Baga has pretty unpromising credentials. The word 'Baga’ just means 'grape', and for most of its history, this tinto grape of northern Portugal has mostly been used for bulk wines, or to flesh out the iconic but unlovely Mateus Rosé (a favourite intoxicant of London-era Jimi Hendrix). But when its grown on the right soil (limestone) with controlled yields (green pruning), and vinified delicately (infusion, not extraction), baga can be fine-tuned to a pitch of greatness...
In the early to mid-1700s dodgy merchants made loads of money selling Bairrada baga fraudulently for use in Port. This resulted in a government edict saying all Bairrada’s vines had to be uprooted. It took 200 years for the region, and baga, to recover. According to Mário Sergio Nuno, co-founder of the winemakers' collective Baga Friends and owner of Quinta das Bágeiras, baga’s zenith was in the 1950s and 1960s. The best wines of this era were the garrafeiras – long-aged reserve wines made only when vintage conditions permitted. Nuno notes the 1961 vintage in particular, but also 1966, 1967 and 1969, produced garrafeiras that remain excellent to this day.
Until Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, most Bairrada baga went either into the blend for Mateus rosé or into bulk wines sold to Portugal’s African colonies. Withdrawal from these colonies hammered the market. In the 1990s, Bairrada fell further into decline 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, quality-led growers who made Bairrada baga famous started selling their grapes to the local co-op or simply left the business.
Luis Pato – the original ‘baga rebel’ - stubbornly resisted this decline. Focusing on the best vineyard sites and lower yields, Pato aspired to make baga of internationally recognised high quality. He was the first producer to introduce green harvesting - that is, removing some of the grape bunches before ripening to ensure the remaining ones ripen fully and produce concentrated grapes. In 1985, possibly with an eye on Bordeaux, he started to make baga from destemmed grapes (as opposed to the wholebunch and invariably over-tannic styles of the past) and maturing his wines in new French oak casks. Following in Pato’s footsteps and boosted by EU funding, other small, quality-focused producers began to emerge.
Baga may have had a reputation for making insipid, green, forbiddingly tannic wines, but its current champions have turned that reputation on its head. Baga is a grape variety with excellent natural acidity and pronounced tannic structure - you just need treat it in the right way (low yields, delicate, patient handling). When you add to its natural attributes Bairrada’s clay-limestone soils and maritime climate, you get baga wines of freshness, finesse and smoky savour, with an aromatic profile of herbal, incense-like notes and earthy red fruits which draw comparisons to fine nebbiolo or pinot noir. But baga is its own grape, with a beauty of its own.