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