bairrada’s best chalky clay-limestone adds freshness, finesse and smoky savouriness to its profile of herbal, occasionally pine and balsamic notes and earthy red fruits.

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