Wine: Delights of the Douro

The last 20 years has seen the growth of impressive reds and whites in this sweltering region
February 16, 2017

When you think of the Douro Valley you probably think of port. The fortified wine is the main product of the terraced vines that grow on the steep slopes above the river. Historic as this association might be, these are no longer the only wines of note coming from the Douro Valley. The last 20 years has seen the growth of impressive reds and whites in this sweltering region. Most notable are the occasionally French-style wines of the Dutch winemaker, Dirk Niepoort.

Niepoort began working for his family of port producers, creating a lighter, fresher style. But his desire to create wines resembling those he admired led him in new directions. It took nerve, self-confidence and considerable amounts of skill, but his wine-making knowledge and command of several European languages have made him an impressive presence in the world of wine.

The results are spectacular. Niepoort is able to mimic the characteristics of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône by using technique and local grapes. The adventure began with his 1991 Redoma, a Bordeaux-style wine made from Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. I tasted this wine with him on a recent visit and it has stood the test of time. Earlier we sampled his tribute to white Burgundy named Coche, after renowned Mersault winemaker, Jean-François Coche of Coche-Dury. The golden richness of the wine with its voluptuous notes of white peach and pear were balanced with a citrus finish, showing the elegance and precision of the best white Burgundies. Yet this was made in the Douro from scarcely known grape varieties such as Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Arinto and as the notes say, “others.” How is it done?

Niepoort uses old vines planted on the slopes at altitudes of up to 700 metres. This allows the vines to cool at night, keeping their acidity and freshness. At the same time, the wine undergoes a long malolactic fermentation in used French oak barrels to develop creamy notes.

The passion Niepoort has for Burgundy is evident but the daring is equally clear. To attempt to make fine Burgundy-like reds and express the ambition with names like Charme is bold, but entirely appropriate. The old vines provide a silky texture, and the long and careful maceration ensures the extraction of fine but elegant tannins. The result is a suave, complex wine with tart acidity balanced with ripe cherry fruit.

Niepoort also has a keen attachment to Riesling, and has planted vines that produce low-alcohol wines that remain full of flavour. Elsewhere, he produces a sweet Riesling Doczil that comes close to some of the finest showings of this grape in the Mosel. Once again, he understands the grape and its best expression; a skill he has repeated again and again for a wide range of grapes and wine styles. His foray into Rhône wine-making is in evidence in a wine from the Maria Izabel estate. The Quinta Maria Izabel Tinto has a nose that suggests a young Croze Hermitage. A core of tart damson fruit leads the palate away from the Rhône. The 2014 Maria Izabel Branco is white Burgundy in all but name; a feat that isn’t achieved every year. The 2015 has too strong a honey note to suggest Côte de Beaune. Nonetheless the results are remarkable.

They say that a wine often resembles the personality of the winemaker, generous or austere, opulent or lean. So what is it about Niepoort that we find in his wines? He has a quick, agile mind, and is meticulous in the vineyard and the winery, pushing himself and his team further than they think they can go. The labels range from the intriguing to the irreverent. Cartoonists from different countries have designed storyboards for his perforated postage stamp clusters on the bottles of his Fabulous range, including one wine called “drink me.” He is deadly serious about his obligation as a wine maker. His wines challenge and often delight. They are one-offs like the man who made them, a pioneer of fine-quality Douro wines, bound to keep the wine world guessing.