Reflections of Vintage Port: a tasting of Niepoort & Ramos Pinto Vintage Ports 1924-2011

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I have been weighing up whether or not to write up Niepoort’s & Ramos Pinto’s “Reflections of Vintage Port” tasting of April.

Greedy though we are for experience as too often happens at trade tastings, time was against us.  At times the tasting felt a little more like speed dating than a reflection as we galloped through the line up! I was a little anxious about the quality of my notes, especially for the older wines, whose subtleties can so easily pass you by.

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There and again, it would be a shame not to write up such venerable Ports and share with you our hosts Dirk Niepoort’s (pictured below) and Joao Nicolau d’Almeida’s (pictured above) observations about each vintage.

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The tasting also provided an interesting insight into each houses’ style (and their evolution of style). So here are my notes, subject to the fat caveat that there was no time to sit with and reflect on the wines.

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Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 1924

Vintage report: an exceptionally cold winter.  The summer was remarkably cool and there was less rain than usual.  We had heavy rain fall on first weeks of September but the weather turned good for the harvest at the end of that month.  Small production.  Excellent vintage, purple with good body and aroma.

Tasting note:  despite the reference to the colour purple, Dirk Niepoort observed of this deep amber Port that it’s a good example of the Portuguese style which he described as fresher and more delicate than the darker English Ports.  It’s certainly a quality I really cherished in this wine, which I made sure to revisit throughout the tasting.  Very aromatic and spicy, with pronounced gum cistus (especially as it opens up in the glass), coffee/cafe crème cigar, macaroon and aniseed notes, later on smoky, cracked, roast hazelnuts, dried figs and guava.  Traits, save perhaps the guava, one might well associate with a tawny Port, but this has greater density and vigour – I guess partly down to it coming from a single great year, which marks really puts its stamp on this well focused wine.  For Niepoort, the September rainfall was key to top notch fruit.  At any rate, its intensity of flavour is beautifully drawn out by an impressive, exceptionally well integrated thread of fresh acidity.  On a plateau and holding well.

Niepoort Vintage Port 1942

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Vintage report: first vintage almost exclusively bottled in Portugal due to the war.  A very dry winter followed by a cold spring caused flowering to be late, but some rain un June brought the grapes forward.  The vintage started generally on 2nd September; weather uncertain from 28th and on the whole dull and cool with slow fermentations.  Small production.  According to Dirk Niepoort this was not a generally declared vintage.  All the fruit was sourced from Pinhão vineyards.

Tasting note: deep ruby still, very spicy and intense with lashings of liquorice and gum cistus notes to its jammy red berry, baked plum and mellower dried fig and raisin fruit.  Just a touch of dustiness but, big picture, there’s a fair bit of heft and spirit behind this.  In a word vigorous, even a little boorish right now.  It probably bodes very well for the future!

Niepoort Vintage Port 1970

Vintage report: winter rainfall was slightly above average, followed by a very dry Spring.  April was hot which aided the flowering and subsequent ripening of the grapes.  From July through to October almost no rain fell and the harvest was made under ideal conditions.  A vintage of exceptional quality with well integrated tannins and fruit assuring a long life.  A misunderstood vintage and one of the best, said Dirk Niepoort.

Tasting note: positively sullen on the nose, with hints of gum cistus.  While there’s a fleshy plummy, sweet veneer of fruit on the attack and going through, there is no disguising the firm underpinning of imposing tannins beneath.  A keeper.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 1970

Vintage report: winter rainfall was slightly above average, followed by a very dry Spring.  April was hot which aided the flowering and subsequent ripening of the grapes.  From July through to October almost no rain fell and the harvest was made under ideal conditions.  A vintage of exceptional quality with well integrated tannins and fruit assuring a long life.  A misunderstood vintage and one of the best, said Dirk Niepoort.

Tasting note: a little paler than the Niepoort, more delicate, juicy and expressive with great fluidity and sheen to its red fruits, fine, sheer tannins too.  Really lovely, elegant, long and persistent – á point.

Niepoort Vintage Port 1977

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Vintage report: the winter of 1976/1977 was one of the wettest on record, with over 60cm of rain falling between October and March, but after three years of drought, this rain was very welcome.  Except one brief spell in July, we had an extraordinarily cool and unsettled weather the entire summer, with flowering in June marked by desavinho (abortion of flowers and poor fruit set).  By late August development in the best areas was behind, but up in Altos late by as much as 3 to 4 weeks.  The first fortnight of September was hot and dry, which was an immense help to the vines, followed by some beneficial rain.  The harvest started in the end of September in extremely hot conditions.  For Dirk Niepoort, this vintage was hyped and many Ports still remain in a dull phase.

Tasting note:  while I found this quite chunky, it was far from dull!   It shows plenty of primary gum cistus-edged red cherry and plum fruit, complexed with riper tarry notes, liquorice and cough sweet too.  The tannins are abundant but supple.  A powerful wine, long and languid of delivery. Plenty of fuel in the tank.

Niepoort Vintage Port 1983

Vintage report: a cold and dry winter was followed by a very wet spring.  This harmed the flowering and a moderate summer did not help, with the variable weather leading to the vines being about a month behind normal.  September, however, was exceptionally hot and sunny, the grapes came on wonderfully, and the month finished with exactly the kind of showers needed towards the end of the growing season to freshen the grapes.  Harvest started in Pinhão and Rio Torto valleys in early October, with grapes at perfect ripeness and high sugar readings.  The weather continued dry and hot throughout the harvest period, to the end of October.

Tasting note: bright ruby and very expressive, with a pronounced thread of (savoury) smoke and lifted gum cistus running through its fleshy red cherry and sweet plum fruit; the tannins are firm but ripe. A well balanced, well made Port.

More generally Dirk Niepoort explained that he was showing no Ports from the later 80s and 90s because “Niepoort went downhill – the wines were thinner and lighter and, though we started making very good wines in the 90s, there were problems.”  Problems which he is very happy to have laid to rest from 2000 onwards, when he said the house is making some of the best Ports ever.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 1983

Vintage report: a cold and dry winter was followed by a very wet spring.  This harmed the flowering and a moderate summer did not help, with the variable weather leading to the vines being about a month behind normal.  September, however, was exceptionally hot and sunny, the grapes came on wonderfully, and the month finished with exactly the kind of showers needed towards the end of the growing season to freshen the grapes.  Harvest started in Pinhão and Rio Torto valleys in early October, with grapes at perfect ripeness and high sugar readings.  The weather continued dry and hot throughout the harvest period, to the end of October.

Tasting note:  very deep in hue, relatively soft, as in velvety, round and expansive in the mouth, which is not to under-estimate its power.  It’s a little solid/blunt for me, perhaps because this vintage sports no less than 50% of Tinta Barocca?  The variety ripens early (and this wine has a freshness despite its roundness), yet is high in sugar and, it follows, alcohol, which is why it is prized for the body (as opposed to structure) which it brings to Ports.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 1994

Vintage report: the rains that marked the 1993 harvest continued throughout the winter of 1993/94, with only one brief period of pause in December.  The total rainfall was double the average for the period, but after three very dry winters in a row, this was actually quite welcome.  Spring weather was warm, rapidly bringing on the development of the vines, but just a bit unsettled, with rain in May affecting the flowering, leading to a relatively small crop.  Conditions through the summer were good, not much excessive heat and only enough rain to be beneficial.  By early September, after one last light rain to swell and freshen the fruit, the grapes were in perfect condition and free of any disease.  Harvest tool place under ideal conditions: warm, mostly sunny days and cool nights.  For Joao Nicolau d’Almeida of Ramos Pinto the Port shows the heat of the vintage and is a very structured wine.

Tasting note: like the 83, a very deep colour but this is livelier with lovely juicy, succulent plum fruit, lifted gum cistus and spice and lithe but present tannins.  A pronounced woodsmoke character, especially as it opens up, lends a touch of rusticity which, to my mind, detracts a little from the purity and opulence of the fruit.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 1997

Vintage report: very cold in January with heavy snowfalls covering the region, even in the river quintas, which is a rare sight.  But in early February conditions changed drastically with average temperatures in February and March 4 degrees centigrade above normal and as high as 30 degrees centigrade with no rainfall.  This provoked a budburst 15 days earlier than usual and rapid development of vines, with flowering taking place nearly a month earlier than in 1996.  In April and May the weather became much cooler and we had heavy rains,  These affected flowering and fruit set in some higher vineyards.  Although the rains ceased, the cooler temperatures persisted through to mid-August.  Only in the final stages of maturation from mid-August and throughout September did we finally experience high temperatures, sometimes reaching 40 degrees centigrade.  This extremely hot period was accompanies by some very welcome rainfall on the 24th and 27th of August, refreshing the grapes.  The final ripening period proved decisive to the outstanding quality of the year, and ensured yhe grapes were in excellent condition and at peak maturity.  Harvest took place in dry conditions and although yields were low, it was soon apparent that great wines were being born, due to the intensely fragrant and concentrated musts and the enormous amount of colour visible during fermentation.

Tasting note:  I found this quite dull and knocked back, with dried, raisiny fruit, elbowy spirit and an earthy, savoury undertow.  Going back at the end it had opened up a tad and looked a little brighter, though my overall impression was still of muddiness.  Perhpas its still in a pimply, ungainly phase and will come round?  Hard to tell from this tasting.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2003

Vintage report: the wines of 2002/2003 was characterised by very wet weather, closely resembling the previous three winters, which also brought above-average winter rainfall.  The abundant rain meant the prevalent temperatures were mostly quite moderate; in fact the winter was unseasonably warm with the exception of some heaven-sent rain at the end of June, the exceptionally dry conditions prevailed through July and August, during which some of the hottest temperatures in living memory were recorded in Portugal, 45 degrees during the day and 30 degrees at night.  Dirk Niepoort observed that, save for Port, he does not like many 2003s at all.

Tasting note: the vintage character is quite strident in this powerful, muscular wine, which has a massive charge of textured (fine powdery) tannins.  It shows ripe floral parma violets, hints of Moroccan tea, leather and sage to its dense still tight knit concentration of dark, black fruits.  Big in every way, despite the fiery brandy spirit deep within its belly there’s a freshness too, which extends the finish of this imposing wine.  Impressive and very young indeed.

Niepoort Vintage Port 2005

Vintage report: The winter of 2004/2005 was extremely dry, less than half the 15 year average of rain fell.  Luckily we had a good flowering and fruit set in the spring so yields were good, despite the drought – plenty of bunches, though the berries remained fairly small.  By the end of August the vines were showing signs of severe stress.  On 6th and again on 9th September we had steady rain for several hours and picking was suspended to allow the rain to benefit the grapes.  Thereafter, we enjoyed perfect weather with cool nights and heavy dew.  It couldn’t have been better for harvesting.  Niepoort were the only house to declare in 2005 and, for Dirk Niepoort, it’s his best until the 2011 came along.  One factor he mentioned in terms of improving the Ports is focusing on freshness, not just fruit, fruit, fruit.  To that end, Niepoort is working with higher vineyards for better natural acidity (he says in the past lots of tartaric acid was used to adjust acidity), also de-selecting any over-ripe fruit.

Tasting note: deep ruby in hue, with sweet but very bright, well defined swathes of very persistent raspberry and plum fruit with a ripe but present chassis of tannins and seamless minerality.  Great length and line despite the flourish of opulence.  Iron first in velvet glove.  Terrific.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2007

Vintage report: a reasonable winter with average to heavy rains in October, November, December and February, but a rather dry January, March and April.  The winter was not unduly cold, we had very few frosts and, in March the weather was do good that the teams were working in their shirtsleeves.  The fine weather held through April and well into May, bringing on the vines quite well, but later in Maymore rain delayed pintor (colour change) from the usual mid/late July into August.  Because of the mild weather, polyphonic development was good and at the very end of August we had a bit of rain, which is nearly always welcome around that time, to soften the skins for harvest.  2007 picking started later than usual.

Tasting note: a very deep, velvety hue, with classic 2007 floral lift and definition – an edge even, thanks to its trouser crease tannins and perceptibly fresher acidity.  All in all more elegant than previous vintages, with gum cistus and dark chocolate notes to its black fruits.  Just a touch of tar on the finish, but otherwise the fruit purity is lovely.  With plenty of youthful shine, this has good acidity for ageing.

Ramos Pinto Ervamoira Vintage Port 2007

Vintage report: a reasonable winter with average to heavy rains in October, November, December and February, but a rather dry January, March and April.  The winter was not unduly cold, we had very few frosts and, in March the weather was do good that the teams were working in their shirtsleeves.  The fine weather held through April and well into May, bringing on the vines quite well, but later in Maymore rain delayed pintor (colour change) from the usual mid/late July into August.  Because of the mild weather, polyphonic development was good and at the very end of August we had a bit of rain, which is nearly always welcome around that time, to soften the skins for harvest.  2007 picking started later than usual.

Tasting note: as you’d expect, this single quinta Port from Ramos Pintos’ Douro Superior estate is spicier and softer than the classic Vintage blend.  Though velvety and rich, 2007’s tell tale acidity lends juiciness to its plummy fruit and there’s a cool edge of dark, bitter chocolate to this tight, persistent Port.  Very good mid-term drinking.

Niepoort Vintage Port 2009

Vintage report: 2009 was the third year of drought in the Douro.  By September we had less than half of the usual amount of rainfall, with some rain in June which helped the vines to develop good canopy for bunch shade.  Luckily the summer began fairly cool and it was not till mid August that it warmed up with a couple of really hot spells (upper 30s to 40 degrees centigrade)in mid August and again around 9/10th September.  After that it cooled off again.  Harvest began about a week earlier than usual.  The weather held well throughout the vintage.

Tasting note: very opaque and very bright with a tight, powdery wall of tannins behind its it blast of sweet, svelte raspberry fruit – the flesh on the bone.  Very powerful.  Infantacide.

Niepoort Bioma Vintage Port 2009

Vintage report: 2009 was the third year of drought in the Douro.  By September we had less than half of the usual amount of rainfall, with some rain in June which helped the vines to develop good canopy for bunch shade.  Luckily the summer began fairly cool and it was not till mid August that it warmed up with a couple of really hot spells (upper 30s to 40 degrees centigrade)in mid August and again around 9/10th September.  After that it cooled off again.  Harvest began about a week earlier than usual.  The weather held well throughout the vintage.

Tasting note: Bioma “Vinha Velha”, is a single vineyard Vintage Port from aged vines at Vinha da Pisca (mostly + 80 years old), which is cultivated organically.  A hot site, which produces impressive tannins, it formed the backbone of Niepoort  Vintage Ports for many years.  However,the best parcels were set aside for this wine in 2011, 2009, 2008 and (known then as Pisca) in 2007.  Like Niepoort Vintage Port, Bioma was 100% foot trodden with 100% stems. It was then aged in pipes (550 litre)and bottled in the third year after the harvest (later than the Niepoort blend) which, says Niepoort, is what happened in the “old days” when wines were shipped to England in pipes, and bottled later.  Deepest purple, the 2009 has a nose of powdered (concentrated) cassis and violets.  As I’ve come to expect from this wine, it’s exceptionally well structured. Though the fruit is sweet and dense, the emphasis is very much on the freshness (pepperiness and florality), minerality and tannins, which are exceptionally sinewy.  I felt viscerally aware of the vine roots’ journey through many metres of schist – as if I’d really made contact with the stone.  Outstanding.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2011

The harvest: overall, 2011 was marked by low rainfall and relatively fresh temperatures, except for the early summer heat wave.  Germination followed by blooming took place two weeks earlier than in 2010, giving rise to major vegetative growth in late April-early May.  This advance was maintained throughout the summer forcing the initial harvest to start in late August at Quinta de Ervamoira.  Persistent drought and a heatwave at the end of June reduced the average weight of the bunches.  Short  quantities, almost identical to the vintage of 2009 were harvested, yet lower than those of 2010.  Thus the yields of Quinta de Ervamoira and Quinta Bom Retiro were reduced.  Touriga Francesa, Barroca and mixed varietals were those that suffered most from the weather conditions.  Regarding old vines from Bom Retiro and Urtiga, the grapes that were picked in September have resulted in more mature and complex wines.  At Niepoort, low yields combined with good acidity and great colour gave rise to extremely dark fermenting musts, just perfect for Vintage Port.  The harvest of 2011 was extremely small overall, presenting an excellent selection of fresh, ripe, fruity and elegant wines with outstanding concentration and density.

Tasting note:  An elegant, violet-laced but very well structured Port, this wine a blend of 50% Touriga Nacional, 32% Touriga Franca, 5% Sousao, 3% Tinta Barocca and 10% old vines (field blend).  It shows great depth and layer to its juicy infinity of black and red cherry and berry fruits.  A firm backbone of tannin lends gravitas and a touch of grip to the finish.  Great proportion/balance. Very good indeed.  19.5% abv, 90g/l residual sugar.  £174/6 bottles in bond at Bibendum

Niepoort Vintage Port 2011

The harvest: overall, 2011 was marked by low rainfall and relatively fresh temperatures, except for the early summer heat wave.  Germination followed by blooming took place two weeks earlier than in 2010, giving rise to major vegetative growth in late April-early May.  This advance was maintained throughout the summer forcing the initial harvest to start in late August at Quinta de Ervamoira.  Persistent drought and a heatwave at the end of June reduced the average weight of the bunches.  Short  quantities, almost identical to the vintage of 2009 were harvested, yet lower than those of 2010.  Thus the yields of Quinta de Ervamoira and Quinta Bom Retiro were reduced.  Touriga Francesa, Barroca and mixed varietals were those that suffered most from the weather conditions.  Regarding old vines from Bom Retiro and Urtiga, the grapes that were picked in September have resulted in more mature and complex wines.  At Niepoort, low yields combined with good acidity and great colour gave rise to extremely dark fermenting musts, just perfect for Vintage Port.  The harvest of 2011 was extremely small overall, presenting an excellent selection of fresh, ripe, fruity and elegant wines with outstanding concentration and density.

Tasting note: this blend of several Cima Corgo vineyards & (old field blend) varieties including, among others, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Tinta Francisca, Tinta Amarela, Sousão and Touriga Nacional was 100% foot trodden in granite lagares with 100% stems. The wine was aged for 2 years in “toneis” and some pipes.  A vibrant Port in colour and on the palate with lovely florality – violets – and black pepper lift to its well defined sweet, ripe, juicy and intense swathes of berry and plum fruit.  Long and persistent with a ripe but palpable chassis of tannins.  Already so charming and elegant such is its exquisite balance – built for the long haul.  Residual sugar 104g/l, abv 19.5%.  £210/6 bottles in bond/£230 duty paid ex-VAT Lea & Sandeman

Niepoort Bioma Vintage Port 2011

The harvest: overall, 2011 was marked by low rainfall and relatively fresh temperatures, except for the early summer heat wave.  Germination followed by blooming took place two weeks earlier than in 2010, giving rise to major vegetative growth in late April-early May.  This advance was maintained throughout the summer forcing the initial harvest to start in late August at Quinta de Ervamoira.  Persistent drought and a heatwave at the end of June reduced the average weight of the bunches.  Short  quantities, almost identical to the vintage of 2009 were harvested, yet lower than those of 2010.  Thus the yields of Quinta de Ervamoira and Quinta Bom Retiro were reduced.  Touriga Francesa, Barroca and mixed varietals were those that suffered most from the weather conditions.  Regarding old vines from Bom Retiro and Urtiga, the grapes that were picked in September have resulted in more mature and complex wines.  At Niepoort, low yields combined with good acidity and great colour gave rise to extremely dark fermenting musts, just perfect for Vintage Port.  The harvest of 2011 was extremely small overall, presenting an excellent selection of fresh, ripe, fruity and elegant wines with outstanding concentration and density.

Tasting note: though tight on the nose, Bioma is headily perfumed in the mouth with violets running through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock.  It’s darker and spicier too, the tannins grainy – more textural – the fruit concentrated and tightly coiled but an animated (fresh) presence.  Though the alcohol is a little more pronounced, Bioma is relatively inwardly focused as yet – it has much more to give.  A very intense, singular wine.  Residual sugar 110g/l, abv 21%.  £130/3 bottles in bond/£140 duty paid ex-VAT Lea & Sandeman

Sarah Ahmed
The Wine Detective
(Wines tasted 24 April 2013)

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