Sunday, 19 November 2017

This Duck Prefers Wine to Water

Producer: Luis Pato

If there is one Portuguese trait I am most grateful for, it is their tolerant approach to punctuality. Even by that measure, only one of saintly patience could have welcomed us so warmly when we arrived three hours late due to a mix-up at the car rental company. I shudder to think what the reaction would have been had this happened in Bordeaux – when I visited two years back, a delay of five minutes had my phone ringing furiously and a quiet word of advice that le châteaux expect better timeliness from their visitors.

Late or not, I was determined to meet Luis Pato, the ex-chemical engineer who has successfully trained the spotlight on the Bairrada wine region.  His tireless forays overseas means that his wines can be found in a surprising number of countries, including Singapore, for which Alentasia is the local distributor. Wine writer Jancis Robinson recently selected Luis Pato’s Vinha Barrosa 2005 as one of ten wines that best represented the transformation of Portuguese wine in the last decade. The word pato means duck in Portuguese, which explains the ubiquity of the waterfowl on his wine labels.

Bairrada is located north of Lisbon, reachable by car in just over two hours. The word Bairrada is derived from barro, which means clay, so it is not surprising that most of the vineyards here are planted on clay soils. Red Bairrada is dominated by the Baga grape, a high acid variety that can yield wines with fierce tannins. Luis compares the grape to a Nebbiolo when young, but as it ages it takes on some of the mushroom and sous bois notes of mature Pinot Noir. For a wine to be called Bairrada Classico, Baga must make up at least 50% of the blend. White wines are usually made out of Fernão Pires (locally known as Maria Gomes) and Bical. Bairrada is also an important centre for the production of sparkling wine (espumante) that is the perfect match to their local specialty of roast suckling pig, or leitão.

Constant experimentation allowed Luis to unlock the potential of the Baga grape. In the past, two out of every ten vintages would be great for Baga. “Now, for me, eight years in ten years,” said Luis. “That’s because we green harvest. With the reduction in quantity, I can get better vintages more often.” Previously the high yields for Baga meant that the grapes would not ripen fully before the September rains, resulting in grapes affected by rot. Green harvesting is a method of crop thinning whereby some bunches of grapes are removed from the vine during the early stages of grape development. With an increased ratio of leaf to fruit, photosynthesis helps to ripen the remaining bunches faster. Luis also implemented destemming (the removal of stems during fermentation) and using large French oak barrels to soften the aggressive tannins of Baga. “In Old Wold (European) countries there is always something that defines a region,” said Luis. “In Bairrada it is Baga because Baga has been here for centuries.”

The range of wines produced by Luis Pato is truly astounding. In fact, his daughter Maria stated that one of the things she is trying to do is to convince him to make less wine! During the course of our visit we tasted over two dozen labels, some of which dated back to the 1990s and proved how wonderfully these wines can age. Vinha Barrosa is made from old-vine Baga, providing a nice contrast with Vinha Pan, which is made from younger Baga vines planted in the 1980s. They are both from a single vineyard, while Vinha Velhas is the original old-vine label for both white and red wines. Pato Rebel is a light, fruity wine made from Baga that has undergone a shorter fermentation. The wine is also blended with a white grape, Bical, to soften the tannins and lift its flavours. The two top end wines, Vinha Valadas Pé Franco and Quinta do Ribeirinho Pé Franco are made from ungrafted Baga grapes – the former on chalky soil and the latter on sandy soil. The standout wines for me were the duo of 1996 and 1995 Vinha Pan, the former made in difficult vintage conditions and the latter from a near-perfect vintage. Yet both were examples of a perfect marriage of poise, balance and drinkability. Luis is particularly proud of the 1996 Vinha Pan; Maria stated that “His best challenge is to make a good wine in a bad vintage.”

Luis hasn’t finished experimenting yet. He credits his engineering training with providing him with an obsessive need to optimise everything; a never-ending quest towards winemaking perfection. When we were at the winery he showed us an orange wine made in honour of his latest grandchild, Maria’s daughter. Orange wine is made by fermenting white grapes with their skins, but Luis’s version takes red wine, removes the colour through a process called hyper-oxidation, and then re-ferments it with white grape skins. “It’s my little joke,” he says mischievously. He has also shown flexibility in tailoring wines to their intended market. For example, he makes a low alcohol Baga/Bical blend for sale in Norway, which taxes wine imports by alcohol content. Perhaps he would consider making a Lion City version for his devoted fans in Singapore?

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