To Frankenstein Wines

When Portuguese winemaker Dirk Niepoort made his first still wine, the Robustus 1990, his father told him that his wine was “uma merda” (shit), the worst thing he had ever tasted and proceeded to sell off all barrels except one. The Niepoort master blender and family friend, José Nogueira, also told him the wine smelt awful, it was too heavy and acidic with austere tannins. In essence, it was a monster. His wine received poor reception and negative criticism from wine experts. Dirk mentions in a TedxO’Porto session that he was considered crazy and absurd, and people laughed at him for trying to produce still table wine. I can only assume that he was probably advised to stick to what the Niepoorts did best, sweet fortified Port. After all, the Niepoorts are a family of port makers and négociants dating back to the late 1800s. And Port wine has had a huge international success since the British began exporting it to England in the latter half of the 18th century, so why bother experimenting? But Dirk recognized the gift that was available in Douro, not just for Port wine. And so he decided to bottle the remaining wine, regardless of its perceived monstrosity, so that his son could understand what was his: a sacred gift, one could say.

Dirk Niepoort is one of the many exceptional winemakers that are currently in Portugal. These winemakers are pushing the envelope when it comes to winemaking: they are experimenting with different fermentations vessels, temperatures, and length of maturation, they are growing grapes at different altitudes and different regions, they are blending all sorts of varietals together, and they are collaborating with other winemakers for mutual growth. In essence, I believe they are discovering the beauty of crossing the threshold into the unknown. And with each individual who crosses this invisible line they may be met with disapproval, rejection and frustration. Sometimes our greatest obstacles are the people that are closest to us. They can be our mother, or our best friend, our mentors or our old friend Stan. They can be our spouses or even ourselves. They are the ones that want to support us by advising us to stay on the known path, but in effect, they hold us back and limit us. Joseph Campbell calls these individuals the Threshold Guardians: the individuals that test us to make sure we – as heroes in our life’s journey – are worthy of crossing the threshold and into a new realm. Are we worthy of the difficulties that most surely will come ahead and, when they do, are we prepared to endure the (perceived) momentary failures?

It takes a truly courageous person to stay grounded and focused when our external world shows nothing but disapproval and our main opponents are the ones we love. Despite his frustrations and bearing the negative feedback for the Robustus, Dirk Niepoort was persistent in his vision to produce a still Portuguese quality wine and unrelenting in his quest. He had a vision that went beyond the tried and tested, the known and the conventional. Nowadays, Dirk Niepoort is one of the most renown and well-respected winemakers in Portugal. His wines, including the Robustus 1990, have achieved outstanding success internationally as well as in his native home of Portugal. Year after year he continues to make top quality still wines from the Douro, and has expanded his production area to include the Dao and Bairrada regions. And of course, he also makes exceptional Port wines too. But for me, what stands out is not just his exceptional wines (see below for tasting profile of a few), but his story and his journey. His story is inspiring because it reminds us that by pushing our limits and confronting our threshold guardians we can actually start living. We have a choice: to listen to those we love because we believe they known what is best for us but by doing so remain confined to a one-dimensional life, or we can charge on and savour in the beauty of producing a shitty Frankenstein wine.

If you are feeling Dirk’s story and want to try out some of his wines, here are a few recommendations:

NIEPOORT REDOMA BRANCO 2014

Elegant and fresh white wine made from a blend of various grape varieties from the Douro. On the nose, it has wonderful aromas of stone fruit, citrus fruits, as well as stony minerality. On the palate, this wine has refreshing acidity with medium body and flavour intensity of citrus fruits, white flowers, delicate minerality and a long finish. It is a truly elegant, classy wine.

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NIEPOORT BATUTA TINTO 2013

Another beautiful wine from the Douro, the Batuta 2013 is made from a variety of red grapes from “Vinhas Velhas” (old vines). It has a stunning deep ruby colour with intense aromas of wild berries, ripe red plums, and hints black pepper. On the palate it has firm structure, medium acidity with smooth tannins. It is a wine showing great complexity, flavours that linger in the mouth for quite some time.  It has the ability age and develop well.
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