Early July and the magnificent Douro is probably bumping with tourists. As a tourist destination it is well-worth the visit for its unparalleled beauty, breathtaking views and an abundance of nature, but for wine students, aficionados, geeks and freaks it is a definite must. The oldest demarcated wine region in the world, there is so much to learn and thousands of quintas (wine estates) to explore. But, in my humble opinion, one of the very first stops should be Niepoort Vinhos’ Quinta de Nápoles.
A household name in Portugal, Niepoort Vinhos was established in 1842 as a Port wine négociant (merchant) and shipper. In the past twenty years or so, the company has led the way in what some call the “Portuguese wine revolution”. The Douro region, once known just for the production of sweet fortified wine (Port wine) is now internationally recognized as a premium wine-producing region for dry table wines as well. At the helm of this revolution, one man, Dirk Niepoort, has fought the good fight to make this happen. Without formal oenology training, but with vision and stubborn persistence Dirk changed minds with his belief in producing table wines. But not just any ol’wine. His vision was that of quality, elegance, power, finesse, ageability – essentially world-class wines. A fascinating story of the underdog, like the Rocky Balboa of Portuguese wines, from perceived defeat (read about his Robustus 1990) to deserved victory, Dirk succeeded in his quest to make beautiful, knock-out wines.
When I visited Quinta de Nápoles this past May with a friend, I was left inspired and energized. Tucked away along the banks of the Tedo River, which flows southeast from the Douro River, the winery itself sits undisturbed atop a beautiful hill of terraced vineyards. Impressive in size, construction and functionality, its minimalist design leaves a maximum impact. Designed by Austrian architect Andreas Burghardt, with the direction of Dirk Niepoort, the winery is meant to work with nature instead of against it. It is energy-efficient and sustainable, using local materials and powered by solar panels. With thick slate walls and carved right into the hill, the winery is naturally cool and relies very little on air conditioning. On top of that, the winemaking process is done in the most logical and energy-efficient of ways: a gravity-system. During harvest the grapes are received at the top of the hill, in what appears to be the extension of the visitor parking lot. Small holes on the ground line the reception area where the grape clusters slide in and fall down to the next floor into tanks or barrels for fermentation. Without the need to keep pumping the grape must from one tank to another, the grapes/juice travel from one floor to the next in line with the various stages of winemaking, maturation and ageing. Our charismatic and good-spirited guide, Spanish winemaker Carmelo Peña Santana, had to deal with our oohing and aahing as we descended down the different floors. But it is the massive stone lying bare and smack dab in the middle of the winery that reminds you just how innovative Niepoort is in his ideas and visions. Achieving the perfect balance between simplicity and sophisticated innovation is not an easy feat but Dirk sure makes it look easy.
Out in the vineyards the same logic of working with nature and respecting nature influences both the farming at Niepoort-owned vineyards and those they work with. Of red varietals only, there is a total of 28ha of vines at Quinta de Nápoles and another 9ha at the adjacent property of Quinta do Carril. Planted in the difficult schist soils of the Douro, these vines vary in altitude and age (between 30 and more than 80 years old). White varietals are purchased from neighbouring properties and all are farmed organically, certified with SATIVA since 2012. Biodynamic farming is also practiced and winemaking is of minimal intervention. The idea, as Santana told us, “Is to drink what nature provides”. And natures tastes real good at Quinta de Nápoles. Definitely the most memorable wines of the visit were the barrel samples of the white-blend Tiara, which was elegant, precise with a long stone-fruit finish, and the seductive Charme, with the beautiful mix of red berries, earthiness and lovely silk tannins. Our visit ended with a wonderful lunch with Niepoort winemakers, staff and other happy visitors along with a memorable meal (excellent Bacalhau Espiritual) accompanied by various Niepoort wines.
There is a sense of playfulness and joie de vivre from the Niepoort team which somehow finds its way into Niepoort wines. From the entry level Fabulous wines all the way through to the premium Projectos wines, they are easy to understand and even easier to appreciate by even the non-wine nerds. Dirk’s story got me from the get-go (feel free to read my very first post, To Frankenstein Wines), and my visit to Quinta de Nápoles only added to my admiration. But it is the continued revolutionary spirit of Niepoort Vinhos as a whole that makes a lasting impression. Although it’s been confirmed (to my knowledge) that Dirk has decided to leave the company and work on other projects, I’m sure the company will continue to do what they do best: make fine, world-class wines.
For those currently visiting Portugal and want to discover more about Niepoort Vinhos, there will be an Open-House in Vila Nova de Gaia on July 16th. Information is available on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/603308753171061/
For my Canadian friends, Niepoort wines can be found in Ontario, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Quebec, as well as various restaurants in these provinces. Here’s the link: http://www.niepoort-vinhos.com/en/offline-shops/
Cheers and happy Thursday!