Ex­press­ing the ter­roir

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Dirk Niepoort – a mass of mad, crinkly hair and idio­syn­cratic ideas, Nether­lands-born but now mak­ing wine in the Douro Val­ley in Por­tu­gal – gives me a half-full glass. “You tell me what it is.” I hate this. The wine is white, which is un­ex­pected. We are in port coun­try; the tem­per­a­tures have been wilt­ing ev­ery­one at 40C (104F) this sum­mer, and sav­age scrub­land fires have left a cloud of grey ash hang­ing like mist over the river. The bot­tle, which Dirk pre­tends to hide but also lets me see, is slim and ta­pered – ries­ling­shaped – with a sug­ges­tive pea-green top. The glass is one of those beau­ti­ful fine, fine, fine Zalto glasses that ev­ery­one is go­ing nuts about at the mo­ment: it helps to em­pha­sise the del­i­cate, re­fresh­ing qual­i­ties of the wine. There’s a bit of lime on the nose. I think Dirk wants me to say ries­ling, so I do.

This is wrong, as be­comes ob­vi­ous when I taste the wine – ries­ling is re­ver­ber­at­ingly acidic and this white is more gen­tle, though it is strongly min­eral – all white stones and grey rocks. So what is it, Dirk? “It’s a blend of white grapes, lo­cal va­ri­eties.” But what? “I don’t know and I don’t care. It doesn’t mat­ter.” Oh. “The point is the soil: to make a wine that couldn’t have been made any­where else.” It’s de­li­cious – and it’s called Tiara 2006 (the vin­tage is un­ex­pected too, as it still tastes quite young; the Wine So­ci­ety has the 2011 vin­tage for £18). But al­though Tiara’s min­eral el­e­ment, at least, makes sense, a crisp-edged white such as this is a bit of a sur­prise in a re­gion fa­mous for rich, tan­nic, wines – mostly red, mostly for­ti­fied – in which you can taste heat and sun­shine.

The first no­table non­for­ti­fied Douro wine, the nowl­e­gendary Barca Velha, was first made in 1952, but it’s re­ally only in the past 15-20 years that the area has be­gun to be taken se­ri­ously – and to take it­self se­ri­ously – as a pro­ducer of ta­ble wines. As you might ex­pect, most of th­ese are red. Many pro­duc­ers make both port and ta­ble wine but only a few do both prop­erly well.

There aren’t many whites in the Douro – only about 8 per cent of all grape plant­ings are white, but most of those go for white port so this is def­i­nitely a mi­nor­ity in­ter­est. Still, Dirk’s not the only one at it.

“There’s def­i­nitely an in­creas­ing in­ter­est,” says wine­maker Jorge Mor­eira, whose el­e­gant reds un­der the Poeira label have at­tracted great praise. “I tell you, I’m mak­ing sparkling.” A great ad­mirer of the wines from Dague­neau in the Loire, he tried plant­ing some sauvi­gnon blanc. “It’s not good: too fruity, too jammy, a lack of char­ac­ter.” What does work well here, though, is al­var­inho, and so he’s put in 1ha on the high­est (400m/1,300ft) and shadi­est of his slopes. Some pro­duc­ers, such as Quinta do Crasto, are mak­ing white wine more for com­mer­cial (agents will of­ten ask a pro­ducer to add a white to their port­fo­lio to help sales) than artis­tic rea­sons. Oth­ers, like Corinne Seely at Ro­maneira, be­cause, “Here in the Douro, no one would think for one minute you could make great white wine. So as a wine­maker it’s ex­cit­ing. I feel I could give some­thing.”

Her hus­band Chris­tian echoes Niepoort and Mor­eira when he talks about the min­eral qual­ity you find in the whites: “I think the white wines are ca­pa­ble of ex­press­ing the ter­roir more than the red. You can taste stones in the wine. Also, even in this ex­tra­or­di­nary hot cli­mate we’ve never had to acid­ify.”

Corinne is a skilled whitewine maker who has worked at Do­maine de Chevalier, one of the great white wine châteaux in Bordeaux, and who now con­sults on the Coates & Seely wines in Hamp­shire. Ac­tu­ally, once you’ve tasted both the C& S wines and the Ro­maneira whites, one set sparkling, one still, made in to­tally dif­fer­ent cli­mates, you get a very good idea of how a wine­maker can put her stamp on a wine. There is a tin­gling line of el­e­gance and de­tail and pre­ci­sion through both.

“White wines from the Douro are not an easy sell,” points out an agent back in the UK. Well, no. And they are prob­a­bly not go­ing to be very mass mar­ket any time soon. But they do un­der­line the fact that a re­gion renowned for its huge, vel­vettex­tured ports and burly reds is more than ca­pa­ble of mak­ing wine with fresh­ness and lift, whether white or red.

I leave the win­ery at Ro­maneira late in Au­gust, as the 2013 har­vest is only just be­gin­ning. Corinne is stand­ing over the pro­gram­ming panel of the wine press, sip­ping flu­o­res­cent cerise glass­fuls of the tinta roriz juice that is des­tined to be­come one of her joy­fully juicy rosés. “I taste it ev­ery five or six min­utes and ad­just the time, the firm­ness of the squeeze, the tem­per­a­ture… the press is my in­stru­ment,” she tells me. “I can’t even pro­gramme the TV,” re­marks her hus­band. Happily, though, we can all drink the wines.

vic­to­ria.moore@tele­graph.co.uk

Reign of ter­roir: Dirk Niepoort is one of sev­eral wine­mak­ers in the Douro val­ley whose in­no­va­tive whites are mak­ing waves

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