Luis Seabra is the gifted Douro winemaker at Niepoort who is responsible for the day-to-day winemaking operations in collaboration with Dirk Niepoort. We first met nearly a half decade ago and subsequently, Luis has been an incredibly hospitable host and educator when we’ve visited his “home-away-from-home” at Quinta da Nápoles. Understated and deftly skilled, Luis has helped Niepoort produce some prodigious, age worthy and world class DOC wines, both white and red. He is “a purist” and one of the unsung heroes in the Douro, who cares deeply about the quality of what is ultimately bottled and is seemingly indifferent about achieving fame and fortune. Luis Seabra deserves recognition beyond the demarcated region whose grapes sustain his daily work. When considering doing a segment on a Douro winemaker instead of someone who works with Port too, it took all of five seconds to decide that Luis was going to lead the way this month. I am very pleased that he was willing to share some fascinating and personal details for this column.
Here is Luis’ story:
1. How did you break into the Port trade and at what age?
As a young boy, I first lived in Cascais near Lisbon, and then moved to Porto and I later studied viticulture at UTAD in Vila Real before going for my Master’s degree in winemaking at Universidade Católica in Porto, with a group of international teachers. But I kept my annual trip to the Douro because my father and grandfather are originally from there and my grandfather always had some vineyards. I first started working in the wine industry in 1997, first doing research and development for the government on vineyards and wines, while also teaching at the University in Vila Real. In the Vinhos Verdes Region I worked for a big wine Coop. Then came a stint consulting on vineyards and wine beginning in 2000, which is when I really started working in the Douro Valley; and I joined Niepoort in April 2004.
2. What is your favorite style of Port to drink at home and can you name 2 or 3 of the greatest Ports you've ever tried?
Any wine that can demonstrate the elegance and not only the power and concentration of Douro wines, 1966 Barca Velha is a good example of that. In Port, I really admire the elegance in Niepoort vintages, 1927 is a very good example of that, but also the power of the Fonseca and Taylor Ports. The 1970 Taylor’s is a very good reference for me. But I tend to have a passion for old tawnies with many years in bottle, so the Garrafeira style, is something that always puts me in a good mood. The 1952 Niepoort is extraordinary, and the 1977 Niepoort Garrafeira that I recently had the chance to taste from demijohn just prior to its bottling, a magical moment, is also very promising.
3. Besides Ports from your own company, what others do you most enjoy drinking?
I must admit that normally I drink wines from others. And I have a very eclectic taste: old Champagne where I tend to prefer Blanc de Blanc, Burgundy both white and reds, Northern Rhone reds, old style Bordeaux, German Riesling, especially the sweet ones from the Mosel area, some old decadent Rioja that we can still find at very good prices, old style Barolo, as Nebbiolo can be a fantastic grape variety. In Portugal my favorite areas are Bairrada and Dão both in whites and reds. I’m always proud when I can present an old Portuguese wine from these areas, possessing great quality and the ability to amaze anyone, and of course, Madeira one of the great wine areas in the world.
But I always search for authentic wines, the ones that can transmit something from the area where they come from and the people that have worked in it. I’m not that fond of fine wines that can be from just about anywhere in the world.
4. What brings you the most joy in what you do within the Douro wine trade?
The combination of making history, changing things and providing a new perspective to one of the oldest wine regions in the world.
5. Would you please share one piece of unique trivia or historical information about your company that would be new to FTLOP readers?
Many people probably don’t know that in our warehouse in Vila Nova de Gaia we have a member of the 5th generation of the Nogueira family working with us, and making the blends of our tawnies every day. José Nogueira, (better known as Zézé) is the current master blender at Niepoort who is training his son José Rodrigo to take over his role some day. It’s amazing how information passes from father to son, and especially the small details. I think in our current times people may not realize any more, the importance of that, and how this can influence the difference in the wines we make. So we have to pay a tribute to the Nogueira family that has always dedicated their work to the Niepoort’s and so they are really like part of the Niepoort family.
6. Which individual has been your greatest mentor and how have they inspired you?
It’s difficult to say, as I can get inspired easily by a simple worker in the vineyards and I always learn from them, (the Duriense people) who have always made their living from this vineyard. But I also get inspiration from wine producers that show true passion for what they are doing, so along my life I’ve been getting inspiration from many people in many different situations, but if I have to come up with just one name – Henry Jayer … although I never had the opportunity to meet him in person.
7. What is the greatest challenge facing the Douro wine trade today?
The ability to keep tradition and innovation side-by-side; bringing history into a new era in the Douro, where both Port and still wines can live harmoniously together. Avoid the mistakes of other wine regions where they tried to make quick money. The wine trade is meant to endure over the course of generations, so we always have to be thinking towards the future, in a very long term sensibility.
8. Can you share one new project or improvement that your company is involved with?
The recent change towards organic farming in all of our vineyards is exciting. Organics is one of the big challenges right now, but also the new Pisca Vintage Port; it’s much more than a new wine. I think it is going to help us to better understand Port wines and the importance of the old tradition of ageing the Vintage Ports prior to release.
9. What can the industry do to improve the promotion and education of Port wine and grow market share in the ever evolving beverage marketplace?
Work, work, work. First keep on trying to improve the quality of wines and not only the expensive ones, but we also need to produce high quality value oriented wines that exhibit Douro’s character in good quantities. We can never compete with the prices of other wine areas in the world, so I’m not talking about price wars either.
Second, we need to introduce the Douro valley to the rest of the world, like all the other wine areas, but especially this one which is unique. After seeing the place and meeting the people, you’ll understand the wines much better. And third, we need time; time to show how well the Douro wines can age and improve in the bottle.
10. What non-wine activities do you enjoy?
All outside activities, sports, music, reading, traveling, and cooking, to learn more about human nature…
Thanks to Luis for providing us with a great read!
This month the IN FOCUS feature, an ongoing FTLOP series; Port Personalities in Focus, which alternates with A Question for the Port Trade every other month, introducing readers to people who are not usually in the media’s spotlight, with some license to occasionally “interview” someone that is. In Focus brings you candid comments, personal perspectives, and a better understanding of the people inside the trade. From sales and marketing professionals, to master blenders, winemakers and vineyard managers, to distributors and importers, to the owners and managing directors; In Focus will introduce you to Port (and now, Douro wine) personalities who work at small family-owned operations to the largest wine companies in Portugal. We hope you’ll benefit from meeting the people on these pages!