Until recently, legal restrictions, a monopoly in the market, and fixed tastes abroad all conspired to keep winemakers in Portugal’s Douro Valley focused on making their famous fortified port wines. But things are changing, and Dirk Niepoort is leading the charge
My feeling is that it was stupid to fight about it. Why not have both? Table wines and fortified wines should be made side by side. It is a ridiculous discussion that we still have today. And only since 1986, when Portugal joined the EU, have we been allowed to sell our wines direct from the estate. Before this, all our wines had to go to Vila Nova de Gaia (the district of Porto famous for its cellars) to be matured and sold as port.
When I started working with my father back in 1987, there was only one priority here. Everyone made port. There were very few exceptions. My theory at that time was that we should start to get to know the Douro Valley better, and find out more about what was actually the first demarcated wine area in the world. After all, it is huge – 45,000 hectares – with vines growing from 80-meter elevations to 800, all sorts of exposures, and 85 different varieties.
There are many reasons for planting a mix of different varieties. The major one was to avoid having big problems with disease. By planting many grapes we would have avoided a monoculture where if one variety succumbed to a virus, the whole crop would be lost. So I think we should be celebrating these grapes more, get to know their flavours and their wines. We know the ones that work for port, but what about all the others? What characters do they have to offer?
I feel that we should have two priorities now, not just one. In the Douro we should have our minds and logistics organized so that we can do both wines, fortified and unfortified, at the same time.
The port houses are still obsessed with their companies wanting to sell more and more. But the reality is that they are in great danger of banalizing the image of port. It ́s time to think about the future of the Douro and not just of port.
I have respect for fortified port, for all its beauty and tradition, and for its great past. It is still the essence of the Douro. But I also have respect for the unfortified wines. And the best vineyards for port are not the best for red and white wine. So we can create table wines separately. We can create strong brands, but parallel to that some ‘boutique’ wines too. These small scale, high quality wines will make the point that Douro wines can be as outstanding as any in the world. We should respect the beauty of the Douro and open it to tourism, not mass truism.
I love port and without a doubt it is one of the great wines of the world – even being fortified. But if we think in a brighter and broader way and don’t limit ourselves, the Douro has a great future.
This is an excerpt from In Vino Veritas, a new collection of wine writing from the good folk at Académie du Vin Library. You can read about the time we went for lunch with Dirk Niepoort here.