Since the earliest stages of planning for my first trip to Portugal in 2004, I’ve been in contact with Dirk Niepoort to arrange a visit and tasting at the family’s Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. Unfortunately, our schedules did not mesh during my previous two excursions to Portugal. This year, I decided to go during the harvest, which was the perfect time to finally meet with Dirk. However, with his busy schedule during the harvest time, it was difficult to plan anything ahead of beforehand. Fortunately, Dirk did find some time to meet with me and my family on the evening of the 4th of October, for a dinner at the Quinta do Napoles.
Upon our arrival, Dirk was pleased to introduce us to two members of his family. His two boys started to produce their own wines in 2006. It looks like it won’t be a problem for the Niepoort family owned business to produce wine in Portugal with the 6th generation of Niepoort’s, established in this country since 1847. After the formal introductions, Dirk drove us to the top of the Quinta’s property with his 4x4 vehicle for a barrel tasting of the 2005 red wines. They have built a lodge on the top of the hill since there is a lack of space around the Quinta’s buildings below and also because the temperature is lower at the top and thus more appropriate to age wine. Upon entering the building, I was very impressed with how this place has filled up compared to last year. There is almost no place to move around. Dirk’s young son took the opportunity to demonstrate his acrobatic abilities, by climbing around the barrels to pour each of us a glass from them.
The dry red wines tasted here were all cask samples from the 2005 vintage and do not yet represent the final blends, but are more indicative of the style we can expect. But again, the final blending decisions haven’t been made as the wines still need some time in barrel and will obviously continue to evolve. According to Dirk, 2005 provided the best conditions for dry wines, of any he has been able to work with yet. Combined with his increasing innate knowledge of his vineyards and winemaking techniques and it is practically a certainty that some of his wines will reach near perfection!
Vertente 2005 cask sample: Really nice nose, rich flavours of ripe dark fruits and red licorice. The palate is full medium bodied, dominated by young fruits right now, finely grained tannins integrated with the acidity and alcohol to give a successfully balanced wine, leading to a finish packed with ripe fruits. This is just as Douro wines should be, fresh and ripe. 16/20
Redoma 2005 cask sample: We can see some similarity with the Vertente on the nose, but the Redoma is offering more complexity with some ripe and fresh dark cherries and plum flavours, with a backbone of exotic spices. It is so inviting! The palate offers compact tannins giving this wine some grip, again the fruit is ripe, taming the tannins, but not too much. This Redoma maintains balance until the finish where some bitter chocolate flavours mix with Douro minerality and are as persistent as Redoma should be. 16.5/20+, Give this wine some time in the bottle as the tannins need to soften, at least for my taste. This Redoma has a solid future ahead of it.
Batuta 2005 cask sample: When it comes to the quality of his wines, Dirk is always hard on himself. It is a needed quality, especially when a winemaker seeks to continuously produce excellent wines year after year and improve the quality, closer to his personal ideal. So for him to assess that he “nailed this Batuta” translated in my mind to, “I’ll be blown away.” This is exactly what happened! Dirk likes to say that with Batuta he is aiming to produce something close to an Hermitage from J.L. Chaves. I can see why he likes this 2005 Batuta. It shows the intensely expressive bouquet of exotic spices mixed with ripe dark and red fruits which came to my nose like layers of fragrance from a bottle of perfume. Each nuance is so well defined and provides a perfect expression of the purity of aromas. I can still smell it! The palate is just as exciting showing finely grained tannins, tightly knit, again the fruit is so pure and delightful, everything is perfectly balanced while the finish continues to show a multi-faceted and lingering expression of fruit, exotic spices and minerality. 19/20+. I never give a perfect score at this point, since it should continue to improve with time and will obviously reach close to perfection. Hats off to Mr. Niepoort!
Old Vines 2005 cask sample: This barrel was filled with juice that came solely from grapes harvested from vines bearing more than 125 years of age. Lighter in color than the Batuta, it develops a delicate but intense bouquet of red crushed field berries, quite pure and fresh. The palate is well defined with silky tannins, the acidity is more obvious than in the other Niepoort wines, maintaining perfect balance and giving this wine good nerve. Again the flavours are dominated by freshly crushed field berries and liquid minerals. It is not complex at the moment but showing immense depth that should develop layers of flavours with time. The finish is lingering mainly on fine bitter tannins and minerality. 17/20+. This wine accounts for 2% of the expected final blend of Batuta. Dirk is really proud of this particular wine, though it does not provide drinking pleasure in its youth. It is more an intellectual wine. It can do miracles when you blend only a small amount of it into another wine. This OV wine could end up as a special cuvée, though nothing has been decided yet. One thing is certain, it will not be wasted!
Charme 2005 3A/3B cask sample: Dirk writes his rating on every barrel, This blend of Charme comes from very good “A” barrels and very good “B” barrels, A being better than B and 3, which is better than 1. This is a very charming sample of Charme, bursting with flavours of mocha and ripe fruit. The palate is velvety, shows good depth of flavours with ripe cherry flavours, great balance and a long finish showing toasty vanilla notes. 17/20. According to Dirk, this wine will not be bottled as Charme. It’s lacking the acidity and the oak flavours are not as integrated as they should be, leaving more room for the pure fruit flavours to show like in a real Charme.
Charme 2005 cask sample: This is roughly the final blend for Charme. Obviously this is not the same wine and again Dirk did not make a mistake by disallowing the previous wine to get in the final blend, even though it is very good. Intense bouquet, bold flavours of truffle penetrates the nose, intermixed with plums and chocolate flavours. The palate is all about fruit, loads of fresh crushed fruits, bold but focused flavours which envelop the entire mouth. The finish is long and lingering with light oaky tones, chocolate and truffle flavours finishing this off. 18.5/20. The Charme is another great wine in the process, though I prefer the 2004 right now.
This was all about the red wines from 2005. Dirk suggested that we go back to the Quinta and visit another lodge, this time to taste an experimental wine and a few barrel samples from the 2006 harvest. Heading down the hillside, he decided to check on some grapes. These grapes will go into his two sons’ wine. While tasting the grapes, he explained to me the importance of knowing when to pick the grapes, which is a matter of healthy grapes with ripe and balanced flavours and components. If you want harmony in your wines, you have to find it in the grape first. Talking about the 2006 harvest, Dirk recognizes that it was a difficult one. The month of August was extremely hot and so was early September. The vines were in need of water. Then by the end of September rain started to fall, which helped the vines and grapes get some relief from that hydraulic stress. Dirk brought back some of the best grapes of the harvest to the Quinta. Though that rain was beneficial and an absolute necessity at that moment, it did not stop in October. If he had possessed any more room at the Quinta, he would’ve finished the harvest by the time I visited on the 4th of October, though that was not the case. The abundance of rain decreased the acidity and sugar level of the grapes, diluting the flavours and enhancing the chance of rot. At the time, Dirk was expecting the harvest to be completed in three more days. He is quite pleased with the early quality of the wines, achieved in these difficult conditions.
Unico 2004 cask sample: This wine doesn’t have a name yet, so it is just nicknamed “Unico” by Dirk, because he wants to give this wine a prolonged wood aging just like the famous Spanish wine from the Duero. No bottling date is set at this time. It is a very nice wine, elegant bouquet of fruit and spices. The palate is smooth and creamy at first, then building on fresh and ripe fruit flavours. The finish is showing nicely grained tannins and light toasty flavours. 17/20+. This is the wine that evolved the most in the short amount of time I had it in my glass; among all the wine tasted from barrel that day.
Pinot Noir 2006 cask sample: This year, Dirk is very happy with the outcome of this wine. Mainly because he loves Pinot Noir and wants to make a Burgundian-style wine from his grapes in the Douro. This 2006 is a step in the right direction! In 2006, his grapes were harvested in August and were able to avoid much of the heat stress going on at the moment. This is obviously very typical with this wet animal fur and cherry pips aroma on the nose, which reminded me of Burgundy. On the palate, the acidity strikes first, finely grained tannins, lean with a lingering finish. My first Pinot Noir from the Douro and I was impressed by its quality especially considering it has only been in barrel for 2 months. I’d be very curious to see how it turns out, after it has a few years in bottle.
Tiara 2006 cask sample: I was able to taste 2 samples from Tiara. It was very interesting because one was having the glycerine and the other one the zesty acidity. You could really see how one will bring the texture and the other one the balance and nerve to the wine. Both showed some very nice citrus fruit tones, especially since the fermentation has not yet been completed.
Redoma Branco Reserve 2006 cask samples: I sampled 5 different barrels that were intended to go in the final blend. Unless it changes significantly, this one should not be included in the final blend, as it was dull and lacking any structure at this point in its youth. However, the other 4 were already very good. Again it was an interesting experiment to taste all the different components of a wine in different glasses, some were more acidic, others showing incredible depth and minerality and another bringing the fruit and extraordinary length. It is another classic in the making.
Batuta 2006 cask samples: I had 3 different cask samples of Batuta. These were really hard to taste, mainly because I did not like the flavours it was showing right now. The fermentation is still taking place and beside some spritz, the wine is really smelling and tasting stinky. It is only my second time that I’ve tasted red wine at this early stage and I can’t claim I’m an expert at doing so. Dirk was more pleased than me tasting this wine, as he was focusing (at this stage of its life) more on the structural components. He said it was “promising” and quite an achievement, considering the 2006 harvest. All three of the samples were showing bold fruit flavours and you could almost eat the tannins they were so chewy.
Riesling 2006 cask sample: Another of Dirk’s favourite grapes, he is a huge fan of German Riesling. And again, he is able to bring freshness to such a wine in the heat of the Douro keeping the alcohol level around 11-12% / vol. With the fermentation not completed yet, this wine is showing amazing fruit, fresh and ripe with exotic spices, fresh herbs and orange infused green tea, both on the palate and nose. He was explaining to me that this is just typical Riesling and that the flavours I taste right now will be the ones we’ll taste as the wine get mature.
Redoma Rosé 2006 cask sample: Dirk was more perplexed about this one. Not because it is not good, but because it possesses such deep color for a rosé. It is showing incredible fruit flavour for the moment and it is just like a fruit punch! I love rosé from the Douro, I find it a good compromise at the table when you need a food friendly red wine with structure and it is 30 degrees Celsius outside. Douro rosé is the answer.
After over two hours of tasting, it was now time for dinner. Along with Dirk and my family, some employees and Luis Seabra, the winemaker, joined us for the meal. Conversations were really friendly and humour is often used. We quickly feel surrounded and comfortable by the warm family spirit that reigns in this room.
Getting on with the meal, of course I took the time to ask some question. In the early 90’s when Dirk started to make dry wines in the Douro, his father was not really keen with the idea. Today he is really proud of his son and happy with the great results. It is just another bet that Dirk won. Staying on the subject of the dry wines, I asked him why it was so easy to buy grapes from some of the century old vineyards, considering the great quality the wines can achieve because of them. The answer is quite simple; these are not the kind of vineyards most of the companies are looking after. Today most of the companies want vineyards to be productive and the grape varietals to be grown separately. These are two dynamics that the old vineyards do not possess. Dirk is working with and procuring grapes from more than 60 vineyards in the Douro. He helps them and supervises every vineyard’s owner (or manager), to achieve the best quality possible, according to the style of wine he envisions.
Dirk feels he is still experimenting with his dry wines. Though the results are really impressive, there are still a few things he’d like to achieve to say that these wines are really the style he is looking for with each one of them. To the exception of Redoma Tinto and Branco, all the others wines are being produced for less than a decade. One of the most difficult things to achieve with the grapes from the Douro, is a lower percentage of alcohol, especially with the red grapes. Dirk likes wine with freshness and elegance that simultaneously combine intensity, complexity and length. Obtaining this style in the Douro is very hard work and Dirk is confident he’ll achieve it. As we were drinking a Gevrey-Chambertin I brought for the occasion, he gently pointed out with a touch of humour, to Luis Seabra that he should take notes on how to make this kind of wine.
Before starting the dinner, Dirk asked me which of his wines I’d like to drink, as he was quite happy to only drink the wines I brought for the occasion. I was somewhat embarrassed to ask for anything as I felt like a beggar. But finally the words Charme and a few minutes later “Garrafeira” (a style of Tawny Port) came out of my mouth. Unfortunately no Garrafeira was available in his estate’s cellar, as he had finished his last one the day before my visit. He did open a very nice selection of Niepoort’s table wine and Port; with Charme 2004, Batuta 2004, Redoma Branco Reserva 2005 and we finished off with some cheese and a bottle of 1979 Colheita and the 2003 Vintage Port. It was a good occasion for me to revisit some of the wines I had tasted from cask the previous year. I only took some quick notes on the wines during dinner, as I wanted to concentrate on the meal and being part of the ambience that evening.
Redoma Branco Reserva 2005: Highly intense both on the palate and the nose with very precise and concentrated flavours, a good dose of glycerine with zesty and high acidity that keeps all this intensity just as balanced as it should be, leading to a lingering and mineral finale. 18/20+. An incredible effort again and Dirk explains to me that the key to this wine is about grape maturity and vineyard altitude.
Charme 2004: Incredible fruit purity in this Charme again, expressive, very long finish, elegant and finely dosed oaky notes. 19/20
Batuta 2004: Expressive and powerful nose, finely grained tannins, exotic wood tones and spices, very long finish mainly of spices. It is drinking superbly right now, but this wine would benefit with some time in bottle so that these wood tones could integrate with the fruit. There is no doubt this will be another great wine in 2-3 years and then, for another decade! 18/20+
Niepoort Vintage 2003: Highly concentred flavours of ripe dark fruits and spice, both on the nose and palate. Compared to last year, this wine is much more integrated, the tannins which were almost aggressive are now still present but contained by a fat and rich fruit texture. Again, I am repeating myself; this Niepoort wine has a very long aftertaste with ripe dark fruits, black liquorice and some spicy notes. 18/20++. Obviously, it needs time!
Unfortunately, just as every good thing must come to an end, yes this was the end of an amazing visit at the Quinta do Napoles. I was finally able to meet an icon in the Douro, the maker of the wines I crave and a fine gentleman in Dirk Niepoort. I had such a great experience, these guys just love what they are doing and share it with enormous passion, even at the cost of having the guest drinking their last glass of wine, which they kept to drink at a later time. Even though I did drink Dirk’s last glass of the Gevrey-Chambertin, he did set some aside to revisit later on. He wanted me to start the tradition of coming to visit him each year, as long as I bring more of this Burgundy for him to savour. This was an accident that he quickly caught in humour, to break this newly born tradition. There will obviously be a next time for me at Napoles, because just like his wines, this is hedonistic pleasure.
Note from Roy: Thanks to Frédérick Blais, who had a chance to meet up with Dirk Niepoort during his recent trip to Portugal, for this guest article.