Dirk Niepoort in the vineyards at Quinta de NapolesAt the end of February I had the immense pleasure of spending a day with Dirk Niepoort at Quinta de Nápoles.

On our way up to the Douro he asked me my impression of Niepoort Vinhos.  The first word that sprang to mind was “playful” – the branding, packaging and names of the wines all show a great playfulness and creativity, and assume an intelligence on the part of the consumer which is rather refreshing.  Can you imagine any other Port maker taking wine names from nursery rhymes or the cautionary tale of two small but exceedingly mischievous little boys?  Me either.  Underpinning the image, however, are excellent, well-made and thoroughly enjoyable wines.

Over the course of the day, that impression of creativity, curiousity and playfulness dancing atop a bedrock of serious intent and knowledge persisted, whether Dirk spoke of his wines, vineyards, or the larger issues facing the Douro wine and Port trade.

Quinta de Nápoles

Roughly half way between Régua and Pinhão the River Tedo joins the Douro from the south, and Quinta de Nápoles is situated on the western bank of the Tedo, together with the adjacent Quinta do Carril.  The properties were purchased in 1987-88 by Dirk’s father, and currently there are 28 hectares of vineyard, more than half of which are mixed plantings, and all the vines are mature.

Pinot Noir vines at Niepoort's Quinta de Nápoles in the Douro

Pinot Noir vines at Niepoort’s Quinta de Nápoles in the Douro

On a day of mixed sun and showers, the vineyards were beautiful – very green, with flourishing cover crops as deep as knee high in the Pinot Noir parcel.  You read that correctly – Dirk planted a hectare of this classic Burgundian grape in the Douro in 1999, just for curiousity, to see what one of his favourite grapes could do in the Douro.  The parcel faces north and is situated at the top of the property, around 370 metres above sea level, and the schist laden socalcos – the multi-row-of-vines stone walled terraces – of the mountainous Douro Valley couldn’t be more different from the gentle rolling hills and open landscape of the Côte D’Or.  To learn more about this wine, you can find tasting notes for the Niepoort Projectos Pinot Noir 2006 in the FTLOP Tasting Note Database (subscribers be sure to log in to see Roy’s notes) and you can find a tech sheet for the Niepoort Projectos Pinot Noir 2009 on the Niepoort Vinhos website.

By mid-late February they had already received almost 400 mm of rain since the start of the viticultural year in November, but here at least there seemed to be no ill-effects.  No problems with erosion of either the soil-banked or the walled terraces (the flourishing cover crops and grass no doubt had something to do with that) and even the winter’s work of pruning all the vines has been progressing steadily and was nearly done.  Grafting to replace old or missing vines was due to begin shortly.

Niepoort Beach - silt washed down the Tedo River at the foot of the vineyards

Niepoort Beach – silt washed down the Tedo River at the foot of the vineyards

There was one rather interesting change in the landscape:  the Tedo makes quite a sharp bend at the foot of the vineyards, and I commented that not many Douro vineyards could boast a beach.   Dirk did a slight double take and said the erosion up river must have resulted in that deposit of silt on the inside of the bend, he didn’t think that had been there before!  In fact, he commented the river was looking particularly low at the moment, which may have been attributable to the recent opening of the dams on the Douro to control the risk of flooding.  Later, as we were leaving the quinta to return to Porto, Dirk’s caseiro warned us that the route to Pinhão had been closed due to a landslide across the road.  Luckily we were headed the other way.

The Tedo River valley is generally more open and breezier than the Torto River valley roughly 8 km to the east, so even in late summer you do not get the still, concentrated heat typical of the Torto – and for this reason Dirk feels that Nápoles is more suited to producing table wines.  His own preference is for wines characterised by freshness, acidity and complexity, and he feels areas like the Torto or the Douro Superior are too hot to produce that style.  While Nápoles produces only red grapes, all the quintas from which he draws for all his wines, Port or table, red or white, are located around the Cima Corgo.

The Winery at Quinta de Nápoles

The Niepoort Winery at Quinta de NapolesThe winery building at Nápoles is a Douro landmark – if you can pick it out, that is.  The design intention was always to make it blend into the landscape, and now, with its dry stone schist walls and lush grass grown terraces it is indeed hard to spot.  The project began in 2000, and went through 3 iterations of planning before Dirk finally was satisfied with the design and cost proposals – and then the whole thing was built in about 9 months time in 2007.

I was fascinated by the building and the many features Dirk designed to leverage the nature of the site and to minimize the use of electricity.  First and foremost of course, the adega is built into the mountain and the levels for reception, fermentation and ageing are designed one below the other, so grapes or wines can be moved by simple gravity with the minimum of pumping.

Inside the Winery Quinta de NapolesAt ground level on the top of the hill there is not much more than a shed roof over a parking area with a line up of 4 or 5 … what look like square man-hole covers set in the ground.  Small crates of hand-picked grapes are emptied down one of these man-holes and enter a chute that can be moved the length of winery, adjusted and swung 360º to deliver the grapes directly into any of the fermentation tanks.  This first level below ground is the main wine making area, with presses and two rows of tanks – a mixture of wooden and stainless steel – divided by a high catwalk which gives access to the top of each tank.

Below this again is the main ageing and storage area, a wonderland mix of steel tanks and wooden barrels, both traditional pipas for ageing the ports and all sizes and shapes of balseiros, toneis and french oak barrels for the wines.

The solid stone "lung" of the Niepoort winery at Quinta de Napoles

The solid stone “lung” of the Niepoort winery at Quinta de Napoles

As we walked through the winery two other design features particularly fascinated me.  It is necessary to keep the building at a steady 15ºC year round to conserve the quality of the wines, and in the Douro temperature control during the summer particularly is a challenge.  One solution is a stairwell that runs the full height of the building on the north-facing side and the top of the stairwell can be opened in the summer to draw warm air up and out, just like the flue of a chimney.  Another part of the cooling strategy is the exposure of the solid bedrock of the hill on the side of the winery inside the hill, which acts as a natural coolant, and the cool air from this space can be vented and drawn throughout the rest of the winery as needed; Dirk referred to it as the lung of the winery, which I thought very apt.  Finally, the walls of the winery are 15 cm thick, which also helps to control the temperatures, though Dirk had a bit of discussion with the architect who insisted that narrower walls would work just as well.  Dirk stuck to his guns on this and many other unique design points, and as a result the winery is as functional and environmentally sensitive as it is beautiful.

The long time winemaker Luis Seabra left Niepoort just over a year ago and Dirk has decided to re-direct the greater part of his energy from travelling and promotion to the winemaking, together with Carlos Raposo.  As we sampled various 2013 wines from cask it was interesting to hear Dirk talking about what he was trying to do with each one, the flavour profile he was after and the extent to which he feels he has got it right, or the wine is still developing but he thinks in the right direction.  His family and management team are not keen to lose his visibility on the sales side, but my impression is he is probably a bit happier to be focussing on the wines again, after all.

Amphorae at Quinta de NapolesInside the winery were 3 small(ish) amphora each sunk into their own private sandbox, and outside two more 3,000 litre amphora were buried in the land on the north side of the hill.  In Dirk’s words, “It’s an experiment, we dumped in the grapes, sealed them, and we’ll see.”  The plan is to open them in April or May and … we’ll see.

This, together with comments such as “we do it wrong, but… it works”, “I thought I would try this, and I am quite pleased, I think it worked” and “we’re not inventing anything, just listening to the old people” all convey to me the humble curiousity, willingness to experiment, and playfulness that make Niepoort wines unique in the market.  That and the entrance corridor to the winery which has the answer to everything – if you can just find the key.

Keys to everything at Niepoort's Quinta de Napoles

Dirk told a story of how twenty years ago or more a friend of his father’s opened a bottle of Douro wine, what is known as vinho de consumo – the wine for every day drinking that families made from whatever grapes they couldn’t sell for Port.  The wine was from 1938, so upwards of 50 years old when he enjoyed it – and he said it was so fantastic, so fresh, it convinced him once and for all that Douro wines had a future.

That said, Dirk is also pursuing winemaking in two adjacent regions south of the Douro:  in Bairrada at Quinta de Baixo, which Niepoort purchased at the end of 2012, and also in the Dão region with the recent purchase of a small quinta there.  If readers want to practice their Portuguese, or don’t mind using a translator tool, read Dirk’s own thoughts on the “Niepoort Triangle” in the Cantinho do Dirk blog on the Niepoort Projectos site.  I look forward to learning more about those projects as well, and tasting the wines some day.

Pruning team in the vineyards end of day

Pruning team in the vineyards end of day