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Drinking Niepoort

My few days in Lyon included the unbelievable experience of drinking the first port Niepoort ever made, the Imperador made from a blend of vintages from 1842 to 1850. Beginning in 1842, Niepoort operated as a negociant style port house, as is typical for the region, buying port from families throughout the Douro and then blending, until the last two decades when Dirk Niepoort took over leadership as the fifth generation leading the family owned house.

At the end of the 1980s, Dirk began making table wine with grapes from the Duoro, sparking controversy through the region by breaking its mold, but Dirk’s still wine also inspired other winemakers to follow suit, with table wines from the Duoro now a relatively common practice. Since, Niepoort Vinhos has continued to produce some of the best still wines in Portugal, not only from the Duoro but also in small quantities from other key regions. Dirk has also shifted the house style on port away from being negociant-only to instead making the port wines from vine all the way to bottling as well. The shift in focus has brought incredible clarity to the style and an admirable elegance.

The Imperador was an unusual style for what the house would become – sweeter than what they went on to make after, and less robust, with less core palate density than wines that followed as well. Even so, it was a treasure to taste a wine not only of its age but its provenance. I have great admiration for the history of Niepoort so to enjoy a nip of their very first wine is irreplaceable.

Niepoort Garrafeira – a style Niepoort is one of the very few to make – proved to be not only the finest port I’ve ever tasted but also one of the finest wines I’ve ever had as well. Two years ago I was able to shadow Dirk through harvest in the Duoro for five days. Half way through the visit he had a special dinner to thank his winemakers and friends and I was also invited. Thanks to the longevity of the family house, his collection of aged ports is, of course, remarkable. Half way through the dinner he blinded us on two special bottles.

The first was a beautiful wine, elegant and concentrated, wonderfully aged and savory with an incredibly long finish and fully integrated sweetness – the experience was more about texture and mouthfeel, savor and well-aged spice than sweetness. It’s something Niepoort is known for – a less sweet style of port. There was a very light sense of angularity to the structure of the wine but it was pleasant, like the weave of shantung silk, with the more textural component integral to the delicate strength of the fabric. I was grateful for the wine and enjoyed it but in truth it wouldn’t have such strong place in my memory except for then tasting the wine that followed it.

The first of the two wines was a 1952 vintage port put into 5-gallon glass car boys in 1955 and aged that way until 1974 when it was bottled in a standard port bottle for market. The aging in car boy is integral to Garrafeira port, and Niepoort is one of the few to do this. Dirk told us the provenance of the wine only after we had also tasted the second.

Dirk then poured us the second wine blind. Tasting it, I couldn’t believe the experience. As soon as we sipped, we all fell silent. To this day it is the most exciting wine I’ve ever tasted – savory, palate stimulating, somehow glittering in its presentation. The wine was such a perfect experience it struck me as impossible to describe in regular terms. Later I told Dirk it felt like drinking mother of pearl – that iridescent, shimmering, metallic and pastel, sea blue inner layer of a nautilus shell. The wine was seamless, elegant, other worldly, the epitome of what we mean when we use the phrase fine wine.

Only after we tasted and discussed both wines did Dirk reveal to us what they were. The second wine had started its life as the exact same wine as the first – a vintage port from 1952 put into 5-gallon glass car boy in 1955. But while the first bottle was moved from car boy to bottle in 1974, this second remained in car boy longer, then bottled in 1987. Incredibly, the two wines had each spent exactly the same amount of time in glass, only the size of the glass had changed. The contrast between the two wines considering such a seamingly small change, and the discovery of their provenance and history was remarkable. It’s an experience I still reflect on often today – the importance of simple choices, the details, in relation to what develops later, the second wine such a testament to both experimentation and patience.

Returning all the way back to the very first Niepoort port, the Imperador, this week was inspired and charming. I’ll admit that while I admire the Imperador, it didn’t reach a place in the Pantheon for me as the 1952-87 Garrafeira did – one of the god heads of wine – but even so, it’s an experience I treasure. I learned about the history of Niepoort from tasting it, and it gave me great palate sense for how a wine like that ages – easily.

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