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Yesterday I went to a wine tasting of Spanish wines in Luxembourg. It was a group of close to 12 persons of different nationalities tasting Spanish wines. What was remarkable for all of us was how different all these wines were. The great majority were made with tempranillo grapes but the different wine making methods and the regions in which the wines were made really translated into diversity. And it was a fascinating diversity, capable of fitting the most disparate tastes. Never did I saw such a diverse set of opinions: one would love a wine that another one would criticize just to see the positions reversed regading the following wine. I understood how much these Spanish wines reflected the diversity of tastes that one can find in the wine world. And this is a good thing.

Let me talk you about my favourite three and how much they reflect the diversity I mentioned. The first was Petalos (Bierzo, 2005), a wine of the new Spain. An emerging wine region and a wine made for the new world. While tasting I mentioned that this would be a wine to please Robert Parker, just to hear the Sommelier tell me that it had indeed obtained 93 points from Parker (what an investment at the low price it sells…). It is powerful but immediate. Rich, opulent but elegant at the same time. The second was Clos de Berenguer (Priorat, 2004). This is the new old Spain. A wine region that has become famous in recent years but whose wines still appeal to the old fashioned Spanish wines. Plenty of tannins but of high quality. Made to last and to impress. It is old Spain in a new bottle. The third was a classic (Baron de Ley, Gran Reserva 1998, Rioja). This is old Spain at its purest and highest form. It’s an aristocratic wine, full of complexity and elegance and yet not afraid to announce its presence. A wine with layers of history to tell. In these three wines I found the Spain of today with all its diversity but also with all this diversity has in common.

Many of you have already probably heard of the Super Tuscans. The new and powerful red wines being made in the Tuscan region. Wines full of personality and that have finally freed Tuscany from the Chianti complex. In the Douro region there is a similar movement going on. These are wines aiming at perfection, often made in small quantities, extremely powerful and concentrated and that attempt to impress at once but mainly by the promise of the pleasure to come. However, they tend to be rather expensive, often becoming like the super-models we admire and use as a reference point but rarely go out with…The winemakers that are making them have gained a lot of international press fame (including from the wine spectator and most recently Robert Parker) and they are being called the Douro boys. In reality, some of these winemakers are women! Also, and not all of the men are still boys… The older generation is competing with a new one and each wine appears to have a different personality. The only thing they do have in common is their obsession with perfection. When drinking these wines, we really have the perception of how much commitment went into making them. They are courageous wines: these winemakers have invested their souls and there is no margin of error left on the bottle (as there is also little from these wines left in the glass afterwards…).With some friends I organised a tasting of some of these wines. Important names, such as the wines made by Niepoort or the older guard headed by Barca Velha were absent from the match. They did not forfeit. We would have liked to have an ever larger representation but we simply didn’t have the money (and the stomach… we are not wine tasters, we are wine drinkers; in other words we taste by drinking…. And we need to drink with moderation!).
What an evening. Here, is only an initial presentation of some of the wines we tasted.We started with the Vallado Reserva 2003. This is to start almost in heaven. Vallado wines keep having the greatest ratings you can imagine but they still don’t have that much buzz around them. The reason? Well, is it perhaps because they are not that expensive?… I sure hope they continue that way. The 2003 was powerful but extremely elegant. It came dressed in velvet and it was the first time I fell in love that night. Then came the Quinta do Gaivosa, 2003. This a producer (Alves the Sousa) which just makes a new wine after another. Many of outstanding quality, as this one, but there is a serious risk that one will get lost in the middle of all his different wines: wine polygamy can also be risky. I soon forgot all those fears however. The Quinta do Gaivosa 2003 starts by knocking you down with its aroma! You can smell it miles away (“quel parfum”? ). So powerful to our nose (a wine a la Parker) that it takes sometime to start identifying its flavours. The true is that it is perhaps better described as  a wine that constantly changes flavours in the mouth as if it has, somehow, managed to preserve all the different personalities of the numerous grape varieties that compose it. They have not been assembled. They have been kept there in the wine and we are left to delight and surprise ourselves with the changing melodies that this wine sings to us. It can feel quite an erratic date but, at times, it is exhilarating. From Alves de Sousa we also had the now famous Abandonado 2004. I cannot assess this wine. It is like no other I’ve ever tasted. The name abandonado (abandoned) refers to the vines from where it is made. They had been left abandoned for many years. This is a wine not to be drunk but to be eaten. You just feel like chewing wine. If it is better or worst than any of the others I can’t tell. What I am sure is that this wine will not be left abandoned…May be some years from now (how many?) I can finally judge it, if there will be any left. In the meanwhile its price is so high that there is really not much dating possible between the two of us! A similar wine, but more “financially” approachable, is the Vale do Meao, 2004. Drinking this wine is, however, like having a blind date 15 years in advance… But I would even commit myself to marriage in this case (one of my favourites). Another power house and also on my favourites list is the C.V. from Quinta Dona Maria (15º). It is quite an impressive curriculum vitae! Less impressive but also worth a date is their second wine: Dona Maria 2004 (it is, however, the kind of wine that flirts with you but doesn’t really ends in an engagement). Then, there is the Pingas. Again one of the wines must talked about at the moment in Portugal. It is made by a couple (they are the also, individually, the winemakers behind some of the other great wines). I can see they are passionate but can there be love? This is a wine full of aromas, complexity and sensations. The initial impact is tremendous (the best of all to smell and put in the mouth) but it does not seem to last that long (hopefully no correspondence with the marriage here…). This wine makes you fall in love at first taste but doesn’t yet made me stay in love. I will have to take it out for a drink another time to make up my mind…
My preference, however, will surprise many: Quinta do Passadouro 2004 (one of the cheapest wines in the lot; still, around 30 Euros the bottle). What can I tell you? Perhaps, I like to date wines that are not so ostentatious. Yet, this is another powerful and concentrated wine which you can eat as well as drink. It flirts with you but does not really offer itself immediatelly. My advise: admire it now but wait for a later date to consume the relationship… This one may last forever!

Two thirds of the wine were there, the other third had vanished with time. Someone had handwrote “Colheita 1911” and the cork was red and greasy. It felt appropriate to end a Saturday dinner, after the best Portuguese Late Harvest (Grandjó, 2004; but the 2002 was even better!) and two great Iberian reds made in the Duero/Douro region (Pintia, DO Toro, 2003 and Quinta do Vale Meão, Douro, 2003 respectively – the first of them won the contest, by the way…).

The colour of this Port was incredible, dark and clear at the same time. Noble and intense nose, reminiscent of orange and smoke. The mouth became full and remained like that for ages. It was impossible to eat something at the same time or for a while after the tasting. It required our exclusive attention as if it wanted to spend all night telling us the stories and History of its age(s). A monument in… a green bottle of sparkling water (it looked “Pedras Salgadas” – the Portuguese Perrier!! – to me)! It was probably bottled in the 80’s, after ageing in oak for 70 years. I don’t know where it was produced and I don’t want to solve the mistery…

by guest contributor Luis Barreto Xavier

Bairrada wines are like successful marriages: they require commitment.

I remembered that when, recently, I had the opportunity to drink an old bottle of a “middle-division” winery from Bairrada at Restaurant São Gião. This restaurant is a miracle itself. This is one of the best restaurants of traditional Portuguese cuisine set among factories and the football stadium of Moreira de Conegos (a former first division Portuguese football team). Moreira de Conegos is known, well… for its football team and restaurant São Gião! How a town with a few thousand inhabitants got to have a team in the first division for a large number of years is a mystery. Even a bigger mystery is how it still has a restaurant in the first division of Portuguese cuisine. São Gião is even more surprising because, while from the outside it looks just like what it is (an house in a rather industrial area next to a football stadium) from the inside it is an almost prefect blend of classic and contemporary design. Moreover, they managed to set it in such a way that its large windows mostly bring into the room the scenery of a beautiful vineyard that has, somehow, managed to survive between the stadium and the factories!

It was impressed by this miracle that we proceeded to select the wine, while having some bites at a wonderful ham from Pork Bizaro (this is an ham that is beginning to reappear in the north of Portugal and which, in my view can compete with the best hams: the Pork is fed with chestnuts what gives it an incredibly rich – almost sweet – taste). When looking at the wine list I came across a final section entitled: Old Wines. Almost all where Bairradas (though we were not in Bairrada) and paradoxically the prices were… cheaper than the new wines! We could have an array of different Bairradas from the 70’s and 80’s from around 10 Euros! Should we take the risk? Being from Bairrada myself I didn’t hesitate a second. I asked for an Adega Cooperativa de Cantanhede from 1978 (I had many years ago, at the start of my wine adventures, drunk some bottles of the 78 and they are partly responsible for the fact that I am now writing this blog!). Unfortunately, the bottle could not be found… and the sommelier brought instead a Frei João from the same year. Both are good Bairrada wines but they are not top of the league wines.

With a few notable exceptions, Bairrada producers have not become part of the emerging Portuguese market of highly rated and expensive wines that is largely concentrated in Douro, Alentejo and, to a lesser degree, Dão. The rules for producing a Bairrada have until very recently been very strict and conservative too (only the Baga grape was allowed to have a Bairrada doc). As a consequence, production methods have, until quite recently, remained largely the same, marketing has suffered and Bairrada wines are, often, seen as too hard to drink. Baga is the most discussed grape in Portugal and its international status is not great (a well known international wine book basically describes it as a high production/low quality grape). A classic Bairrada can be quite tannic when young. Yet, I believe there are few wines in the world that can get old as well as a Bairrada and even fewer that can be bought at such cheap prices. That was the case with this Frei João from 1978: all the strength was there but the tannins where gone. What was once a rugged personality had become the embodiment of elegance. Exactly what an old wine should be: age had made its role but was not on evidence. Sure, these wines are not made for this day and age, when you buy for immediate consumption. But, sometimes, in life, there are things (often the best things) that arise out of patience and commitment. Buy some bottles of Bairrada now and wait. One day, at least 10 years from now, bring them out from the cellar, opened them and you will see beauty awake.

Bairrada wines are changing: the rules have been amended to authorise other grapes, production methods have been much improved and an emerging generation of oenologists and wine growers is reshaping the region and its image. Nothing wrong with this. It is always good to improve and Bairrada deserves a new and better image for its wines. But I beg to all its producers: continue to make wines for life and not simply for tomorrow!

Some of the best Bairrada producers and wines:

Quinta de Baixo


Luis Pato (pay attention also to what his daughter, Filipa Pato, is doing)

Quinta das Baceladas

Quinta das Bageiras

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