MY 2018 BAGA CAME ABOUT THANKS TO A FLEETING, VERY FORTUITOUS CONVERSATION WITH DIRK NIEPOORT. HERE ARE A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE BAGA GRAPE VARIETY AND THE NIEPOORT WAY...
My fascination with baga started because I like red wines with red-berry fruits – cherry, cranberry, strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant, rosehip – and because I like the dancing-on-a-pinhead finesse and sappy freshness of Dirk Niepoort’s Poeirinho Bairrada baga. I remember trying this wine for the first time at a London tasting a few years ago and having a bit of an epiphany. I'd been steering towards lighter wines anyway - wines defined by their relatively low alcohol, fruit focus and finesse rather than heft and heavy oak - but when I tried Dirk’s Poeirinho at that tasting I was stunned by how it managed to be so complex and layered while being so gossamer-fine. It was like I had to recalibrate my palate after trying all the other wines at the tasting. Niepoort's baga was on a finer register. I had to find out more.
I learned that Bairrada was a region on Portugal’s north Atlantic coast and that in certain sub-zones of Bairrada, like Cantanhede, the soil was chalky, with loads of limestone fossils, like in Chablis. I tasted more bagas, from producers like the original 'baga rebel', Luis Pato - who in the 80s defied the prevailing wisdom about how to cultivate and vinify baga, and made people realise it could make high-quality wines - and his daughter, Filipa Pato. These were my kind of wines. Maybe not as gossamer-fine as Niepoort’s but with the same jewelled red berry fruit, and gorgeous notes of dried herbs and something slightly spiced, even incense-like; a bit like pinot, a bit like nebbiolo, but different. I learned that the best examples of Bairrada baga, the garrafeiras, which spent longer in barrel and bottle, were highly prized and could aged for decades. I realised that baga had something special about it.
Topping up at Quinta de Nápoles
The Poeirinho at that tasting made such an impression on me that, in August 2018, I ended up working as a Niepoort intern at Quinta de Nápoles in the Douro Valley (this is where, one day, a 30-second conversation with Dirk while processing grapes led to me making by baga). I spent more than two months at Niepoort, working not just in the Douro, but also at Dirk's estates in Dão and Bairrada. The work was hard. I think we processed 300,000kg of grapes in the Douro alone. I was working 13, 14 hours a day. My longest shift, towards the end of my time in Bairrada, was 17-and-a-half hours. I ached all the time. But I loved it. It'd be well past midnight and I'd be stupefied processing the third lorryload of grapes when, out of nowhere, someone would thrust a glass of Romanée-Conti under my nose - and everything would be fine again.
The Douro Valley in its magnificence
I learned so much as a Niepoort intern: about the terroirs and grape varieties of Northern Portugal, about how Niepoort had revolutionised the Douro by picking grapes relatively early at higher altitude to make light table wines that were the antithesis of the Port wines the region is famous for... At lunchtimes we'd be given blind tastings where we'd be challenged to spot the differences between wines made from schist (Douro), granite (Dão) and limestone (Bairrada) soils... Every day Dirk would pull out rare gems from his own cellar. I got to taste Port from 1901 - twice - Burgundy from 1924, clarets from the 40s and 50s, Bairrada bagas from the 50s and 60s... Most significantly, I learned about Niepoort winemaking methods, including Dirk's idea of 'infusion, not extraction'...
The conventional approach to red wine-making is to extract as much as you can from the skin of the grapes during maceration. At a minimum this will include punchdowns (aka pigéage) several times per day and daily pumpovers (remontage), typically with heavy-duty centrifugal pumps, where the juice is taken from the bottom of a tank and pumped over the solids at the top for 15-20 minutes at a time (NB: both of these processes also do the important job of 'wetting the cap' - that is, stopping the grape skins that rise to the top of a tank from drying out and oxidising, which encourages vinegary acetobacteria). For most of his table wines, Dirk Niepoort eschews these methods, preferring a simple wetting of the cap without disturbing the grape solids. At Quinta de Nápoles we called it 'bucketage' (see above). In Bairrada, to temper baga's pokey tannins, we wouldn't even do bucketage; rather we'd cover the cap with a blanket of nitrogen to prevent oxidation, then leave the must to macerate undisturbed.
Sergio Silva at Quinta de Baixo
Dirk Niepoort bought Quinta de Baixo in the Bairrada sub-region of Cantanhede in 2012. He did so acting on a longstanding love for baga and a fascination with Bairrada’s terroir, which he describes as 'the best outside Burgundy'. His winemaker at Quinta de Baixo is Sergio Paulo Silva (pictured above), who has worked there since 2006 and now makes wine for Dirk in Bairrada and Dão. It was Sergio who helped me to make my 2018 baga. Apart from being a very experienced winemaker with an implicit understanding of Dirk's methods, Sergio is an authority on biodynamics, having studied under the late biodynamics consultant Andrew Lorand, who consulted for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Armand Rousseau, among many other iconic wineries. It's Sergio's job to ensure that the Niepoort vineyards produce the best possible fruit to make the finest possible wines.
A good day at Quinta de Baixo
When Dirk started making baga, he was inspired by the great Bairrada wines of the past. To help me understand this, while I was staying at Quinta de Baixo, Sergio gave me a bottle of Dores Simões Garrafeira 1990 to try. I don't know whether it was intended as such, but it felt like an initiation. One sunny autumnal Sunday when I was on my own at the winery, everyone else having gone home for the weekend, I decanted the wine and sat in a patch of afternoon sun with a book about Henri Jayer, the legendary Burgundy vigneron, in my lap. As I drank this 28-year-old baga and savoured its beautiful evolution in the glass – so reminiscent of Dirk’s baga, but with hypnotic tertiary notes which had developed in the bottle – the wine, the sun and the reflections of Mr Jayer harmonised in a chord and, well, I drank the whole bottle.
In my experience most wines, after you’ve consumed a whole bottle, will make you feel distinctly boozed up. But the good ones don’t have that effect. They lift you rather than sedating you or making you feel pissed. It’s not just a matter of alcohol content. It’s something intrinsic to the wine as well – something to do with its digestibility and the pleasure of its harmonious flavours which elevates rather than depresses, so that sometimes you can drink a whole bottle and feel like the world is yours. This Dores Simões baga, aged for three years in large oak casks before its 25-year sleep, was one such wine. Tasting it nearly three decades after vintage revealed a wine performing a trapeze act of glorious decay, where wild berry fruit, smoky, faintly mushroomy tertiary notes and the signature lip-smacking acidity of baga made from Bairrada's chalky terroir produced sensations at once refreshing and profound. It was suddenly easy to understand Dirk’s intention when making his own baga wines.
TFWATH Baga 2018
Taut acidity, fruit focus and finesse: the Dores Simões and Niepoort’s own bagas are plainly of the same ilk. Sitting on the balcony at Quinta de Baixo in the low autumn sun, with a decanter of this special wine by my side, I felt so lucky to have been given the chance to make my own wine from this noble grape variety; and not just any old baga either, but baga from the Bairrada estate vineyards of Dirk Niepoort.
Muito obrigado, Dirk.