From what started out as a fairly uncomplicated pastime – you plant grapes, you harvest them, you cause them to ferment, then you run off the juice –winemaking has been historically hedged around with rules and regulations as in “You can’t add sugar to boost the quality in a poor year” or “You can’t grow this grape here” or “Unless you age in oak for two years you can’t call your wine a reserve”. Some of these dictums are adopted by consensus; others imposed by some organisation set up to govern the wine production of a land or a region. In either case, the reasons for regulation are the same – to improve quality; to enhance recognition; to ensure prices hold up. The undesirability of a ‘free for all’ is widely recognized.
Now and again, free-thinking individualists fail to conform. In the 1970s Piero Antinori, whose family had been making wine in Tuscany for more than 600 years, decided that replacing the white grapes from the Chianti formula with Bordeaux varietals cabernet sauvignon and merlot would make a richer more complex wine. “Fine”, said the rule makers, “but you can’t call it Chianti”. The result was a wine, originally labeled as a humble Vino da Tavola (table wine), which Antignori named Tignanello after the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Now feted as a ‘Super Tuscan’, Tignanello 2005 sells here for around €70 a bottle.
Judging in Portugal last year, I was privileged to meet Luis Pato, a hero of mine, as much for his nonconformity and sheer obduracy in the face of bureaucratic pressure as for the vibrant quality of his wines. In 1999, Luis Pato quit the Bairrada DOC to market his wines under the much less prestigious Vinho Regional Beiras appellation. Unlike Antinori, the decision was not made so he could introduce foreign varieties. Portugal has innumerable indigenous grapes, of one of which, baga, Luis is a huge fan. The winemaker is extremely respectful of regional tradition, homing in on bical, another local grape, for his whites at a time when it would undoubtedly have been easier to sell ‘internationals’ like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.
There’s no doubt that, in the wrong hands, baga is capable of making joyless astringent wines. At the time the appointed authorities were conducting something of a vendetta against this grape – ‘ethnic cleansing’ is not too harsh a word. Luis believed that, given sensitive treatment, baga could make sublime wines and set out to prove it.
Luis Pato Casta Baga 2007 €10.99 (The Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Karwig’s, Cork) makes an interesting change from ‘the usual suspects’. The elements brought by the baga grape are hard to describe but it reminds me of an amalgam of nebbiolo, syrah and pinot noir, probably my three favourite red grapes. The nose is all morello cherries, with a whiff of cedar wood and fragrant spice. On the palate brambles and blueberries kick in, also some lighter red cherry pinot-like notes. At around €23, Pato’s Vinhas Velhas Tinto 2005 is definitely in the ‘treat’ category, but I’d say it’s the most interesting red I drank in 2009.
For me there’s no doubt that Portugal is ‘where it’s at’ in the Really Interesting Drinking stakes. The reds have always appealed. Quality among the whites has been hiked by miles in the last few years as modern winemaking techniques; a swing against over-oaking and the dearth of that nation’s passion for near-oxidised wines kicked in.