It’s now been 3 odd years since my last long-haul international flight, so why not start back with a bang?
This week I’m in Anadia, Portugal, judging at the Concours Mondial Bruxelles sparkling session. It’s the first time that Concours has held a wine show focussed solely on fizz, and it makes judging at the show a very different experience. No black teeth!
But it’s not the judging that has been the differentiator this time around – it was the wild ride to get here.
You can skip ahead to the wine part if you like, as the region where this was set, Bairrada, is nothing if not interesting. Firstly, I’m going to vent about flight plans.
On Wednesday morning Sydney time, just a few hours before I was due to take off, I got the dreaded text. Qantas, who was taking care of my first Sydney-Singapore leg of the journey, announced they were delaying my flight by 6 hours, which then meant I was missing all my other connections to Porto.
What happened in the next 15 hours I never want to do again. Even though KLM had the booking, Qantas was the one then tasked with rebooking my journey. Except they came up with a nearly 50-hour, 4-flight epic that would see me spending 18 hours in Singapore and missing the first day of judging.
Qantas didn’t bother telling me this, of course, and it wasn’t until I logged don’t to KLM that I saw it and freaked out.
“You what? I’m going to Frankfurt and Madrid and flying Iberia?”
I then spent a bewildering 2 hours on the phone to KLM, and snagged a flight to resume my original flight plan with BA (why couldn’t Qantas have done this?) and went to the airport, only to discover halfway there that all my connections beyond Singapore were cancelled too, and I’d now have 24 hours in a transit lounge.
Still, I got on a plane and had people on the ground trying to sort out a new flight plan with KLM via Paris, but Qantas had already confirmed my flight plans so I couldn’t get on that next flight. I still don’t understand how that part didn’t work? Why? How? Skip forward 2 hours, and there I am, pleading with anyone in Singapore to fly me to Europe. Please. Anywhere closer to Porto. Sometime soon.
Then, in a nod to the reason why I should have flown via anyone-but-Qantas in the first place, a kindly woman in the transit office took pity on me and wriggled me onto a flight with Singapore Airlines to Porto via Munich. Ahhh, sweet relief.
By the time I landed in Porto multiple hours later, I was actually 20 minutes earlier than my original flight plan. Boom!
Except my bags weren’t there. Now, as I write this, four days later, I still don’t have luggage. Will it come tomorrow? Maybe. Do my jeans stink? Yes. I’ve spent the last four days washing my single pair of jocks, socks and the running shorts and shirt I thoughtfully placed in my go bag in the sink every night (see above).
To make me even angrier, Qantas was still sending me wrong flight plans hours after I landed, just to remind me who caused all this in the first place…
Anyway, enough airing of grievances, let’s talk Portuguese wine (I’ll cover the wine show in a post tomorrow, as it’s worth a separate post).
Anadia was chosen to host the show as it is a key town for the Bairrada DOC – aka the beating heart of Portuguese sparkling wine. It’s a funny region this one, sometimes feeling very unlikely, with vineyards interspersed with olives and corn in classic Portuguese crop diversity style, but also interrupted by industrial estates or massive eucalypt plantations. Close to the chilly Atlantic Ocean, it’s also reasonably wet and not exactly warm, which means backing the right grape to get things ripe. This week, in what is the hottest time of year, most days have struggled to get beyond 21C and the nights dip to 10C. Not warm.
The local hero grape is a unique one too – Baga. Thin-skinned, with loose bunches of little berries, this red variety ripens late (and sometimes not at all), and is either picked early to produce deadly serious sparkling wine or left to ripen and craft as formidably tannic, sometimes greenish and often acidic, full-bodied reds (I spotted some Baga going through veraison yesterday, pictured above).
I came here having only experienced small handfuls of the best Baga, and sort of expected a more Nebbiolo-ish class. But the variability of the reds, and just how long they take to come around, make this a different beast altogether. It’s more like Aglianico, but grown somewhere cold, and yet mid-weight too. The best wines are often formidable, dark, chunky and last forever – some of the bottles opened are twenty years old, and only just coming around. You can buy aged wines back to the 70s at some estates – I was very tempted to buy a birth year (’81) from Caves São João, but given I may go home without luggage, that seemed like a risk.
The sparkling wines have occasional sparks of brilliance too. The best are typically pinkish, dry, and given serious lees ageing, with wines like this Quinta de S. Lourenço from Caves São Domingos spending an astonishing 9 years on lees and still looking mighty fresh. The bubbles aren’t always just Baga, with Arinto, Sercial and the rest often part of the varietal mix.
My only gripe with some of the Bairrada bubbles is that there is this particular tang that seems a bit inelegant. Almost like in the push to have character, they become tangy and nutty and chunky. There are some smart wines though, and the volumes produced blindsided me – São Domingos are producing 600,000 bottles of sparkling per year (and mainly exported). It’s big business, and the still red wines are more niche than money makers.
Sadly, I only made it round to a few wineries, which means this feels more overview than deep dive. But there are interesting bits that are available in Australia. I was hoping to visit Filipa Pato & William Wouters while I was here (but the timing didn’t work), as their old vine Baga reds are excellent. Dirk Niepoort also makes a handful of Bairrada wines, with his VV Vinhas Velhas Branco (a white based on the local Maria Gomes & Bical grapes) a textural, lemony wonder that had a palate weight that had me thinking about ripe Smaragd Gruner. Needless to say, some of these old plots (100yo vines), when given the respect in vineyards and winery, can make magical wines.
Ultimately Bairrada is an intriguing place. There is definitely that emergant feel about it, woven in history and tradition, with the ancient cellars to match. Yet, as with all emergant regions, it’s frustrating too – and I’ve only just scratched the surface…
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