Posted by: tomciocco | September 12, 2014

BAGA: A PORTUGUESE CHAMPION (THAT CAN BE A DUD)

The worldwide range of wine grapes is full of cultivars that, for one (or many) reason(s) are notoriously difficult to cultivate, and therefore make great wine from. This dubious distinction can be associated with such celebrated varieties like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Monastrell to name just a few. These are grapes that, if the season is cooperative, the site is right and the skill of the winemaker is high, can make truly sublime wine, but should any of these or any number of other factors be too far out of true – look out – baaaad drinking on the horizon. Not surprisingly, most vine varieties that make good to great wine are NOT particularly fussy, and most that are are not particularly well known because few growers have the guts or the money to continually risk making sub-standard wine, or even no wine at all.

The Portuguese grape named Baga falls clearly into the camp of “fine but fussy and unknown”. Baga (which means “berry” in Portuguese) likely originates in the Dao region in north-central Portugal where it still grows, but over the centuries, the vine has seen its acreage in Dao diminish and increase in Dao’s immediately neighboring region to the south, Bairrada. The major issue with Baga is that it ripens very late, both in terms of sugars as well as phenolics, and it is also very susceptible to bunch rot, especially botrytis. This dichotomy often forces growers to harvest Baga before it is fully ripened to avoid losing the crop to rot. Couple these issues with the fact that Baga, even when it has reached its full potential, makes a highly structured and often somewhat austere wine, causes less than perfectly mature Baga fruit to yield, thin, hard, green wines that never soften even though as a rule Baga is excpetionally ageworthy.

Knowing all this, it becomes easier to understand why much more Baga is raised in the somewhat drier and sunnier Bairrada than in its cloudier and damper homeland of Dao. Attemps have been made to plant Baga in the very dry and often hellaciously hot Douro, but this doesn’t seem to agree with the vine either; too much of “good” thing so to speak – all that extra heat and lack of rain replaces Baga’s almost Nebbiolo-like noble and elegant complexity with a quite thick, clumsy and ham-fisted character. Like I said, fussy….

Thankfully, this example of Baga comes from one of Bairrada’s most best and most reliable producers and from an exceptionally great vintage too, so there’s nary a trace of any of the flaws that the grape is often heir too. Maybe more than most Portuguese wines, Baga matches especially well with traditional Portuguese fare, so to make the most of this propensity I put this very bold and muscular wine with a first course of a partially pureed soup of chick peas, potatoes, spinach, et al. flavored with marjoram and cilantro followed by a casserole of bacalhau (salt cod) with cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, chourico sausage and soft-set eggs.

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Sidonio DeSousa Bairrada Baga 2008 

Deep, slightly blackish garnet color. Super elegant and decisive nose blackberry, black currant, strawberry preserves, dried red flowers, wet stones, mixed brown spices, black truffle, and cigar tobacco. In the mouth the wine is medium-full bodied with fine, sophisticated, and wonderful slightly austere tannins and crunchy acidity that beautifully frame balanced flavors of red plums, dried cranberry, myrtle, juniper, coffee, black pepper, and tar. Fantastically dry/tart finish. Really great stuff.


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