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Wine

The First Family of Portugal’s Avant Garde

November 16, 2021

Story: Megan Krigbaum

photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Wine

The First Family of Portugal’s Avant Garde

November 16, 2021

Story: Megan Krigbaum

photo: Emanuele Siracusa

To understand how Portuguese wine has become a new sommelier obsession, look no further than the Patos.

Maria Pato’s art project of sorts, João Pato (aka “Duckman”), is a tribute to her grandfather, who is reincarnated on her wine bottles as a giant pink duck. My favorite scene appears on the Quaaaq Quaaaq label, where her grandfather—said pink duck—is pictured bathing in a teal-tiled tub alongside her grandmother, who is clad in a bright orange floral muumuu. It’s a bit of psychedelia that speaks to Pato’s aim to playfully challenge tradition in a very traditional region. “I like to have this wild spirit,” Maria Pato tells me.

She is not alone. To understand the evolution of winemaking in Portugal, look no further than the Pato family: Maria, the youngest, with her Duckman project; Filipa, the eldest, of Filipa Pato and William Wouters wines; and the family’s patriarch, Luís, of Luís Pato wines. Each of their wineries illuminates the potential of the native varieties and intricacies of the land in their coastal region—making evident that there is more to Portugal than the bombastic reds of Douro and the willowy whites of Vinho Verde. In Bairrada, the Patos are making lifted reds from the baga grape, traditional-method sparkling wines and pét-nats, and whites from local varieties like bical and fernão pires (aka maria gomes).

The Pato family’s sense of innovation has its roots with Luís’ father, João Pato, one of the first farmer-winemakers to bottle his own wine in Bairrada in the 1950s and ’60s, years before the 1974 fall of Antonio Salazar’s decades-long dictatorship, and during a time when Portuguese wine was dominated by cooperatives with virtually no export market.  Following suit, and working the same land as his father, in the early 1990s Luís Pato was one of the first independent Portuguese winemakers to bring his wines to the United States. Luís, a former chemical engineer, defines his work as “optimization” by way of tweaks (both big and small) to his organic farming methods and cellar work, which have evolved many times over his 40 years of winemaking. His wide range of wines now runs the gamut from more classical Bairrada wines, particularly old-vine bottlings, to a juicy baga called Rebel! “My father wants challenge,” says Maria. “He likes to tell stories; to do lots of different wines is our way of learning.”

After working with her father for a couple of years, Filipa, the eldest Pato daughter, was on the hunt for challenges of her own. In 2001, she made her first solo vintage, from old vines that she’d resuscitated in another corner of Bairrada, where she works biodynamically. “We discovered this area that is much more wild, more divided, more complex,” she says. Her approach is that of a preservationist, determined to honor and uphold the heritage of vines in Bairrada. “My drive was to take over these beautiful, fantastic old vineyards; I didn’t want to give up on this old history.” At her father’s urging, she studied engineering in college, but, she says, “If I had to choose again, I would be a botanist; you have so much biodiversity in Bairrada.”

In her vineyard work, she takes into consideration everything from the limestone soils of her small plots (including one that dates to 1835), to the rabbits that live in them. But as one of only two biodynamic producers in Portugal, she’s had to adopt a much more outward-looking perspective. Meeting the Belgian sommelier William Wouters (who would become her husband and business partner) in 2003 helped formalize her more global approach. “He had tasted all these wines from all over,” says Filipa. “He could open my eyes to so much.” The two have since traveled throughout Europe, finding connections to their work in each location. “We met a producer in Cyprus with a very old vineyard who, even though he’s on volcanic soil and we’re on limestone, was doing very similar work to what we’re doing,” says Wouters.

If her father is inward-looking and her sister outward-looking, Maria sees her wines as a more “spiritual” extension of her father’s tinkering. “This project represents what I have received from the past—the grace, the knowledge—and what I will give to the future,” she says. To illustrate this, she tells me the story of how her family came have Vinha Barrosa, a pre-1920 vineyard which once belonged to her mother’s father and now goes into her wines. Originally, the vineyard was owned by a small hotel in town. When the hotel wasn’t able to pay for the fish they’d ordered for their restaurant, her grandfather, who had a successful ceramics company, paid the fisherman on their behalf. In exchange, the hotel gave him this piece of land—and its vines. “It’s a very special place, surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees—the wine has a special smell and if you go there, you understand the smell of the wine,” she says.

Together, the Patos have reframed the potential of the place with wines that are boundary-pushing, but technically sound and entirely delicious. It turns out that “Pato,” which means “duck” in Portuguese, is both a literal, and more philosophical, symbol for the family’s wines. Ducks are at once silly, and respectable: They waddle and make funny sounds, but they’re also rather proud and commanding animals—and they can fly. “We have this thing of strong personalities,” says Maria. “We want to do things our way.”

Meet the Patos

Luís Pato Vinhas Velhas Vinho Branco 2019 | $20

A blend of three grapes—bical, cercial and sercialinho—from chalky and sandy soils, this white wine has a breezy, dry acidity matched by herbs like mint and oregano that steer it firmly in a more savory direction.

Filipa Pato and William Wouters 3B Rosé NV | $15

Sparkling wine has been made in the traditional method in Bairrada since the 19th century. This sparkling rosé, a darling of sommeliers around the U.S., is Filipa’s tribute to the 3Bs: bical, baga and Bairrada. A little earthy note on the nose gives way to brambly tart red berries, walking the line of intense fruit, but with restraint.

João Pato aka Duckman Brut Sparkling NV | $21

A hazy, wheat-yellow pét-nat from the fernão pires grape, with pear blossoms on the nose and pretty yellow and ripe white pear fruit.

Luís Pato Vinhas Velhas Vinho Tinto Baga 2016 | $33

This offers beautiful evidence of how baga mellows with a little time in bottle: fresh fruit, with supporting tannins and acidity.

Filipa Pato and William Wouters Nossa Calcario 2019 | $43

Old-vine baga from Filipa’s home base in the town of Óis do Bairro. Here, from a vineyard planted on chalk, baga takes a deeper purply red color, with fruit that’s more in the blackberry and black cherry realm and tannins that have a bounce to them.

João Pato AKA Duckman Blablablabla NV | $26

This ruby red, 100 percent baga wine from 25-year-old vines tastes as if you happened upon a thicket of raspberry bushes while walking to the beach: The fruit is crunchy, tart and wild, with a welcome slightly green edge.

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Tagged: Portugal, wine