Dare to be Different: Portuguese Sparkling Wine for New Year’s

Surprise your friends with something a little different this year.


New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, and sparkling wines are on our minds. I love Champagne and recommend that people think of it more as a wine and pair it with dinner instead of just aperitifs and pre-meal toasts. Perhaps owing to its historic association with quality, a good Champagne can approach a hundred dollars a bottle, and really good juice can run well north of that. Less expensive but excellent alternatives have certainly seen growing market share, with the success of Prosecco from Italy made using the Charmat method (fermentation takes place in an autoclave, a large pressurized container, instead of in the traditional bottle). There is also Cava from Spain, Vouvray from the Loire, and Blanquette de Limoux from Languedoc. All of these are made using the Champenoise method (meaning “Champagne method”, wherein the last stage of fermentation takes place in bottle.) 
But there exists a spectacular alternative that’s totally under the radar: the sparkling wines made in the Bairrada region of Portugal. Last May, while filming there for my PBS/CREATE TV series, I spent a morning with a half dozen wine producers for a cellar tasting. Afterwards, they hosted a spit roasted suckling pig lunch. This dish is a regional specialty that pairs perfectly with the wines. 

The Bairrada DOC lies just a few miles off the Atlantic coast, a short drive north of Lisbon. The climate is moderate and the soil is sandy, chalky and rich in limestone and clay. The indigenous grape varietals include Baga (red, tannic, high acid), Fernão Pires (also known as Maria Gomes; a fragrant white known for its exotic fruit flavors and best consumed in youth), Cerceal (a light-skinned white blending grape), Arinto (a lemony, acidic white), and of course, Bical (white, high acid, and primarily used in sparklers.) Chardonnay was recently introduced into the region as well. 
Sparkling styles vary by producer. Some choose single varietal bottling while others choose blends. The fermentation method echoes that of Champagne: after the first fermentation yields a still wine, a liquer de tirage (a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast that induces the secondary fermentation that results in carbonation) is added. The bottles are then capped and placed in riddling racks in cellars for anywhere from 7 months to three years or longer on lees (clumps of dead or leftover yeast.) After that time has passed, disgorgement happens. This involves removing the lees from the bottles and adding a bit of sugar. The longer the wine spends on lees, the more depth and complexity that develop on both the nose and palate. 
The grape harvest in Bairrada is dictated by varietal and starts in early to mid-August to assure the presence of less ripe grapes with high acidity and low sugar for blending.  Portuguese labeling laws refer to these wines as Espumante, which is confusing here in the US market, as it suggests an insipid sweet white Italian sparkler from years gone by. These Portuguese wines are anything but; they are crisp, dry, clean and mineral driven with good balanced acidity, fine bubble structure and creamy in the mouth. On the nose you’ll find some faint floral notes, brioche, chalk, toast, orange and lemon peel, herbs and honey. Some producers like Filipa Pato have chosen to replace Espumante on the labels with the term Tradicional Method
So why not surprise your friends this New Year’s Eve with a few bottles of something bubbly and delicious that they’ve probably never even heard of before? Below is a partial list of excellent selections that I’ve had the opportunity to taste. They are available in the US for between $12.99 and $26.00, representing wonderful values.
Luis Pato Maria Gomes Bruto Espumante 2012 (from Beiras, the Vinho Regional under which Bairrada DOC falls.)

Mike Colameco is a professionally trained chef, author, radio and TV host. He is a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating from CIA he worked at the Four Season’s Restaurant, Windows On The World, The Maurice, Tavern On The Green and at the age of 31 he was the Executive Chef of The Ritz Carlton, New York City prior to opening his own seasonal restaurant, The Globe in Cape May, N.J. Along with being the host/producer of Mike Colameco’s Real Food on PBS and CREATE TV, he was the host/producer of Food Talk on WOR 710AM for six years and currently the host/producer of Mike Colameco's Food Talk on The Heritage Radio Network. Mike wrote the guide book, Mike Colameco’s Food Lover’s Guide to New York City, published by John Wiley & Sons in 2009 and has written for Saveur, Edible Manhattan, Edible New Jersey and Guitar Aficionado.

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  • You have to taste also some very exiting sparkling Wines from the first AOC for sparkling wines in Portugal: Távora-Varosa in the highlands of the northern portuguese inland south of the Douro valley between Douro and Dão.I recommend Familia HEHN and BOA PARTE sparkling Wines

    Jan 05, 2015 at 6:37 PM

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