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