Niepoort Nat’ Cool, original nat cool & ‘cha da pipa’
A couple of weeks ago I was in Oporto for my first tasting and lunch at The Factory House, the bastion of the British shippers. Sticking ever so loosely (loose leafly even) with the British theme, I thought I’d tee up for it with a visit to the Chá Camélia tea plantation in Vila do Conde, just north of Oporto. It was planted by Dirk Niepoort and his partner Nina Gruntkowski. Unfortunately, a five hour flight delay put paid to that but, that evening, I did get to taste Chá Camélia’s teas and the first wines to be made under Niepoort’s new Nat’ Cool label.
Let me tell you about them (and do watch out for my upcoming post about holidaying in the Azores, including a walk around a tea plantation).
Chá Camélia – Portuguese tea
The idea for the visit came up in March, when I attended Niepoort’s Garrafeira Vintage Port vertical tasting at Porto Extravaganza. Gruntkowski and I forged the plan as she told me about the plantation over a few cups of the Japanese green tea which she imports.
With my nose in the caddy of large, dry leaves, Chá Camélia’s very first production of estate green tea smelled faintly of chocolate and earth. Vital, rather than processed. Thrilled with it, Gruntkowski told me it tastes even better the second or third time around. How very eco!
I’m no expert, but I found this light, yellowy brown-coloured green tea deeply sustaining. Nourishing if you will. Descriptions which, funnily enough, came up again when I tasted Niepoort White Mug Vinho Verde – a Nat’ Cool wine. The faintly earthy, mulchy note (which, I should add, doesn’t detract from its purity) and subtle, round hint of nutty chocolate follows through in the mouth. Though the flavours strike me as savoury – on the vegetal not aromatic side of the green tea spectrum – it has great vitality and impetus/length. And I can confirm that, second time around, it gains impetus. It’s the chicken soup of green teas!
If this ‘regular’ tea was sustaining, the organic oolong tea which Gruntkowski sourced from Taiwan and has aged in a 1987 Niepoort Colheita Tawny Port barrel is truly fortifying. With delicious nuances of brandy, dried fruit and nuts, this tawny-coloured ‘cha da pipa’ (Port-tea, I call it, by name and profile) has plenty of substance. Terrific palate presence, without relying on tannins. So it’s rich, deep and mellow, with no astringency. Magic! You can’t help but grin as the flavours flicker animatedly across the tongue like a flame.
Niepoort Nat’Cool Wines
Niepoort’s Nat’Cool project really sums up what Dirk Niepoort is about. A pusher of boundaries and, at least as importantly, a generous mentor and collaborator who is keen to take others with him on his journey to raise the quality and profile – the sheer excitement factor – of Portuguese wines. In fact the Nat’ Cool portfolio will include wines made by other producers from Portugal and beyond.
So it was typical of Niepoort that he asked Luís Pedro Cândido Silva (pictured middle, with his Nat’ Cool wine Primata) to explain the project to me. This well-travelled young Portuguese winemaker studied oenology in Portugal, then Tarragona and has crammed in vintages at Niepoort, in New Zealand (Villa Maria), South Africa (Klein Constantia), France (Pommery), Germany (Philipp Kettern) and Amercia (Forgeron Cellars). This is his description of Nat’ Cool:
“Nat’ Cool was a project in Dirk’s head to try and make easy-drinking wines, all with the same philosophy around aromatic intensity, natural acidity, low extract and low alcohol. They should be wines which you enjoy drinking and don’t think too much about – it’s about the lightness and freshness and being as natural as you can. But it’s not in the current of natural wines, because it is not so fundamental. To transmit tthat the wines are easy drinking and fresh we bottle them in a litre bottle, because you always want a glass more of a drinkable wine.”
In fact, I so enjoyed Nat’ Cool Niepoort White Mug Vinho Verde 2015 that, not only did I have a second ‘mug’ (no spitting here natch), but I also forgot to take any notes. What can I say, it’s an arresting wine! My first mug was clearer than the second – this is a cloudy, traditional style. But if you’re thinking eek, cloudy cider style of natural wine (and I must admit, I was not a fan of Niepoort’s rather stinky, reduced Clos du Crappe, so I was a bit apprehensive) worry ye not. This surprisingly powerful, sustaining Vinho Verde has great mouthfeel, body and flavour wed to vibrant, coursing acidity. I loved the way it cleaved saltily to the palate, as if to make sure you savour every last drop of that lip-smacking litre bottle. It begs to be drunk and enjoyed!
Cândido Silva’s wine, Nat’ Cool Primata Touriga Nacional 2016, weighs in at a feather-light 9%. For this reason, it does not qualify for Douro DOC status (which requires a minimum of 11% alcohol by volume). As readers know, I think varietal Tourigas can be a little OTT, so this is an interesting approach. In fact it’s not really an approach in the sense that this wine reflects its very cool site. Though south-facing, hence sunny, being located at 600m above sea level means that temperatures drop dramatically at night. The winemaker told me that, by the time he picked the grapes the wines he makes for his family at Quinta de Carolina were already doing the malo! Which led me to enquire why would anyone plant Touriga there. Doh. For a blending component of course – acid bank, as they say.
While Primata has no shortage of acidity, this pale, fresh, light, ultra-pared back red has terrific intensity to its varietal nose and palate, with its bergamot jelly bean (posh jelly bean) fragrance. Which could be a problem if the palate was skeletal but it’s not. Rather its delicate, with sappy black cherry and raspberry fruit. This super vin de soif was naturally fermented (100% whole bunch in lagares), unfiltered and minimally sulphured.
Niepoort and Filipa Pato have been making less extracted, paler Baga reds and Nat’ Cool Niepoort Quinta de Baixo Baga Velha 2016, made from 100 year old vines, goes a step further still. It was fermented and aged in stainless steel with 100% whole bunch and zero extraction. It’s spicy, sappy, a little earthy (whole bunch) and savoury with ‘colour’ pops of pimento and pine needle and a mineral-sluiced fresh finish with classic Baga on chalky clay soil smokiness.
Niepoort’s Assistant winemaker, Carlos Raposa, came to dinner too. He brought along two mature wines from his uncle’s vineyard in Nelas, the Dão which, he quipped were old school “original nat’ cool.” Vinicola de Nelas Escanção Branco 1990 was in spicy, pithy form, with grapefruity acidity, grapefruit oil, lime and resin notes. It packed a punch for a 12% wine. I didn’t see the label of the 1997 red from the same producer but, from this excellent vintage, it was ripe fruited but fresh. Lovely persistence/fluidity.
Niepoort pulled out another mature Dão white, this one a negociant wine from Real Companhia Velha – Marquis Soveral Branco 1964. Wow. It didn’t miss a beat going through – a really very even of expression, well-focused and long for a 50+ year old white wine. Impressed.