Dirk Niepoort likes to challenge perceptions. For sure he’s making some angry, but it’s difficult to disregard his provoking as uninteresting. A lot of what he says, makes perfect sense when you think about it. For example Dirk believes we put too much emphasize in adjusting vineyards to meet the winemakers or owners vision. Not as it should be, as Dirk states, we adapting to the vineyards in order to reach the best possible result. Or as he continues, you can’t have the ambition to produce a grape specific style of wine when working with old vines, where the terroir sets the terms. If a certain grape character is wished for, go for young vines as he states.
Dirk brings a lot of interesting thoughts to the seminar I’m attending. And for sure they’re especially applicable on the wines in the region he represents, Douro. Table wines is a relatively modern product, at least the quality thinking, which started for real roughly 25 years ago. Yes, prior to that quality table wines did exist but they were few. Barca Velha had a tough mission on its shoulders. For more information on Douro table wine, its history and as a DOC, click here.
Basically, it was easy to understand the Quintas. Why give up a great port site in order to start making a premium table wine instead? Why say no to good money for a life in uncertainty? In Dirk Niepoort’s world this was the wrong way to look at the potential of table wines in Douro. You see, many of the best vineyards for port wine in Cima Corgo (the mid part of the Douro) faces south. In a region like Douro that’s not always the most optimal location. Not if you want to produce a table wine which doesn’t have too much port resemblance.
The solution according to Dirk is mainly two; go for north-facing vineyards and blend the upper and lower parts of the sites. The differences in altitude in Douro can have a big impact on the end result where the upper parts add acidity and colder fruit to the assemblage. In other words, the art of blending is a skill one can’t underestimate in Douro.
For the Batuta, one of Dirk’s premium table wines, he uses grapes from Quinta do Carril, a north-facing vineyard with 70-100 years old vines. As always in Douro the vineyard consists of several grapes although the Quinta do Carril site has a lot of the Tinta Amarela, backed up by Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Rufete, Malvasia Preta and a few more.
It’s a common misconception, believing that the vineyards in Douro were planted randomly and with no care of the grape variety. Have a look around the sites, walk with the winemaker and he or she will tell you the importance of the altitudes. A vineyard in Cima Corgo, in the Pinhão Valley (pictured above) can roughly vary from 300 to 700 meters in altitude. What happens if you plant Touriga Nacional or Tinta Roriz only in a site with noticeable altitude variations? Why can you find Tinta Amarela planted in the warmest parts of a site? We never question the importance of the assemblage in Bordeaux, the art of blending vintages and vineyard sites in Champagne, but when it comes to the Douro vineyards consisting of multiple grape varieties, we look at it as a work without reflectance.
“I hate this wine,” Dirk says when we taste the 2009 Batuta. Yes, he’s being provocative but also extremely honest. Reading between the lines, one could rephrase his statement and settle with “I’m a bit disappointed with this wine. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.”
In order to understand Niepoort’s disappointment one has to know the man’s preferences. He’s always aiming for a lower alcohol, cooler fruit and aren’t afraid of a grenness in his wines, actually seeking it. The Batuta could have met his wishes if it weren’t for the extreme heat that arrived in Douro in August – and stayed. Despite blending the upper parts with the lower, the vintage heat was more or less impossible for him to avoid. Again, work with the current conditions given and make the best out of it. I still believe he did a quite good job. The alcohol content ended at 13,83 percent. In a vintage like 2009, that is still more or less 1 per cent lower than most of the wines.
Tinta Amarela, the main grape of the Quinta do Carril site, also known as Trincadeira in Alentejo, was more difficult to handle since it likes heat. A tough task when you have the preferences of Dirk Niepoort. The color of the 2009 is dark, typical for the grape in warm years. And altough more eucalypt and darker fruit than I’m used to in a Batuta – a sweeter taste as well – it is a wine with fine balance. More extract, still with a good tannin structure, fruit, currants, roses and humus. Perhaps more similarities with other Douro table wines, if I’m allowed to generalize a bit. Maybe age will settle the ripe fruit feel a bit, I’m not sure. The 2009 Batuta in my opinion is a wine to buy if you’re more in to the bolder style of Douro but loyal followers of the wine might not recognize it. Then again, vintage variation is one of the essential parts of our wine passion right?
Then I’m poured the 2009 Charme, a wine from a more homogenous vineyard with much less altitude variation than Quinta do Carril. Charme comes from the Vale de Mendiz site and from around 300-350 meters. Tinta Roriz rules, backed up by Touriga Franca mainly. And even if the alcohol content is slightly higher in this 2009 – 14.03 per cent to be precise – it feels cooler and restrained in its appearance. Elegant nose with violets, plums and leather. The dusty summer road is there and some greenness. Marigold I write, remembering planting tons of these in my youth, when struggling to earn a few extra bucks. And also the taste is more Niepoort like. Red berries, acidity driven and dusty tannins. Not particularly concentrated, more Burgundy refined. I like it a lot.
How we perceives a wine is subjective. Besides having our very own and unique preferences we are probably also influenced by cultural differences. I come to think about this when I notices The Wine Advocate’s tasting notes on the 2009 Batuta (92) and 2009 Charme (87). I know that Mark Squires, tasting the wines for TWA, never puts up a hasty tasting note without having followed the wine for a longer time, so I’m beginning to think it could be the cultural background that sets the preferences here (having in mind an objective approach as far as possible).
My own palate says 2009 Charme by far, although I don’think it is one of Dirk’s best versions. It is not. I guess, what I’m trying to point out, is how important it is to create own preferences, to know your palate and read what others write as a guidance only, not a truth. Not mine, not TWA’s. Or listen to Dirk who “hates the wine.” Still, I love reading differing opinions and wouldn’t want to be without it.
Do you want to try the 2009 Batuta and 2009 Charme from Dirk Niepoort? Use the Wine-Searcher box in the right top corner of the site.
NB. The vineyard photo is the one of Pintas, in the Pinhão Valley, taken in mid-March this year.