Niepoort Part 1: Niepoort Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port Vertical
I caught up with Dirk Niepoort twice in April, first for the launch of a new Douro red, the improbably named Clos du Crappe, second for a vertical tasting of Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port. Here I report on the Bioma vertical. In part two, I’ll report on Clos du Crappe and write up my picks of Niepoort’s latest releases.
A singular Port
“From one vineyard, not even a quinta,” Niepoort Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port bears eloquent witness to how Douro Port shippers became landowners. A process which has seen vineyards subjected to ever closer scrutiny. With winning results.
Niepoort Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port is sourced from Vinha da Pisca in Pinhão. The 7.5ha vineyard has, for some 40-50 years, been the backbone of Niepoort Vintage Port (a classic multi-quinta blend); the vines are 80+ years old. According to Dirk Niepoort, “7000 litres of must went straight into Niepoort Vintage Port, so it was obviously special.”
Soon after joining the company in 1987, Niepoort visited Vinha da Pisca to take cuttings for Quinta de Nápoles – the vineyard which he had persuaded his father they should buy (prior to that, Niepoort owned no vineyards). Though he described Vinha da Pisca as (at that time) “my favourite vineyard in a way,” Niepoort told us “I never saw it again.” Well, not for another decade and a half.
Meantime, he had noticed that the first two toneis (casks) of “always extraordinary” Port from the grower who owned Vinha da Pisca were always the best. And when production increased, the third toneis was “especially good.” As anyone who knows him will tell you, Niepoort is hyper-curious. Setting out to find out why, he discovered that the grower’s toneis were always a blend of two vineyards. It was Pisca which produced the “much riper” fruit – the best of the best.
So when this elderly grower told Niepoort he wanted to sell Pisca in 2003, he agreed to take a look, buying it “pretty much the same day.” Since 2005, Niepoort studied the vineyard in greater detail and has re-invigorated it, re-planting dead vines and managing it organically. With production up, in 2007 Niepoort released the first Bioma, (then called Pisca). Bioma has since been made in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Niepoort seems confident that 2015 will be declared too.
Wood can be good
Bioma Vintage Port is not only distinguished within Niepoort’s portfolio by reason of coming from a single vineyard, but also because Niepoort wanted to produce a style of Vintage Port “more akin to the very best English-bottled Vintage Ports of 1970 and before.” In other words, aged in the Douro (albeit modern conditions are better) and aged 100% in small wood (traditional 550l Port ‘pipas’) for longer – three years, not two.
Niepoort was pretty vocal about his distaste for the modern tendency to bottle earlier and earlier – “for fruit…to impress journalists and buyers” – he said adding “I don’t like fruity, I like fresh wines.” In his opinion, Ports intensify and the colour stabilises with time in barrel, though he admits that, in 2008, he over-did it and two of the four pipas earmarked for Bioma had “already gone in the wrong direction [i.e. lost their freshness – a quality which Niepoort prizes dearly].”
The law requires Vintage Ports to be bottled between the second and third year after harvest. For Niepoort, the advantage of longer ageing in wood is the different tannin structure – one which the winemaker believes results in a Port which is “much more precise, not driven by fruit or jamminess, but something else.” According to Niepoort, most, including the Symingtons bottle at the beginning of the year, Taylors bottle in July, Niepoort in October for Niepoort Vintage Port and in December or January for Niepoort Bioma.
Incidentally, Niepoort blends Niepoort Vintage Port (which still includes Port from Pisca) prior to making Bioma Vintage Port.
Returning to the theme of freshness, I asked if Vinha de Pisca is a site which naturally produces the freshness the winemaker so eagerly seeks. Niepoort replied “it’s not especially fresh at all, in fact a disaster for making red wines…very dark, Parker wines, with 14.5% – impressive but undrinkable.”
Rather it is a classic Port site – south-facing, so it sees lots of sun and, with not much wind, it is very hot. The key to securing freshness in Pisca is twofold. First, because the site is hot, grapes ripen early (less hang time in which to lose acidity). Second, the picking time. Niepoort picks for Bioma in three stages spread over three weeks. In 2008 (one of my picks of the tasting) the third picking didn’t make the cut. Niepoort reckons “what makes it more perfect is the first picking.” A point well made by the 2015 samples we tasted, albeit the second pick came after rain.
At the end of the day, Niepoort reckons that “there are so many [Port winemaking] options now that the question is what do I like? Perfect for me is elegance and quality of tannins over colour or richness.”
For each vintage, the grapes were trodden entirely by foot with 100% stems. Vintage reports are courtesy of Niepoort.
Niepoort Pisca Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2007
Vintage report: After several dry winters, the 2006/2007 winter was most useful in replenishing dwindling water reserves. In 2007, the first parcels of Pisca were picked on 20th September and fermented at Niepoort’s historic winery in Vale de Mendiz.
Tasting note: A classic Vintage Port year. Markedly paler than the others (even accounting for age) with an open knit red berry and cherry nose, liquorice and a touch of chocolate. Its attractive sinewy tannins and delicate minerality – balancing/fresh-seeming qualities – bear closest resemblance to the following vintages. Enjoyable; just seems a little evolved, especially alongside the 2008. Niepoort says a bit of compromise entered into the winemaking of the 2007 – it was bottled earlier and bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia. 20% abv; 103.4g/l residual sugar.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2008
Vintage report: In 2008, the Douro was blessed with rather cooler conditions, and later harvest, which were excellent conditions for the concept of Bioma “Vinha Velha”.
Tasting note: This was a relatively mild year. If I recall correctly, Cristiano Van Zeller told me they even had to leaf pluck to ensure grapes completed the ripening process. But I like 2008s very much and this inky Port reflects the fresh black fruits and spice which I associate with the best. It features black cherry and currant with an attractively lacy herbal/dried herb backdrop, pronounced liquorice spice and a fine but very persistent charge of powdery, mineral, iron filing tannins – love those tannins! They cleave to the palate, embedding flavours and giving this Port terrific line, elegance and energy (as opposed to exuberance). A Port of imposing structure and intensity is delivered with elegance and panache. Still very youthful and developing (or not developing even) exactly as I’d imagined when I first tasted it in 2011 (my review here). 20% abv; 104.4g/l residual sugar.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2009
Vintage report: In 2009, the influence of the weather was marked by the very low rainfall during the growing season and the extreme heat from mid August and throughout most of the harvest.
Tasting note: A shade lighter than the 2008, this comes from a vintage which I am not so keen on. A hot year produced relatively broad, bold, jammy wines. Niepoort observed, “Port likes exaggerated conditions – very hot, very dry…for me 2009 was too much of a good thing…the style of the house is less important than the style of the vintage.” Though I confess I tagged this as ‘slim’ in my first taste review in 2012, it has evidently put on weight since. The comparison with the 2008 does it no favours. This is a flamboyant Bioma – fleshy and corpulent, but it lacks the majesty and grace, also the nuance, of the best vintages – 2008 and 2011. The alcohol seems a little pokier. If you like your Ports generous and robust, this is for you but, in this line up, from this producer, it is, as Niepoort would say, ‘not my cup of tea.’ 21% abv; 93g/l residual sugar.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2011
Vintage report: The agricultural year in 2011 will be remembered for relatively low precipitation during the winter and an unusually early bud burst in March, along with a sudden extreme heat in June which literally led to burnt clusters in exposed and early varieties such as Tinta Barroca. Although July and the end of August were relatively cool with some light precipitation in the final days of August and first days of September, temperatures picked up and the harvest had to be accelerated to avoid berry shrivel.
Tasting note: Like the 2009 in its youth this wine has a beautiful floral nose with pronounced, dancing violets and, in 2011, orange blossom and peppery notes too – quite exotic (notes which remind me of Fonseca 2011, a favourite, though this Port is not as fleshy). As you’d expect from this much feted classic vintage it is ample in everything, with impressive structure to support its concentrated black currant and red cherry fruit – a firm drive of acidity and backbone of tannin. It finishes long, with stone-washed gravelly minerality. Very impressive and very consistent with my first taste in 2013. 21% abv; 110g/l residual sugar.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2013
Vintage report: The winter of 2012/2013 was important in replenishing water levels after several dry winters. The rainfall carried on in the spring, with March registering the highest rainfall in the last 50 years; precipitation from November to the end of July (564 mm) in the Cima Corgo was 1% up on the average of the last few decades. The relatively high level of rain and low temperatures until June (there was still snow on the Marão as late as May!) meant that the vegetative cycle of the vine was delayed.
The weather warmed up dramatically in the last 10 days of June and remained so until the beginning of September with thunderstorms and some light rain overnight from the 4th to 5th of September. The hot weather led to some burnt clusters on exposed vines; the harvest started on the 12th September under perfect weather conditions and the last grapes from the Pisca vineyard arrived on 26th September -just in time- before heavy rain on 27th September. (the decision to start the Pisca vineyard early, supplying grapes for Bioma – certainly paid off).
Tasting note: In 2012, Niepoort didn’t declare Bioma because the organic spirit was too “stinky.” With time he discovered it integrated well (the 2012 would-be Bioma will end up in a crusted Port which will be released in two years). The same spirit was used in this vintage and, I must say, I found it difficult to get beyond the fish oil/wood leached character. No doubt I shall eat my words in a couple of years. Let’s see! It’s certainly has this vintage’s hallmark freshness – note the lower alcohol by volume. 19.5% abv; 109g/l residual sugar.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2015 – sample Cask 15 (Tonel)
Vintage report: there was much early ‘declaration’ excitement about this vintage (see my overview Douro report here) though, last week, Sogrape’s Luis Sottomayor told me he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
Tasting note: Niepoort reckons he made his greatest Port in 2015 – “better than 2011, with more perfume, complexity and concentration.” This sample gives an indication of why. It has much more about it than SC/A15, with beautiful florals – violets – fresh, lingering red cherry and blackcurrant, fine, stone-washed mineral tannins which weave their wave playfully through the palate,teasing out a long finish. It was picked much earlier than the sample below and, critically, in dry conditions.
Niepoort Bioma Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port 2015 – sample SC/A15 (I think stainless steel)
Very sappy, light and floral, the tannins currently not so well integrated as Cask 15 – this seems a bit of a Port of two halves, the tannins coming into play in part two. It does have freshness to commend it – perhaps a useful blending component then?