A Matter of Choice – Douro

Portugal’s Douro Valley is known for its port but its table wines are also taking centrestage.

HERBACEOUSNESS or herbal, vegetal and grassy flavours in certain white wines give them character and an attractive green tang. But in red wine, they are often considered to be negative attributes.

This flavour is usually the result of grapes picked and processed when unripe. The resulting wine often lacks fruity taste or structure. Thus many wine producers spend much effort to sort their grapes and remove unripe berries, thus preventing the weedy, green taste from emerging in their red wines.

Not Dirk Niepoort, though. He is the fifth generation head of a family business in Portugal’s Douro Valley that has been making port since 1842, and more recently, wine. He will readily tell you that a little herbaceousness in red wines is a desirable thing.

“Which of these, made from the same vineyard, do you prefer?” asks Dirk who offers me two glasses of red wine.

I taste them and there are similarities. One is rich with ripe dark fruit and a velvety texture, the other is less flamboyant. It has the same dark fruit aromas and flavours but there are nuances of herbs and grass and a silky texture. Whilst the former is impressive, the latter is delicate. No doubt as to which gets my vote.

“The first wine you tasted is made from grapes picked quite ripe whilst the latter, which you preferred, is made from grapes which are on the green side,” smiles Dirk, enjoying my look of surprise.

He shows me around his brand new winery, called Quinta de Napoles. The tour begins at the grape sorting table. Workers stand on both sides of a conveyor belt and grapes whizz past. Each bunch is subjected to inspection – overripe berries, sometimes entire bunches, are removed here.

The rest of the winery, with its state of the art equipment (conical tanks, presses, hydraulic punch down machines) would make any New World winemaker green with envy.

It feels surreal as we are, after all, in Douro Valley, where Old World port is really the area’s claim to fame. But it looks like its red wine has also come to take centrestage.

I enquire if the Niepoort family’s port business has modernised but Dirk assures me that he still makes port very much in the traditional method. His passion, however, is making table wine – red and white.

In 1987, when his father bought vineyards, the Niepoorts were port shippers who purchased basic port wines, then matured and blended them. Dirk only became passionate about wine after working as an intern with Movenpick restaurants in Switzerland.

When he joined the family business, it was coincidental that the Douro region had just entered a new phase of making table wines.

“If you want to see something old, come down to our port lodge,” invites Dirk.

I travel three hours from the hillside vineyards back to the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, located across the river from the city of Porto. Here, the Douro river meets the Atlantic Ocean and many port houses store their wines in warehouses called lodges, much as they have been doing for centuries.

There is no signboard on the old oak door. Not even a bell. I bang on the door and moments later, it is unlocked by Dirk. Inside, the smell of an ancient wine cellar assails my nose. It is not unpleasant but a mix of earth, mushrooms and the scent of wine.

In the dim light, I see huge wooden casks of wine maturing amidst cobwebs that are decades old. I pinch myself – hadn’t I seen this place before in a scene from Lord of the Rings perhaps?

I finally get to taste some port. A 1966 vintage; no less. It is a Colheita that has been matured in casks and then bottled in 1985. It is sublime with floral, hibiscus, coffee and mocha overtones.

Dirk certainly has offered me some of the best tasting experiences: After those red wines he offered me at the vinyard, he also pours me some Niepoort white wine from the 1996 vintage. It has the nose of an aged Riesling with a hint of diesel (considered to be asset), but half an hour later, it develops some honey and biscuity overtones, reminiscent of a aged white Burgundy or white Rhone.

Over time, the wine opens up to aromas of baked root vegetables, almonds and a hint of dry sherry. Meanwhile, in the mouth, it is fresh with flavours of custard and chrysthemum tea. I am awed – here’s truly a special wine from a talented winemaker.

Another glass of red wine is handed to me and I take a big sniff. There is mushroom, smoke, stewed cherries. Over time, I detect animal and earthy flavours with a touch of soy in the red wine.

I am convinced it is a Burgundy. Dirk shows me the bottle; it is a Niepoort Robustos of the 1990 vintage – the first red wine Dirk ever made!

Not bad for a guy with no oenological background. He makes wine purely out of passion and knowledge gathered from everywhere.

A true lover of wines, he travels, tastes wines made by other producers, talks to them and learns from their experiences. Then he goes home and makes better wines.

From the corner of my eye, I spy Dirk coming up to me with yet two more glasses of wine.

“These are made by a friend who has a small winery in Spain,” he says to me. “Tell me which you prefer….”

published in the Star Newspapers

The New Rioja

Most wine lovers know Rioja as a dry red wine – made from a blend of grapes from different regions. Before its release, Rioja is maturated lovingly in American oak casks, and also in the bottle. The resulting wine is undoubtedly memorable with flavours of dusty red and black fruit, coconut and hints of leather, subtle nutty oxidative nuances with a savoury sweet finish.

Typically the wine making of Rioja begins in parts, each different, bringing unique elements to complete the wine. In short, fresh, aromatic and bracing wines from one or two sub regions (Alavesa and Alta) are blended with warm rich wines of another (Baja) to achieve balance and harmony.

From Alavesa and Alta, come Tempranillo. Both sub regions are cool, thanks to the Atlantic influence and lofty vineyard locations of more than 500m. The terroir here teases out delicate flavours of strawberry and tobacco in the Tempranillo grape. What you get are fresh structured wines. A third sub region – the Rioja Baja, supplies the balancing texture. Here, the climate is Mediterranean – dry and warm. The Garnacha grape thrives here, and brings to any blend, alcohol and volume.

The blended Rioja is aged in American oak (often in large vats) to round out tannins and to develop characters of leather and earth. The end result is a wine as complete as can be.

These days however, a new Rioja style has emerged. It’s simply referred to as the ‘Modern Rioja’ to distinguish it from the ‘Traditional Rioja’ style described above.

The ‘modern’ Rioja is different in the sense that grapes are picked when the fruit begins to exhibit intense flavours. Strong extraction (long macerations) and other methods ensure the resulting wines are fruit forward. Wines are aged for a shorter period, usually in small French oak barrels. The resulting wine is decidedly New Worldly in taste – creamy texture, juicy sweet red and black fruit. A toasty vanilla edge with hints of dried herbs comes from the small oak barrel treatment.

Towards an evolving Rioja

On a visit to Rioja recently, I discovered for myself, that leading producers are taking their own routes to making excellent wines.  The lines between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ aren’t quite as defined as before – and wines span a myriad of tastes.

Bodegas Roda is a relatively new wine company that began operations in 1991 (Rioja was first demarcated in 1926 but many wineries have been producing wine there since the 19th Century). Since, Roda has quickly established itself as a ‘modern’ wine producer with its big, bold wines that appealed to drinkers upon release. Its flagship – Cirsion, quickly took a place amongst Spain’s top 20 wines. Roda continues the traditional approach to blending but with one caveat. Only the best fruit from low yielding, old vines are selected, often from various blocks of vineyards in the Alta and the Baja. From the Alta, Roda uses Tempranillo as well as a minor grape, Graciano; from the Baja, it’s Garnacha and Tempranillo. And with a short ageing period in new French oak, Roda wines emerge – voluptuous and velvety.

Re-emergence of minor varietals

But why use Graciano, a minor Rioja grape?

I got my answer at Dinastia Vivanco. This winery, located in a small hilltop town of Briones, is a champion for grapes like Graciano and Mazuelo. Graciano has a beautiful blueberry hue apart from violet and minty notes. In the past, producers used Graciano to add colour, fragrance and acidity to their wines. Few however realised that the Graciano grapevine needs fertile soils to produce those characteristics, hence it was gradually left out of the blend. Not any more. Just as impressive, Dinastia Vivanco’s Mazuelo was brimming with mulberry fruit flavours with some mineral and chalk elements. I was told that in the past, Mazuelo had been sidelined because few realised that it reveals its true taste only when the vine is quite old.

The rise of Garnacha

At Bodegas Emperatriz, owned and managed by the enthusiastic and youthful Hernáiz brothers, it is Garnacha that makes its statement. The Emperatriz Garnacha was lush with blackberry jam and succulent cherry notes with a touch of ground black pepper. It was not overwhelming, but rather elegant, and did not require the tempering structure or acidity of high grown Tempranillo. The secret here is fruit harvested from 65 year-old vines!

I recalled my encounter with a spicier version of Dinastia Vivanco’s Garnacha. Yet, tasting another producer’s wine, the Ruiz Jimenez’ Garnacha, revealed savoury characters. That’s when the realisation hit me about Garnacha. Treated with care, Garnacha is not just a blending wine with high alcohol and low acidity – subtle, structured, elegant and tasty – it will hold its own alongside Tempranillo as another noble Rioja varietal.

Regional identity

Now, armed with the knowledge of Rioja’s grapes, I headed to Palacios Remondo, owned by Alvaro Palacios. Spanish wine aficionados know of his cult wine, l’Ermita, from the Priorat. Palacios is now championing Rioja – especially Rioja Baja (or Orientale as Alvaro calls it).

“On vineyard sited on a cool hillside where the soil is chalk or stony”, Palacios suggests, “Garnacha will shine”. In a vineyard above the town of Alfaro, Palacios’ Baja grown grapes enjoy hot days and cool nights amongst the higher altitudes. A revelation indeed, since Baja is often associated with only heat. And it is here, that Palacios fashioned Garnacha and Tempranillo into the wine called Remondo ‘La Montesa’ – impressive with dark fruit, wild herbs, lively acidity allied with elegant tannins and a minerally finish.

Next up, I encountered the single vineyard wine –  Senorio San Vincente de la Sonsierra (from the Eguren family). In the early 80’s, a vineyard had been chosen for its good drainage, poor soil, good midday exposure and sheltered position against the cold north wind. The recent vintage of the wine, a 100% Tempranillo, made using both modern and traditional methods, was perfumed with dark chocolate and cassis, tasty acids and round tannins. To compare, a 1999 proved to be sophisticated with all the bearings of a grand mature red.

The wisdom of tradition

So far, I had been revelling in ‘modern’ styled wines. What of the traditionalists? Wasn’t it at the prestigious Grandes de la Rioja 2010 blind tasting exhibition of over a hundred wines, that a 1997 La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904 stood a head taller than many of the ‘modern’ styled wines, with its complexity, evolution and finish?

And at Lopez de Heredia / VinaTondonia, wines are still made in the most traditional way –  no different from 1877 when the winery came to being. I tasted a 1989, then a 1981 and finally a 1961. The three wines left me with a truly unforgettable impression –wines with a depth of character underpinning its bouquet and flavours of stewed fruit, olives, hay, herbs, earth and more. Yet the wine remained fresh all throughout, thanks to fine acids. It was revealed that if new vines are needed, they are grown using ‘massale selection’ (cuttings taken from the old vines to replicate the same characteristics) and unlike the ‘modern’ techniques, wines continue to be lovingly aged in big oak vats, exposed slowly to oxygen – the secret to the wines’ longevity, hence revealed.

Where is Rioja headed then?

I turned to Mr. Mardones, in charge of the Rioja Region Agricultural Research station. Over the last decade, he has identified and collected 1300 clones of Tempranillos. Not only that, the researchers have re-discovered 64 varieties of Rioja indigenous (native and rare) grapes, and soon we’ll see and additional 13 new minority grape varietals suited for the Rioja terroir.

Traditional wine, or modern wine, single varietal wine, or single vineyard wine, youthful wine or aged wine, with such diversity, Rioja is headed for the stars!

Published in Appetite, February 2010

Watch videos on Rioja wines at the American Culinary Institute World of Flavor – Spain site.