Some writers have dubbed Dirk Niepoort an “iconoclast”. Like most complex and interesting people, Dirk Niepoort cannot accurately be described in a single word.
Insomuch as Dirk might show modern tendencies, for instance in his pioneering of Douro dry table wines, he simultaneously fights to maintain the all-but-vanished traditional Port category of Garrafeiras - a category his father Rolf was happy to relinquish, but Dirk has revived chez Niepoort. So it is not a matter of simply placing Dirk Niepoort into the “modernist” camp – he is too much of an individual to allow for such easy definition.
I had the privilege of getting to know Dirk a bit over the course of three days/nights of tasting Niepoort table wines and Ports, while staying with him and other guests at Roy Hersh’s home from May 4 to 6, 2012. Niepoort is open, outspoken, and opinionated – none of which is meant in a pejorative way. He is the type of guy many would admiringly call a “straight shooter”. He is also a perfectionist. The combination of these traits leads to an unexpected situation - Dirk is openly critical of some of his own wines, especially certain of his Vintage Ports (more on this later). I found his candor to be refreshing in a trade where hype can sometimes threaten to overpower truth.
Niepoort’s wines are dynamic. The wines mirror Dirk’s own evolution in taste and winemaking ideology. For example, it seems clear that the wines of Burgundy have become more influential on Dirk’s more recent wines. Both his Vintage Ports and his table wines in recent years show a greater elegance and lighter weight than his earlier efforts. Not that the newer wines want for flavour or structure – like the finest Burgundies, these Niepoort offerings are impressive for offering so much material in a beautifully elegant package.
On this weekend in May, over three tastings, I got an excellent survey of Niepoort’s table wines, Vintage Ports, Tawnies, Garrafeiras and Colheitas. What follows are my comments and tasting notes from these three events. It should be noted, that Roy coordinated nearly all the Niepoort Douro wines and Ports for the weekend, supplied from his and the other participant’s cellars.
Day 1 – Friday night at Roy Hersh’s home
The first event of this weekend of Niepoorts with Dirk Niepoort was a multi-course dinner and tasting, with Roy’s dishes paired with the white, Rosé and red table wines of Niepoort
2010 Redoma Reserva Branco (white) – On the palate some pineapple, fresh grass, and a tiny bit of caramel on the finish. Fresh with excellent acids, yet possesses good fatness too. Nice white. 86 points
2010 Coche (white) – Apple and floral nose. Crisp and fresh. High acids but in line with the body of the wine. Steely mineral/flint. Long on the palate – noble. A very nice wine. Though it is a bit linear in the mouth, it progresses nicely from entry to finish. 91 points
2009 Redoma Rosé – Strawberry and rhubarb. We perform a little experiment using different stemware. From the Bordeaux glass the wine shows some heat on the nose. From a Burgundy stem, the wine shows finer. Light, but with plenty of flavour. Dirk says this is free run – he does not do lots of saignée. 87 points
2005 Redoma Reserva Branco (white) – Ripe tropical fruit nose. Melons, coconut and pineapple. On the palate this has ample weight and great intensity of fruit. 88 points
2006 Redoma Reserva Branco (white) – Sweet butterscotch nose, toasty, less effusive than the 2005, more shy. On the palate this is dry and showing minerals, but has good fatness too. Dirk says this wine was difficult to make, but is showing well now … he usually prefers the 2005. 89 points
2008 Batuta (red) – Cracked black pepper. A bit of underbrush. I find this wine to be very Rhone-ish. Think Cote-Rotie. Nice weight and medium-to-full body. An excellent wine. Dirk concedes this wine is a sexy mofo. 93 points
2004 Batuta (red) – Rich deep nose reminiscent of a top Napa Cabernet – a bit of mocha on the nose. On the palate the wine shows a lot of extraction. Ripe blackberries and black cherries too. Nice licorice. Serious tannin here. 91 points
2001 Batuta (red) – This has a classic Bordeaux nose. It saw 36 months in 100% new wood. The wine is long and refined with good acid and significant tannin still. Some complicating fresh green herbs. Pastis. Wonderful wine! 93 points
2002 Charme (red) – Broad wine with a big rich nose. Quite balanced despite the weight. This shows very typical character of high-end Douro wine. Perhaps a shade more restrained. I think I would love to try this wine beside Quinta do Crasto’s top Douro wines. This is a brilliant wine with a decade of bottle age. 95 points
2007 Charme (red) – Now we see the influence of Burgundy, as Dirk is a great fan of the top wines of Burgundy. Nose very much like a ripe Burg. On the palate intense cherries with some sweet leafiness. A bit of cured tobacco. Serious tannin. Weight is similar to a cru Beaujolais. 92 points
2005 Charme (red) – Great nose. Rich and deep. A touch smoky on the nose, but well short of a sulphur fault. Adds complexity to the nose. Full-bodied wine with solid tannin and an excellent core of fruit. Dirk says this wine is reductive: “on the edge of good and bad”. But he likes the wine. I agree. Outstanding mouthwatering acids. Tremendous palate presence. A great wine! 95 points
2008 Charme (red) – Leafy, stemmy, complex nose also showing a little Band-Aid. A lighter weight wine. Lovely cherry compote on the palate. More in the vein of Burgundy, this one. Seemingly light, like a Chambolle, but with power on the palate. Marvelous. 94 points
2004 Robustus (red) – (about 2500 bottles made, and very difficult to source now) – Super dense and ripe nose brings to mind a young Barolo. This wine is seriously huge. Packs a wallop – immense, but showing classy superfine tannins. Essence of crushed blackberries. Great acidity. This wine feels as though it could age for 50 years. Dirk refers to this wine as his Barolo wannabe – an apt description. Quite a wine! 95 points
We finished up the evening with a couple of older Niepoort Port treats:
1970 Niepoort VP – Nose has a distinct mentholated aspect (Ben Gay cream?), nice on the palate, tastes young this one. Black currants. My quibble is a bit too hot on the finish. But very enjoyable. 91 points
1944 Niepoort Colheita (bottled 1978) – On the palate this wine is delicious! Soft caramels and toasted pecans. Nice fresh acids and a slightly bitter almond finish. Excellent! 95 points
Day 2 – A Vintage Saturday night at Marriott Hotel in Redmond, WA
The guests invited for Saturday evening’s event, met at Max’s World Café, a very fine Goan restaurant in Issaquah, WA where chef Edna Naronha opened up early for our hungry group and served us a wonderful dinner. Niepoort’s Rose was poured along with Edna’s signature dish: African Chicken.
This evening’s tasting was devoted to the Vintage Ports of Niepoort. The wines were not served in chronological order, but rather an order selected by Dirk. All were decanted much earlier in the day, some late morning and a couple of the older bottles with just several hours in decanter. I have provided my tasting notes on these Ports in the order they were tasted.
Dirk tells us that the words he would use to succinctly describe his Vintage Ports are: intense, concentration, balance, and sexy.
His latest Ports – the 2005/2007 he feels are inspired by Burgundy.
Never one to pull punches or blow smoke, Dirk is very critical of a number of the Ports he has made. He believes the 1985, (which his father vinified) in addition to the 1992, 1994 and 1997 the wines have a bacteria and danger of volatility. To him, all of these wines are not exactly how they should be. He states that this same phenomenon happened to many of the Port houses, but nobody else wants to talk about it. The effect of this flaw, he says, is to make the nose seem more exotic, but volatile. My own tasting experience on this evening bears out the strange noses of the ’92, ’94 and ’97 Vintage Ports, but not the ’85.
On to the Vintage Port tasting notes:
1980 Niepoort Vintage Port – 1980 Dirk advises this bottle might not be 100%. He tells us the color is too light, the cork was fully saturated, and there was evidence of a small amount of seepage. Nonetheless, I found the wine to have a good nose of fresh berries and spices, later developing some cedar and rosemary. On the palate the wine was very smooth, showing crème caramel, vanilla, and nutmeg – a dessert delight! Honestly I really enjoyed this wine and based on that I would score it very well. Because Dirk advised the wine was not showing as it should, I will put a “+” after my score, as I believe a perfect bottle would likely show even better than this one. 93+ points
1983 Niepoort Vintage Port – Again, Dirk advises at the outset that the color on this bottle is way off. Sure enough I observe that this 1983 has – by far - the lightest color of the first 10 Vintage Ports we see tonight. The wine seems very light weight, shows its alcohol, and has some cough syrup character. This bottle cannot be right. Not Rated
1985 Niepoort Vintage Port – Now we are on to something. This has a deeper-pitched nose that takes on a nice sandalwood note over time. Very interesting. Shows licorice on the nose and palate. Excellent. lovely acids. Long on the palate and well-integrated. Black cherry liqueur, full mouthfeel, drinking very well! 95 points
1992 Niepoort Vintage Port (from magnum) – This has some bottle stink/swampiness at first, the nose was off putting, also a bit funky on the palate. On the positive side, the wine has some good black fruits in there and some attractive cinnamon on the finish. But the bottle did not show well early in the tasting, mainly because of the nose. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to come back to this wine quite a few hours later. At that point the nose had improved to the point where the wine was enjoyable in all facets. My score reflects the later/better showing of the wine, but should be read with the caveat that the wine may need particularly extended air time to show at its best. 92 points
1994 Niepoort Vintage Port (from magnum) – Cleaner nose than the ’92, but still a touch of VA on this. On the palate this shows as a fresh wine with good acids. Tart cherries and some cranberry jelly. A bit of cough tablet. Mouthfeel is not as full as the 1985 – it feels somehow narrower and a bit shorter than that wine. There are still some tannins showing on the finish. 90 points
(Note: The next evening the VA was gone and this showed very well when we drank the rest).
1997 Niepoort Vintage Port – The nose is dark and fairly closed at first. Later shows some VA but fine anyhow. On the palate this is a big, burly black-fruited wine. Anise and tar comingle with concentrated blackberries. This is a long and deep wine, with great structure that is well balanced by the material. 94 points
2000 Niepoort Vintage Port – Lovely winey nose showing deep-pitched black currants. On the palate this is a well-integrated and structured wine. The tannin is noticeable, but encouraging in terms of this wine’s future. Lovely. Dirk says that this Port has better balance than his 2003 VP, but the 2003 may live longer. 95 points
2003 Niepoort Vintage Port – (Dirk says that in 2003 he threw away tons of overripe grapes.) Apple skins on the nose. This has more tannin than the 2000 and is a bit more closed. Huge brambly blackberries. The wine comes across as being hard because of the tannin. There is potential, and this is still a baby. But not the most enjoyable drink right now. 92 points
2005 Niepoort Vintage Port – A tiny bit of bottle stink greets the nose. This is in a more restrained style. Some red fruits (raspberry) join the black fruits. This one has a nice licorice element. Superfine dry tannins. This wine grows on the palate to a long crescendo. 93 points
2007 Niepoort Vintage Port – This exhibits a very winey/grapey/primary nose. Later the nose starts to display stone fruits and flowers. On the palate the wine has lovely shape and balance. This Port is very, very young…a baby. Black fruits covered in icing sugar. Bit of black pepper. The tannins on this one are again superfine. Sneaky intensity and a very long finish. 94 points
1977 Niepoort Vintage Port – First sniff of this wine reveals baking spices…promising! Lovely on the palate with fresh raspberries and cherry pie. Complicating note of fennel. Nice balance. Dirk says the ’77 is “very good”. 94 points
1970 Niepoort Vintage Port – A tiny bit swampy on the nose. This Port has a surprisingly dark color. On the palate there is some oxidized apple, wild berries and plums. Nice, but not as strong as the 1977. 91 points
1963 Niepoort Vintage Port – A hint of fresh maple syrup and wood spice on the nose. Really lovely on the palate. Bit of burnt sugar and smooth caramel. Largely resolved, mature and drinking very well now! 93 points
Day 3 – Sunday at Daniel’s Broiler Restaurant in Bellevue, WA
Flight One: Tawnies
The average age of the wines in these bottlings is considerably higher than the labels indicate. Perhaps this accounts for the great complexity and top reputation of these Aged Tawnies, Colheitas and Garrafeira Ports. Dirk estimates the 10 Year Old averages 14 years, the 20 Year Old averages 24 years, and the 30 Year Old averages 45 years. Dirk says the 30 Year Old is the most complicated blend to make. He says Niepoort has never made a 40 Year Old as he finds the category most uninteresting. He wants to keep his 30 Year Old as it is.
Niepoort 10 Year Old Tawny – (bottled 2011), nose shows fruit…cherry candy, on the palate this is crisp with a light body for the category, shows nice spiciness and some orange marmalade, long finish, excellent acid, spirit is nicely in check. 90 points
Niepoort 20 Year Old Tawny – (bottled 2011), sweet caramel nose, lovely nutty overtones, some toasted almond, again fresh with zippy acids that show some sharpness/tartness, lingering cherry cough drop finish (but not as long as the 30 Year Old), hint of baking spice, nice light mouthfeel. 92 points
Niepoort 30 Year Old Tawny – (bottled 2009), nose shows more rancio – wilder but fascinating, more toffee on this one, pecans, a bit of espresso, acids are quite powerful giving this rich wine excellent cut, lemon, this is a vigorous wine with taut energy, really super, very long finish. 95 points
Flight Two: Garrafeiras
These spend 3-6 years in wood, then are bottled into large glass vessels called demijohns (for Niepoort these are 18th century bottles from hand blown glass made in Germany), then the wines spend 20-50 years in demijohn. Following this extended period, these wines are then decanted into regular bottles and kept 5 years before being released. This is needed for these old wines to recover from the air shock.
Sometimes there are 2 bottlings – one with longer time in the demijohns. In the 1952 vintage there were at least 2 bottlings.
Dirk is proud of these wines because of their balance – they are “less big”. They have less tannin, and show elegance. Dirk jokes that these wines are “the DRCs of Port”. They are made only in certain vintages. Dirk says off the top of his head that there were 10-12 vintages made in the 20th century. Dirk’s father was not a great fan of Garrafeiras, so there was a bit of a gap in production while he was at the helm except for the 1977 which was released several years ago. Dirk took over in 1987, so more have been produced since then. Lastly, the IVDP was ready to get rid of the Garrafeira category altogether as Niepoort is the only producer that still makes this type of Port. After much lobbying, Dirk managed to convince the Institute from doing away with the category once and for all.
1952 Garrafeira – (put into demijohn in 1955, into bottles in 1984) – nose shows applesauce and a floral aspect, on the palate this displays a lightweight silky mouth-feel, apple crepe, burnt sugar, nose later develops a sweet pipe tobacco note, relatively low acid perceived, smooth and integrated, really mouth-coating and finishes very long. 92 points
1950 Garrafeira – (put into demijohn in 1955, into bottles in 1979) – very dark brown color, wilder nose showing torrefaction and later some ammonia, more vinous on the palate, blackberry tablet, root beer, this unfurls multiple flavors, very strong, some figs/dates, penetrates into the nasal cavity, this wine is young yet, masculine, now some cherry cola, a very fun wine to taste and follow. 93 points
1940 Garrafeira – nose shows a bit of polished wood, crème caramel finish, toasted walnuts, a little bacon, great acids – dances across the palate, very elegant wine, some complex bitterness, slightly shorter finish than the prior two wines. 91 points
Flight Three: Colheitas Part I
These vintage dated tawnies (100% from a single year) are aged in wood longer than most, with the regulation requiring at least seven years. Dirk says this process takes away fruit and color, but causes the wines to gain other flavors and increase in stability. At Niepoort the wines are usually released after 10-11 years. The 2003 will not be in markets for another 5-6 years. Dirk says the longer you keep these in barrel, the better. He says they oxidize their Colheitas earlier than others. The wines are therefore unusually light in color – a trait that has occasionally been misinterpreted by the Port Wine Institute, compelling Dirk to defend his methods and the resulting Colheitas. Unlike some other producers of Colheita, Dirk believes that Niepoort Colheitas can, and in fact do improve after they have been bottled due to the lack of fining or filtration.
1998 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 2011) – Dirk says this is now becoming interesting, the nose was at first faint/diffuse but then showed some lovely citrus/orange peel, very tight yet, just showing some caramel notes, very strong acids, shows as light weight, relatively closed but shows development in the glass, displays promise. 88 points
1976 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 2003) – crème brulee nose, on the palate pecans and oxidized apple skins, relatively short finish, good integration, some cherry cough syrup, big but balanced, strong wine. 90 points
1970 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1987) – nose of camphor/burnt rubber, iodine, on the palate this is medicinal, sweetened grapefruit, mahogany, old humidor and tobacco, burnt toast, odd but intriguing, smells like Florida. At first, I found the nose overwhelming and as a result, I found the wine to be undrinkable. I returned to the wine 3 hours later to find the nose had improved – most of the foul burning aromas had blown off. There was still some iodine. However, sadly, at this point the palate complexity had also diminished, showing simple after so much time in the glass. I should note that within the group tasting this wine at this event, I was in the minority on this wine – some liked it quite a lot. I could not see the quality from this bottle. 80 points
1963 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1989) – marmalade nose with a bit of tobacco, creamy palate, fresh green herbs, solid acid, citrus notes, nice integration, toffee and some apples, strong wine. 93 points
1960 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1979) – bottle stink/funk on the nose, but the palate is much better, candied pecans, pine, grassy acidity, a bit of lemon, lifted tart cherries, coffee, complex wine. 92 points
Flight Four: Colheitas Part II
1959 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1978) – the nose is a bit muted, the palate is showing well, lovely cherry liqueur, great acid, finishes long and with a caramel note, this is a gorgeous wine. 95 points
1952 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1978) – smells like pine resin, quite a soft wine with a quick/short finish, is this a bit off? Dirk notes that this bottle had a very weak cork. This bottle was not perfect – not spoiled, but clearly problems here. Not Rated
1937 Niepoort Colheita Port - (bottling date was missing) – biggest nose of the tasting at the outset…this really explodes from the glass! On the palate a complex wine with great acids, deep and long with fabulous integration, melted caramel, so very long, fresh herbs, cigar box, this is fantastic…in fact close to perfect! 98 points
1935 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1977) – exceptionally perfumed nose, on the palate this is tremendous, the balance is perfection, round mouth-feel, incredibly long…even longer than the 1937! Nice high acid keeps this so fresh. Absolutely gorgeous wine with a delicious toasted pecan finish. The wine lacks nothing…it does not get better than this. Perfection! After we tasted this, Dirk told us it is his favorite Niepoort wine, and only a handful of bottles of this remain at the winery. 100 points
1900 Niepoort Colheita Port – (bottled 1972) – amazingly the nose on this is the most complex of the night, on the palate killer (in a good way) acids, rosemary and mint, toffee, espresso, bitter almond, orange rind, an intense lingering sweetness, continually unfolds…like unfolding origami! A brilliant expression of a Colheita, so incredibly strong for a 112 year old wine…as strong as many wines 40 years younger, another nearly perfect wine. 99 points
After this flight, I stepped out on a limb (and I’m staying there) to say that if the 1952 was taken out of the picture, this final flight of Colheitas would stand as likely the greatest flight of wines of any kind from a single producer that I have ever tasted! They were that amazing. I only wish that my notes could possibly convey how special these wines were, but I fear they can’t possibly live up to the experience of tasting these vinous gems.
When it was all over, I felt very fortunate to have participated in this event, and to have gotten the chance to get to know Dirk Niepoort over several days and nights. But I also felt a little sadness in realizing that it would be a very long time (if ever) before I would partake in an event of this nature again. It is possible with a lot of work and the help of other like-minded wine collectors to put together a comprehensive selection of the wines from a single producer on a similar scale. But to have the winemaker himself come to North America to participate in the entire three days of tastings … that is something very special and rare indeed!
Article by Blair Curtis, Photos by Stewart Todd / Roy Hersh) © June 2012