Free Radical - An Interview With Luis Pato

Luis PatoPortuguese winegrower Luis Pato is a pioneer, singlehandedly turning around the reputation of Bairrada with his exceptional wines from the indigenous baga grape

There are so many interesting things to tell you about this producer from the Bairrada region of north-east Portugal that it is hard to know where to start. Everything that Luis Pato does is well thought through, implemented with precision and presented with panache.

He's a bit of a maverick, pushing boundaries with no time for rules. He has the vision to experiment, regularly trying out new things, making improvements little by little in a constant drive to get the best from his grapes.

Though he trialled using international varieties (upsetting the Bairrada authorities at the time) he now firmly believes that the future of his region depends on making world-class wines from indigenous varieties and its signature red grape, baga, in particular.

He is one of the founding members of Baga Friends, a small quality-led group formed to promote the grape more widely. He now only works with Portuguese grapes, baga, touriga nacional and tinta cão for reds, maria gomes (fernão pires), bical, cerceal and a grape that Pato believes nobody else has, sercialinho.

A non-conformist who likes tradition

Luis describes himself as a 'free' winemaker. He believes that the fact that he trained as a chemical engineer and not an oenologist has given him a different perspective on making wine. His philosophy marries old-world style and Latin-born influence with an appreciation of a more Anglo-Saxon style vision. Oh, and he is also a pragmatist!

Take what Luis has achieved with the baga grape as just one example. Baga has a reputation for making rather brusque reds that can take years to soften and mellow. Rather than take 'the easy route' as Pato says and tame baga's high tannin with more approachable international grapes he has made it his life's work to find out how to produce world-class baga wines. Something he says he is still striving to perfect.

The baga grape has been in Bairrada for more than 800 years and traditionally only produced great red wines twice a decade. Pato realised that it was only when the harvest conditions were such that the grapes weren't picked until October, fully ripe, that exceptional wines were made.

Baga is a high-yielding grape, good for the production of sparkling wine (also important in the region) or if you are a grower being paid by the tonnage, but too high for quality red-wine production. So how do you restrain this vigour? One way is to green harvest, thinning the crop by cutting off and discarding unripe bunches.

The start of 'precision harvesting'

This is something that Pato used to do, 'but an engineering background encourages you to optimise,' he tells me and in 2001 he introduced a new system. Instead of a green harvest he decided to try out a double harvest, passing through the vineyards twice.

The first harvest takes place around the end of August so the grapes are ripe, not green, and perfect for the production of sparkling wines. Bairrada makes a fair amount of traditional-method sparkling wines. Typically these are made from the white grapes maria gomes and bical, it being believed that red grapes should only be used for red wine.

Luis PatoLuis makes several sparkling wines from both white and red grapes. They are exported widely in Asia, Brazil, the US, Russia, Norway (and our Portuguese offer includes his Metodo Antigo, made from maria gomes with a little sercialinho) and are a smart move for producers of reds requiring several years ageing, offering a practical solution to any potential cash-flow issues.

The second harvest of baga grapes takes place a month later when they have much better polyphenolic maturity but still lowish alcohol levels, 'it is only now that you can achieve the results that you want with a reduced yield of 10 hl/ha - the norm for wines of quality - compared to the previous 80!' The wines were not only softer but more complex too, and with real elegance, showing the potential of this grape in a way that had not been achieved before.

Baga wines at this level can develop something of the haunting aroma of violets and red-fruit flavours reminiscent of great nebbiolo, pinot noir or syrah. Pato believes that baga is related to these varieties. Having fine-tuned the double-harvest process Luis has established that the optimum number of bunches to be left on the vine is three. Now he says that the wines are of a similar great quality every year; he won't rest there I'm sure and his wines can only get better especially as there are now two Patos making great Bairrada.

Filipa Pato, the next generation

Filipa, Pato's daughter, also a trained chemical engineer, hasn't just followed in her father's footsteps, she's gained a reputation in her own right. An innovator like her father with a similar bent for pushing boundaries, it was her idea to make (with her father) Bairrada's first sweet wine. She came up with the idea after working in Australia and seeing how they used cryoextraction (freezing down the grapes to concentrate the sugars) to make dessert wines.

Luis says that Filipa likes to experiment too, but in a different way from him. Filipa's early wines were called 'Ensaios FP' (Filipa's experiments) and were sometimes blends of grapes from two regions, Dão and Bairrada. She also did a lot of work establishing which regions were best for which grapes, often putting the name of the soil on the label (calcario, the clay/limestone soil which produces some of her exceptional wines, for example). 'After travelling for three years I came home with the perspective of an outsider and wanted to find the best sites for different grapes.' The wines from the best sites are now the project of her and her Belgian sommelier husband William Wouters and are bottled under the Nossa label.

Like Luis, Filipa is a great champion of the baga grape and it was she who started the Friends of Baga group after returning from her travels and being distressed to see the lamentable state and loss of many of the old vineyards. There are seven winemakers in the group; each has supplied 150 litres of baga wine which will be blended and bottled and sold under the 'Baga Friends' label. It isn't ready yet, Luis tells me, but we're sure the result of this particular experiment will be delicious.

Filipa like her father makes several styles of wine, we have listed her FP Baga, Beira Atlantico 2012, which she describes as, 'low in alchohol, high in pleasure,' it certainly has that lovely, fresh red-fruit aroma and flavour so distinctive of the grape and is gentle and easy to drink. Her sparkling rosé demonstrates the versatility of baga and how suited it is to making wonderfully refreshing sparkling wines.

Baga didn't use to be thought of as suitable for making sparkling wine in Bairrada, it has taken more than 20 years, Luis tells me, since the granting of the demarcation for sparkilng Bairrada in 1995 for it to be recognised as the grape for the style. Filipa's 3B Rosado, (the three 'Bs' stand for baga, bical and Bairrada) has a lovely fresh strawberry-fruit aroma and delicate but appetising flavour. It's the perfect foil for the regional speciality leitão, suckling pig, and it's easy to see how this match would work well, but equally it is charming enough to enjoy on its own.

One thing that father and daughter share too is a desire to make wines as naturally as possible. 'We worked in the chemical industry,' explains Luis, 'we don't want to have to pay for their chemicals!' Filipa says she aims to make 'authentic wines without make-up', hence the charming profile of Filipa ('sans maquillado') on some of her labels.

Sercialinho - a point of difference, if one were needed!

It may have been Filipa's influence behind one of Luis' latest experiments - a wine made from 100% sercialinho, the indigenous white grape that Luis says nobody else has. Bairrada doesn't just have clay soil (barro means clay), it also has sandy soil, particularly suited to white grapes and the afternoon breezes that sweep in from the Atlantic favour the production of fresh white wines.

The reason the Patos have the sercialinho grape, Luis tells me, is that his father was the only one to plant it alone. It is particularly susceptible to a vine disease and needs careful handling, if not treated properly the disease spreads to other vines. It has died off in other vineyards, but Pato's father managed to keep his plot and his son has increased plantings. 'Filipa likes this grape a lot,' says Luis, 'I like its citrus acidity and riesling-like touch.' This year he has made one cask (about 600 bottles) of sercialinho just to see what it's like.

Red wine from white grapes

When I met Luis Pato last year he was telling me about his project to make a red wine from white grapes. This year, the project is not just a success, the wine is so good we have bought it for members. Fernão Pires, Beiras 2012 is made from 94% white fernão pires grapes blended with 6% baga grape skins, used to 'paint the wine'.

Luis PatoPato made the wine to celebrate the birth of his second grandson (called Fernão: Pires is one of Pato's family names. 'To celebrate you must do something new,' he says and it amused him to make a red wine from white grapes, 'white wines from red grapes are quite common, so why not try the other way round?' Pato seemed somewhat affronted that EU law allows the mention of 'White Wine' on labels for wine made from red grapes but the reverse is not permitted.

Far more than a novelty, the wine is a charming, light aromatic red to go with fish, soft cheese or just to enjoy on its own. The label displays Pato's usual panache - a wry take on Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and the three little ducks at the bottom of the label representing Pato's three daughters. The red, black and yellow are in honour of his grandson's Belgian father. The back label states 'Red Wine'!

Sparkling 'método antigo' wine

It would be unusual for a winemaker who likes to experiment not to have a go at making sparkling wine. With the characteristic twinkle in his eye, Luis tells me that they 'give more opportunity to play with the processes.' There's a long tradition of making sparkling wines in the region and Pato makes several styles, both easy-drinking and more serious wines requiring a couple of years in bottle. The Maria Gomes Método Antigo is the first to be made by the rural or old method though. The old method (méthode ancestrale) pre-dates the classic Champagne method and was believed to have originated in Limoux. The wines undergo just one fermentation rather than two and crucially have a higher sugar content beforehand (around 20g residual sugar). Luis starts off the fermentation in stainless steel then the wines carry on fermenting in bottle. Unlike the Champagne method no other sugar is added to provoke a second fermentation and there's no need for dosage as the wines are less acidic and riper in the first place. 'All the sugar in the wine is therefore perfectly natural and produced in the wine.' Pato is at pains to point out. A little sercialinho is added to the aromatic maria gomes grape to give a nice lick of acidity to the wine.

Pato on wine and food & the future for Portuguese wines

Luis believes that the strong point for Portuguese wines is their diversity and unique grapes, 'they don't just offer a point of difference, but can marry well with global cuisine,' he says. Portuguese wines, and the sparkling wines in particular, go well with spicy Asian cooking. 'Thai food requires wines that are fruity and lowish in alcohol', he says and the Japanese are very enthusiastic about our wines.

Pato believes that Japan is a particularly promising export market for Portuguese wines. 'There are a lot of similarities in our cuisine,' he says. Both nations eat a lot of fish and pork and though both use spices, the cuisine is essentially quite simple.

There are other connections with Japan too, tempura, for example was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries and traders in the late 1500s. The etymology of the word is believed to have come from 'temperar' the Portuguese verb 'to cook'. Pato says that the Portuguese are very warmly welcomed in Japan and there are long associations with the country; the Portuguese and Dutch were the only foreigners allowed in Japan when the country was closed. Portugal had a small population; marriage between Portuguese explorers and merchants was encouraged both to increase the population and to create markets to trade with. Luis tells me there are over 400 words in Japanese which have entered into the language from these Portuguese roots. Both nations use the same word 'cha' for tea and share the same word, 'copu' for glass - making it very likely, Luis believes, that the first wines that the Japanese enjoyed were also Portuguese.

It's interesting that although our two countries share one of the oldest political alliances and trading agreements, we don't have the same understanding of Portuguese culture or appreciation for its wines (port notwithstanding). Wine Society members, however, do have a history of loving Portuguese wines, indeed it was the acquisition of barrels of Portuguese wines that led to the formation of our Society in 1874. Present-day enthusiasm and a keenness to explore has helped The Society win a succession of awards for our range of Portuguese wines. Those of Luis and his daughter Filipa can only help to increase the following.

Joanna Goodman
News editor

Societynews December 2013

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