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First taste: Niepoort Vintage Port 2019, with Niepoort Vintage Port 2000

In the new normal world of Vintage Port, declarations seem to be coming ever thicker and faster.  Although Niepoort did not declare a classic Vintage Port blend in 2018 or 2016, it has now surpassed the three vintages a decade ‘rule of thumb’ in two consecutive decades.  Niepoort declared its hand early for the 2019 Vintage, on 11 March.  Henceforth, toot the trumpets, Dirk Niepoort’s birthday – 11 March – will be declaration day at Niepoort.

Since then, the Sogevinus group has declared two classic Vintage Ports from Cálem and Barros, together with two Single Quinta Vintages – Kopke Quinta de São Luiz 2019 and Burmester Quinta do Arnozelo 2019.   Notes to follow once tasted.

Dirk Niepoort showcased Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 alongside Niepoort Vintage Port 2000 in a live online tasting, alongside his son Daniel, Niepoort’s new Head Winemaker and Nick Delaforce, who is in charge of Port winemaking.  Plus another familiar face, Beatriz Machado, formerly Wine Director of The Yeatman and an esteemed member of team Portugal at Decanter World Wine Awards.

Below you will find my notes on the wines and a summary of the discussion.

Niepoort Vintage Port 2017 versus 2019

I noticed a recent spike on my post about Niepoort Vintage Port 2017.  It coincided with it being proclaimed Best Port of the World in the Best Wines of the World Competition.  As I reported in that post, Dirk Niepoort has himself has declared Niepoort Vintage Port 2017 his best ever and “possibly our best since 1945.”  Addressing this head on, he described the 2017 as “closest to perfection” and 2019 as having “maybe more personality, maybe a bit richer, riper, but not having the balance of 2017….A bigger style of wine, but it is within the Niepoort logic.” 

Interestingly, speaking about the vintage conditions, Delaforce said that there were lots of similarities between the two vintages, but 2017 was hotter during harvest, with slightly lower yields.  In 2019, analytically, “the fruit was more perfect,” resulting in fewer corrections of acidity.

Proof in the pudding?  I tasted Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 on a Friday and over the weekend.  My review of Niepoort Vintage Port 2017 was based on tasting three samples during May and June 2019, when it had a couple of months more bottle age.  The two vintages share dazzling aromatics.  But I found the 2017 Vintage Port more muscular, structured and intense, with better balance.  It had more charisma at a similar stage.

Not that Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 is any slouch!  As Delaforce observed, “the elegance and finesse of Niepoort is all there, still perhaps coming together.”  It will be bottled in June/July.

The Niepoort logic

The so-called Niepoort logic revolves around balance, taking its inspiration from the 1945, 1955 and 1970 Vintage Ports, rather than more recent styles.  For Niepoort, Vintage Port has become too forward and fruity.  Partly, he said, because “today it is made with a lot of younger vineyards, in stainless steel.” (On the other hand, others – notably the Symingtons and Fladgate Partnership – contend that younger block planted vineyards enhance precision picking and allow for greater control over blending, with benefits for balance).

Struck by a compliment Robert Mondavi paid him some years ago about an older Vintage Port from Niepoort, Dirk emphasised it is “very important,” that Vintage Port starts sweet and finishes dry.  It is, he clarified, a reference to perceptions about a Port’s sweetness rather than actual sweetness.  Expressing it vividly, Dirk observed, “when you taste the 2019, you have a generosity, a complexity, a richness.  You have everything on the sweet side, but then a broom comes and cleans with acid, tannins or a combination of them all.”   In consequence, the finish is not cloying.

Since 2005, he has made a concerted effort to to produce Vintage Ports that are “a little less sweet and, when you drink it, you want to drink more.”  “We are really trying to exclude overripe grapes because we don’t want pruney, overripe Port.”  With balance and harmony and huge concentration, young Vintage Ports can taste good now and age for 50 years, he asserted.

In fact, compared with the Ports from the 60s, 70s & 80s, from which he singled out “1977  from us a benchmark, 1963 OK, 1960 very good,”  he would like to believe that Niepoort 2017 and 2019 “will be better than all of them….on the level of the 1970, 1945 and 1927….”

As for the locus of this balance, look no further than the Douro’s trump cards. “If you know the game, you can make something exceptional,” said Niepoort, identifying the Douro’s huge number of varieties, for starters.  Niepoort reckons that Niepoort Vintage Ports perhaps features 50 different grapes.

Then the Douro Valley has lots of terroirs and vineyards.  Niepoort and his blender, José Rodrigo Nogueira, represent the fifth generation of their families to work at Niepoort.  The knowledge pool is deep.  “One of the trademarks of Niepoort is knowing through history [empirical knowledge] and respecting history,” said Dirk.

Having said look no further than the Douro’s trump cards, returning to harvest dates, the human factor is also at work.  Not only is Niepoort excluding overripe grapes, it is actively including a component of grapes picked at around the time as those for Niepoort Charme (the Douro DOC red wine). Theoretically, we are picking too early for Port, said Dirk, however “for us, natural acidity and a green component – doing ‘the wrong thing’ for Port – adds complexity.”  Niepoort does the same for Bioma (Single Quinta) Vintage Port too.  Picking a bit early “really makes the difference,” says Dirk.

The new rule of thumb

On the topic of more regular Vintage Port declarations, Dirk attributes it to a combination of factors, including climate change.  Because, he said, it has become clear that Vintage Port years are extreme years, he does not believe climate change is such a big problem for Port.

Even if maturation is blocked before the harvest, said Dirk, Port likes it “too hot, too dry, too everything.” If disease ruins flowering, it aids concentration.  Boons for Port, but not for Douro wine, he added.

He also observed that, with fewer declarations in the past, houses “bottled a lot more quantity.”  On the face of it, that would explain the difference between Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 (28,000 bottles from a year described as seeing a return to more balanced yields) and Niepoort Vintage Port 2000 (40,000 bottles), given the latter is sourced from a very low-yielding year, when Niepoort worked with fewer growers.

In the past, he said, Niepoort worked with five growers for Vintage Port, producing perhaps 15 different wines or toneis.  Nowadays, Niepoort is putting together a blend from perhaps 70 different possible components.  Niepoort may be bottling a smaller quantity, but it comes from a wider base of blending options.

Whilst there are technical ways, he said, to make better wine, “at Niepoort we are backward.”  We use basic methods, “with nothing special, except that the attention to the vineyards and detail is very good.”

Whilst Niepoort down played criticism about the quality of spirit in the past nowadays, he said, “we buy what we want in much smaller quantities and it is better.”  Delaforce added, “we choose a fine style…mainly buying French spirit from pot stills, and buying locally in the Douro, but always in a vein of neutral, not perhaps as complex as we’d like.”

Wood is good

My geek question concerned the different approach to Niepoort’s classic Vintage Port blend and Bioma.  The latter spends around three years in wood versus two years.  Having tasted older Vintage Ports which were bottled later, Niepoort believes they are different and better.

“Port is not a spirit, it’s a living wine and there is a time when it is really uninteresting, like the 2019 now,” which he described as “in a phase of growing, getting more structure, colour and fruit,” getting better and better.

Ideally, he said, we should wait until it is at top.  The problem is, once at the top, the quality drops “very dramatically.” As Niepoort found to its cost with Bioma 2008.  Two precious pipes had to be excluded from the final blend.

So for the classic Niepoort Vintage Port blend (which is made in greater quantity), said Niepoort, “we’re working on the cautious side [which must be a first!].” For Bioma, the team taste it every day, he added, to ensure they catch it at the top.

Delaforce drew parallels with the practice of English wine merchants in the past, who themselves aged pipes and barrels of Ports for longer in their cold cellars.  Whilst Bioma spends longer in wood, “because we believe oxidation is a good thing,” it is also aged in the Douro in cooler conditions than is the norm for Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Tasting notes

Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 (half bottle, final blend sample)

Niepoort vintage report: Following three successive small years, 2019 saw a return to more balanced yields in the vineyard. The average rainfall was low in the winter months but there were compensating factors.  In the case of Niepoort, the Cima Corgo subregion enjoyed unseasonably cool summer months.  Secondly the timely rainfall on the 26/27th of August was invaluable, allowing fruit maturity to go to completion.

At Vale de Mendiz, harvest started on the 2nd of September under fine conditions and the last grapes were received in the first week of October. All years are remembered for different and unique reasons, and 2019 will surely go down as a year with amazing natural, acid driven, balanced musts and very cool weather, reminiscent of the elegant year of 2008 – the perfect conditions in which the Niepoort style thrives!

Winemaking: All the components for 2019 Vintage Port were trodden by foot in circular granite lagares with 100% of stems. The wines were racked soon after harvest, aged in “tonéis” (large oak vats) in the Douro over the winter, and then moved to the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia in the Spring of 2020.  Aged in wood for two years.

My tasting note: An inky hue, but it moves freely in the glass, throwing a purple cloak.  Profusely aromatic, with a marked citrus-accent – bergamot, orange blossom – and flashes of grapefruit citrus to the acid-driven palate.   The fruit is plush and succulent, with black cherry and berry taking the lead, some raspberry too.  In line with that ease of flow in the glass, it feels lively in the mouth – fine and fresh, lithe and slippery.  Hums with black pepper going through.  Acidity is the arrowhead, with a tail of fine tannins – a plume.  Hints of gingerbread, sappy cedar and scented violets emerge with air.  On days two and three, the fruit plushes out, similarly the tannins – still fine, but more mouth-coating.  More to this than initially meets the’ tip of the iceberg’ eye. Very promising, with gorgeous aromatics and lovely detail.  Oh, and it finishes ‘dry.’  I couldn’t help but observe that, analytically, it is a fair bit drier than the 2000 at 88g/l residual sugar versus 103g/l residual sugar.  Around 100g/l residual sugar looks like the norm for recent vintages up to and including 2015; the 2017 Vintage Port had 89g/l.   Niepoort Vintage Port 2019 was sourced from 80 to 100-year-old vineyards in the Cima Corgo.  19.5%, Dry extract 116.5G/DM3 Residual Sugar 88G/DM3 pH 3.46, TA 5G/DM28,000 bottles produced.

Niepoort Vintage Port 2000 (75cl bottle)

Vintage report: I could not find a vintage report from Niepoort, however 2000 was a highly regarded, generally declared vintage, known for its super low yields and corresponding concentration owing to disease pressure in May and June, followed by hot dry weather.  So quite different vintage conditions from 2019.  And it shows in the analysis.

Winemaking: It was created from low-yielding old vines in the Cima Corgo region of Douro Valley. The grapes were trodden in “lagares” and later the Port was matured in large wooden vats and also in barrels at Niepoort’s lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia for two years.

My tasting note:  I failed to gain any purchase on the cork of the original half bottle.  It disintegrated, raising question marks about the cork’s performance.  The fruit seemed stripped and a little astringent.  I’m glad I raised my concern with Raymond Reynolds, Niepoort’s UK importer.  He told me this vintage is showing really well and sent me another (75cl) sample.  How very much better it is (even taking into account half bottles develop faster).  Still with the damson jam, red cherry and kirsch I detected in the half bottle, but with oh so much more swagger.  Generous and shapely on the attack and mid-palate – quite sumptuous, with roasted and dried fig, liquorice, milk chocolate and a hint of esteva.  In short, it tastes like a Port from a low yielding hot dry year.  Yet it has a freshness and persistence to its core, which makes for a longer, more precise and penetrating finish than the swagger suggests.  It has bark and bite, suggesting that, for all its generosity, it has a few decades in it yet.  Lovely.  Thanking you Mr Reynolds.  Niepoort Vintage Port 2000 was sourced from Vinha da Pisca, Vale do Pinhão and Ferrão vineyards in the Cima Corgo (averaging over 60-years-old).   20.5%, Dry extract 141.3 G/DM3 Residual Sugar 103 G/DM3 pH 3.59, TA 4.2 G/DM40,000 bottles produced  £65/bottle at Fareham Wine Cellar (75cl).

 

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