Vinum acer from Bairrada

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Most vinegar consumed around the world is made through industrial processes that work fast but generally produce insipid results. Luckily, there is an increasing number of producers making delicious artisanal vinegars.

“It is easy to make fine vinegar, all you need is good wine and patience,” says Mário Sérgio, the winemaker of Quinta das Bageiras in Bairrada. “Fill about two-thirds of an oak barrel with good-quality wine and forget about it for 10 years. Sure enough, the wine will turn into vinegar.” The Romans seem to have followed a similar recipe–the Latin word for vinegar, vinum acer, means sour wine.

We took a bottle of Mário Sérgio’s artisanal vinegar home and were amazed at the difference it made. Its tangy taste transforms salads from good to great. Cooking with this vinegar enhances the food we prepare in ways that are subtle but profound.

 

Mário Sérgio, a Portuguese vigneron

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The people of Epernay, a town at the heart of the Champagne region, know more about sparkling wine than almost anyone in the world. So it is remarkable that Mario Sérgio, a producer from Bairrada, found a market for his sparkling wines in Epernay.

This success has been more than a century in the making–Mário is a 4th generation wine maker. His 81-old father still labors 10 hours a day tending to the vineyards.

Mário’s family used to sell their grapes to the famed Caves São João. In 1989, at age of 23, Mário decided to reserve the grapes to make his own wines under the label Quinta das Bágeiras. From the beginning, he paid no attention to what is most fashionable or profitable. Instead, he focused on making great wines in Bairrada.

One of the first hints that Mário was on the path to greatness came in 2001 when, in a blind tasting organized in France, the judges selected two wines: a very expensive Château Haut-Brion and a modestly-priced Quinta das Bágeiras garrafeira.

Mário shuns everything that is artificial. He uses no yeasts, no filtering, no stabilization techniques. Reds are made with old wine presses using the notoriously difficult baga varietal. Sparkling wines are all Natural Brut, an exacting style that requires that there be no residual sugar in the wine.

Just like the French vignerons, Mário buys no grapes. All his wines are produced from grapes hand picked in his properties.  He knows every parcel and plants vines only in soils that can produce excellent results. “I am often offered grapes from properties adjacent to mine. But many times, the soil and sun exposure are completely different from those of the parcels I own.”

Mário is particularly proud of the vineyard that produces the grapes for Pai Abel, a wine named after his father. He makes 2,000 bottles a year. Using a practice that is rare in Portugal, he sells 80 percent “en primeur” to lucky subscribers who buy the wine at a discount two years before it is ready for delivery.

A profound believer in the aging potential of Bairrada whites, he stored his 1994 white wine for 12 years before releasing it for sale. When he brought home a bottle to share with his wife, she told him: “There’s no market for aged white wine, you’ll never sell a single bottle.” When by the end of the meal the bottle was empty, she conceded that “maybe you’ll sell some of this wine.” Mário sent a couple of bottles to his friend Dirk Niepoort. In return, he received the biggest compliment a wine maker can give to another: Dirk asked to buy all the stock of Quinta das Bágeiras 1994 white!

Every Saturday, Mário Sérgio opens the door of his winery to visitors. If you’re a wine lover, it is hard to find a more enjoyable way to spend a Saturday than to pay a visit to Quinta das Bageiras.

Quinta das Bágeiras is located at Rua Principal nº598, Fogueira in Sangalhos (N 40º 29.109′ ; W 8º 29.969′), tel. 234 742 102, email mariosergio@quintadasbageiras.pt. Click here for their website.

 

 

Aladdin’s cave in Bairrada

Composite Caves S. João

Three brothers, José, Manuel and Albano Costa, built in 1920 wine cellars called Caves São João. They used the cellars to store the wine from Bairrada that they sold to taverns throughout Portugal.

In the 1930s, the Costa brothers ventured into wine production. They dreamed about producing wines that future generations could drink with pride. With the help of French enologist Gaston Mainousson, they learned the secrets of champagne production and started making sparkling wine in Bairrada.

In the 1950s they started producing two iconic wines: Frei João in Bairrada and Porta dos Cavaleiros in the Dão region. Made with great care, these wines were stored so that time could tame their tannins and leave only the smooth taste of the fruit.

As their wines gathered fame, the three brothers increased production and expanded storage capacity. Today the cellar holds 2.5 million bottles that preserve the rhythms of the seasons and the fruits of the toil of generations of farmers. These irreplaceable time capsules are guarded by the great-great grandchildren of the original owners.

We tried two white wines produced at Quinta do Poço dos Lobos. The first, a reserve wine from 2013 had a pale, yellow color, and a smooth taste that left our palate refreshed with notes of citrus. The second was a Poço dos Lobos colheita from 1995. What a difference three decades make! The older wine had an intense yellow color. The citrus notes were now singing with a choir of harmonious flavors orchestrated by time.

We sampled two vintages of Frei João. A red from 1980 that was rich and smooth and a white from 1986 that was still full of youth and vigor.

Our tasting ended with a brandy from 1966 that was suave and sophisticated. It is a nectar that has seen it all from the breakup of the Beatles to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Caves São João look like Aladdin’s cave, full of treasures stored away from the sun and immersed in sultry air. If a genie offers you three wishes during your visit to the cellars don’t hesitate: ask for a white Poço dos Lobos, a red Frei João or Porta dos Cavaleiros, and a bottle of 1966 brandy.

Caves São João are located at São João de Azenha in Anadia, tel. 234743118, email geral@cavessaojoao.com. Click here for their web site.

 

Mister Baga

Luis Pato Composit

Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal with unique conditions for wine production. Close to the Atlantic Ocean, it has sandy soils like those of Bordeaux and chalky soils like those of Burgundy. The vineyards are surrounded by pine trees and eucalyptuses that infuse the grapes with delicate flavors.

The queen varietal of the Bairrada region is the indigenous baga and the king of the baga is Luís Pato. The heir to a line of Bairrada wine makers that can be traced back to 1860, he rebelled against the idea of planting foreign varietals. “Mister Baga,” as people like to call him, has been proved right: today his baga wines are served in many of the world’s great restaurants.

On our first visit, we were received by his daughter Maria Pato. She talks about her father’s wines as if they are part of the family. Her green eyes shined when she opened two bottles of wine from a vineyard called Vinha Formal. The first was a sparkling wine with an enticing brioche aroma. The second was an elegant white made only with bical, a local white varietal.

Next, we tried a 2000 Quinta dos Moínhos, a captivating red wine made with baga. It tastes to red fruit but the tannins have been tamed by the aging process, giving the wine an aristocratic feel.

We sampled a very interesting fortified wine. Luís Pato stopped fermentation before the yeast converted all the sugar into alcohol by freezing the grape must instead of following the traditional process of adding alcohol to kill the yeast.

On our second visit, Luís Pato took us to the cellar to sample some Pé Franco wines made from ungrafted vines that predate the onset of phylloxera. They are complex and have a wonderful acidity that will help them age gracefully.

Pato talked about how much he has learned over the years. “People in Bairrada used to say that baga wines are good in only two years out of ten. When it rained before the harvest, the grapes gained a watery taste which together with rot ruined the wine.” He had the idea of pruning the grapes early in the season and use the pruned grapes to make sparkling wine. “Pruning gives the grapes more space to breathe, preventing rot and allowing me to make good wines in years with rainy Summers.”

Some of Pato’s new projects, like his 19th century-style wines, are inspired by tradition. Others, like his sweet white wine made with from red grapes using hyper-oxygenation, defy tradition.

We asked him about his daughter Filipa Pato, who is also a wine maker. “Our wines are quite different, but we share a lot of information. In New York they know me better for being Luisa’s father than for my wines.” he said with pride.

Both wine makers are experimenting with sercealinho, a grape varietal that only exists in their properties. These vines have to be watched closely because they are highly susceptible to disease. Luís’s father kept a plot of sercealinho alive that shows great potential.

Pato told us that “As a wine maker I cannot stop, I have to continue to evolve and accept new challenges. I want to make wines that my grandchildren will drink in 30 years and say, wow this wine is great.”

Every time we try Luís Pato’s brilliant, original wines we wonder: is Bairrada the best wine region in Portugal and one of the best in the world?  If you’re a wine lover, visit Luís Pato’s winery to find out.

Click here for information on how to schedule a visit to Luís Pato. 

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted suckling pig). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

A memorable sandwich

Sandes de leitão- ©mariarebelophotography.com

The Earl of Sandwich is credited with the idea of placing food inside two slices of bread. But it was Portuguese peasants who turned this aristocratic whim into something sublime.

In ancient times, peasants in Mealhada, a town in the Bairrada region, used to offer their largest pigs to the nobles who owned the land. The peasants were left with small pigs called “leitão” (“laytaoum”).  They roasted them in wood ovens, seasoned with garlic, bay leaves, olive oil, and plenty of white pepper. The meat, cut into slices and served inside country bread, produced amazing sandwiches.

One of our favorite side trips from Lisbon is to drive the 90 km to Mealhada to enjoy a freshly-made “leitão” sandwich, accompanied with local sparkling wine. On the way there, we visit the beautiful Batalha monastery. On the return, we stop by the enchanting Bussaco Palace for coffee and pastry. The delicious food and beautiful scenery always make for memorable trips.

There are many good restaurants in Mealhada serving “leitão à moda da Bairrada” (leitão Bairrada style). Two of our favorites are Meta dos Leitões (IC2, Estrada Nacional 1, Sernadelo, Mealhada, tel. 231 209 540, email: casadesarmento@gmail.com) and Pedro dos Leitões (Rua Alvaro Pedro no 1 Sernadelo, Mealhada, tel. 231 209 950).

The future of Bairrada

When we have something great to celebrate, we do not drink French Champagne or Italian Prosecco. We much prefer to get our sparkles sipping Espumante from Bairrada, a region that has produced wine since the 10th century. Our favorite Espumante is made by Luís Pato with a white varietal known in Bairrada as Maria Gomes and elsewhere as Fernão Pires.

We just heard from Luís Pato that his newest creation is a red wine made with this white grape. The wine marks the birth in 2011 of his new grandson, Fernão. And it celebrates the future of Bairrada as one of the world’s premier wine regions. Cheers!