The Undiscovered Sparkling Wines of Portugal
A year ago this week, my now husband and I had just gotten married in the beautiful town of Sintra. There was so much we were celebrating – loved ones visiting us from afar, spending time with friends we hadn’t seen in years, our very dear friends’ wedding celebration just a few days before our own. I recall something else: lots of toasting to life and love and happiness, accompanied of course by bubbly of some sort – mostly delicious Portuguese espumante. Amidst all the bubbles, it occurred to me: Nothing says Party Time like sparkling wine.
This thought stuck with me for a few weeks, as we continued to celebrate. After our wedding, we left Portugal for a little trip to Italy. My husband was in it for the pizza, and I was in it for the wine. As we drove around Tuscany, we discovered that locals seemed so happy to celebrate with us. It was a barrage of bubbly. We found ourselves being gifted lots of alcohol – both by the bottle and by the glass – mostly by strangers we met along the way. At local restaurants and wineries and bed and breakfasts alike, prosecco was the gift of choice. Saluti, we’d say as we raised yet another glass of prosecco. (Flickr photo by Ricardo Bernardo)
Drinking sparkling wine for two weeks did a number on me – I wanted it all the time. I remember mentioning this to my husband over a mozzarella-filled omelette at breakfast, glass of prosecco in hand.
Now, I hadn’t heard of Bairrada at the time, but turns out it’s exactly the kind of paradise I had in mind – a place where people could live happy and free, drinking high quality and affordable sparkling wines on a regular basis, and not just on special occasions.
Although Vinho Verde, Douro and Tavora Varosa making stunning Portuguese espumante, Bairrada is by far the oldest espumante-making region. And while espumante is one of the region’s rock stars, you should also know that the Bairrada DOC produces interesting, high-quality still wines, often from local grape varieties like Baga and Bical.
I drove to Bairrada a few months ago to find out more. It was a long drive north to the Beiras province – about three hours from central Lisbon by car. It was a hot day in Lisbon, the kind where you can literally feel the heat rising up from the Portuguese-tiled sidewalks. I was dressed accordingly, in shorts and a tank top. As I approached Bairrada, it seemed that the region was living an entirely different season. The wind blew rain across the windshield, and the temperature outdoors dropped dramatically.
Bairrada is sandwiched by Portugal’s Atlantic coast to the west and Caramulo and Buçaco Mountains to the east. Proximity to the Atlantic mitigates what would otherwise be much hotter summer temperatures, and the mountain ranges insulate the region. These factors, together with Bairrada’s northerly location, make it a great place to produce standout espumante.
But let’s get back to what brought me to Bairrada: discovering a place where espumante can be drunk with everything. The local cuisine is particularly conducive to spectacular espumante pairings. To get a sense of what locals eat, drive north up the Estrada Nacional No. 1. As you cross the city of Mealhada, on both the east and west sides of the road you’ll see signs for leitão, or suckling pig. Leitão is the region’s edible specialty (espumante is the drinkable one). (Flickr photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro)
I sat down for lunch at O Castiço, a rustic, informal and authentic Mealhada restaurant. The waitress recommended the leitão sandwich and a glass of espumante bruto from Adega Rama, which she said is one of their best-sellers. The menu was enormous, with plenty to please; things like oven-roasted suckling pig served with salad and string fries, chafana (goat cooked in red wine), and bife à Castiço (steak topped with a mushroom and cream sauce). Not to worry if you prefer seafood. You’ll find a handful of fish- and shellfish-based options.
Regardless of what you eat, order it with espumante. In fact, these were my direct orders from the waitress I befriended! It all comes down to “the contrast between the acidity, the fat, the crispiness and the pepper,” she said of the famous espumante and leitão pairing. The acidity goes just as well with other staples of local cuisine, cutting through a fatty cream sauce or complementing a pepper and garlic marinade.
The good news is, wine lists in Bairrada make it easy to order espumante often and liberally. Great quality espumante is easy to find at prices that won’t hurt your budget. A nice bottle at a local restaurant can cost you as little as €6 – and I promise it will be pleasant! Expect significant choice, even at casual joints like O Castiço, which features 15 espumantes from the region.
If it’s so affordable to drink espumante in Bairrada, can it be any good? In fact, Bairrada espumantes can be excellent, outstanding wines. Sparkling wine-makers in the region often use what is considered to be the ‘gold standard’ in sparkling wine-making, the labor-intensive Champagne method. And while the method used is the same, you certainly won’t be paying Champagne prices. For quality examples, try Campolargo’s Espumante Bruto or Espumante Bruto Rosé, Caves do Solar de São Domingo’s Baga Bruto, 2012 Quinta das Bageiras or Luis Pato Baga Espumante 2013.
Portugal’s espumantes remain a product for primarily domestic consumption, and I have yet to find any bottles overseas. If you’re keen to make your way to Portugal or to the Bairrada region to learn about, and importantly taste, these wines for yourself, let us plan your trip!
In the meantime, let yourself be inspired at home by this suckling pig recipe. Remember to pop a bottle of something sparkling (espumante by preference) to accompany your meal. Whether it’s a special occasion or not … toast to life!
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