Port and the wisdom of tradition

Innovator Dirk Niepoort has returned to tradition at his vintage port single vineyard, Pisca, in Portugal’s Douro Valley. For publication in week starting 25 April 2016.

There’s the port industry – and then there’s Dirk Niepoort. He’s cerebral and thoughtful, funny and self-deprecating. He’s the inspiration for many of the up-and-coming young winemakers in the Douro Valley, and he’s the innovator behind some of the most striking, singular table wines from the region – Batuta, Redoma, Tiara and Charme.

But with a new port project in hand Niepoort is going, in his phrase, “the other way”. He says the trend for vintage port in the last 30 years has been to bottle earlier and earlier – to maximise fruit – and to work with stainless steel and younger vineyards. “Winemakers today don’t give a shit about tradition,” he says, adding that he’s not interested in fruit: he’s interested in freshness. “And I’m paranoid about over-ripeness.”

Niepoort’s inspiration for delving into the past was acquisition of a vineyard called Pisca that he believes is the best vineyard in the Douro, with the exception of one other vineyard that he doesn’t name. Grapes from the Pisca vineyard have played an important part in the house’s vintage port for the past 40-50 years. Niepoort had always been trying to understand how the first two barrels from this grower were always the best, and so he went to visit him.

Niepoort discovered that these two barrels were from earlier picked grapes from two parts of the vineyard: earlier picked but earlier ripening, too. This was his first lesson, and he’s now particular in picking three times within a window of about three weeks. What he also discovered on that day was that the grower, by now quite elderly, wanted to sell. Niepoort, obviously, put in an offer and the sale was completed in 2003. He got there just in time, he says, because the very old vineyard was almost dying; and many vines needed replanting. Locals believe that the vineyard is pre-phylloxera, but he’s not sure about that.

The second critical lesson Niepoort learned from “old” growers was not to taste the wine until the January after the harvest. At this point winemakers have about three months to assess the wine and think about what they plan to do with it. The fermented juice then closes down for another nine months.

In what others might consider a “dinosaur” style, Niepoort has now embraced the practice of ageing vintage port prior to bottling. In the Pisca vineyard, which he says has a very strong personality, he now bottles at the peak, when the wine reaches perfection. There’s a problem with this method: When it reaches perfection, it immediately starts to deteriorate. In 2008, Niepoort was unable to bottle two pipes, for example. He believes that the use of pipes results in wine that is more complex and stable, in terms both of fruit and colour. The term “pipe” comes from the Portuguese word for barrel, pipa. A pipe is a long barrel with tapered end. Sizes vary but typically hold about 720 standard size 750ml bottles.

Niepoort says that Pisca is a classic port vineyard, adding that he has no idea what it is planted with. South-facing, it is mid-slope so very sunny and without much wind. He says that port likes such exaggerated conditions, but that these are entirely unsuited to table wine production. So, given his love of the fresh, the three pickings are critical, and so is the blending. In 2008, for example, the third picking was not even used. “Blending is an art, and when you have the possibility of blending, you always achieve something better.” He says that the component parts of the blend may not even be recognisable in the final wine, and that the final blend is definitely larger than the sum of its parts. One plus one does not equal two – it might equal seven.

Niepoort has been producing single-vineyard Pisca since 2007 and since 2008 it has been marketed under the name of Bioma within the broader Niepoort stable. Niepoort noted some compromises for the 2007 vintage, but says that the 2008 is the “real McCoy” in terms of his vision for this vineyard. It is lushly fruity, with red and black fruits, as well as being fresh with slate-like mouthfeel.

Niepoort likes the 2009 – a very hot year – but prefers the vibrant 2011 which combines the power of 2009 with the freshness of 2008. He’s probably still more keen on Niepoort vintage port compared with Bioma, he admits, but Bioma is certainly a singular vision. He’s long been engaging with organic and biodynamic agriculture, and since 2012 has been working with a biodynamic spirit for Bioma. It shows as a very strong floral character on the 2013, but Niepoort says he likes spirit with character rather than neutrality, and will continue experimenting with it – in the same way that he’s experimenting with port traditions.

Words: 835

Categories: Not home, Portugal, wine

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