Lunch with Dirk Niepoort

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We got in touch with Dirk Niepoort, a legendary Douro valley wine maker, through a common friend. We asked Dirk whether we could come by Quinta de Nápoles to take some photographs. “Why don’t you come for lunch?” he replied. And so we did.

Dirk welcomed us to the dining room and started opening a few wine bottles. There were 20 people getting seated around the table. A few were Summer interns who came from afar to apprentice with Dirk. Others were people related to the wine business, enologists, producers, sommeliers of starred Michelin restaurants.

There were no speeches, Dirk circulated around the table sitting in different places so that he could talk to everybody. His demeanor is shy but his charisma is obvious. When he talks to someone, he makes them feel like they are the only people in the room.

The table was set with pataniscas (fried cod) and pasteis de massa tenra (turnovers) made with a sausage called alheira.  Dirk poured everybody some Redoma Reserva, his brilliant white wine made from 80-year old vines. Plates steaming with a hearty country soup were passed around. Soon our glasses were filled with an experimental “vinho verde” (green wine). We were still savoring its bright, lightly sparkling taste when another star white wine from the Niepoort stable arrived: the luxurious Coche.

When Dirk sat in our table corner, we asked him to explain his wine-making philosophy. Discussing wine with Dirk Niepoort is like playing chess with Gary Kasparov. Both are so many moves ahead that they are playing a different game. Most of the world is producing bolder wines with higher alcohol, more taste, deeper color. Dirk is doing the opposite. He wants to produce wines that are fresher, more aromatic, with less alcohol, less extraction and concentration. “Once we start drinking these lighter wines, we might find the old styles boring,” he says.

Dirk created a new project called Nat’cool to promote some of these new wines. He generously invited a few young wine makers to join this project. One of these wine makers, Luís Cândido Silva, was with us at lunch. Luis served his Primata, a wine that is easy to drink with bright acidity and only 9 percent alcohol.

Terrines of savory octopus rice filled the table as Dirk poured Blah, Blah, Blais a wine that is a testament to his generosity. Dirk gave Frederick Blais, a regular Summer intern from Canada, the opportunity to make this wine with old vines from one of the Niepoort’s estates!

A serra cheese started to circulate, accompanied by a wine with a tong-in-cheek name: Clos de Crappe. “It’s a technical disaster that worked out great,” Dirk said grinning.

Local pastries were served with an ice wine made by Dirk’s young daughter. She floated around the table like a fairy, serving her wine and enchanting everybody.

Finally, we tried two Niepoort port wines from 2005, a Late Bottled Vintage and a Colheita. These twin wines have different personalities but both share the richness and depth that only the Douro can produce.

It was time to say goodbye. We thanked Dirk for his generosity and walked towards the parking lot with the other guests. We have different professions, backgrounds and nationalities. But we all felt the same: we were descending from the mount Olympus of wine, where we had tasted nectars made for the gods.

Click here for the Niepoort wines website.

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The painter arrived!

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Between March and July the grapes wear bright green colors. But, once August comes, some grapes trade their green garments for red clothes, others change into bright yellow hues. When this makeover occurs, wine makers say that the “painter arrived,” as if some celestial artist came to color the grapes one by one.

After the painter arrives, the period of maturation begins. A few weeks later, it is time for the harvest, the culmination of all the work done by man, women and nature in the vineyard.

In Portugal, the painter has arrived everywhere and in some areas of the Douro valley and Alentejo the harvest is well under way. All we can do is wait until the colorful grapes turn into memorable wines we can share with friends.

Wine & Soul

Wine & SoulJorge Serôdio is an enologist who belongs to the 5th generation of a family of Douro wine makers. In 2001, he married Sandra Tavares da Silva, a fellow enologist. The new couple decided to celebrate their wedding by making a wine together. They called their project Wine & Soul.

Jorge and Sandra found the perfect vineyard in the Douro valley. Its vines were planted about 85 years ago on a steep incline at high altitude in schist soil that makes the vines struggle to produce small grapes full of flavor. The owner of the vineyard used to sell his grapes to port wine producers, but he was charmed by the young couple and agreed to sell the grapes to them.

The two enologists watched carefully every step of the production process from harvest to bottle. They made the wine with traditional methods, treading the grapes by foot in granite tanks to avoid breaking the pits.

Jorge and Sandra liked their wine so much that they decided to make a purchase offer to the vineyard owner. Perhaps thinking that the offer price was inflated by the couple’s youthful enthusiasm, the owner accepted it.

In a gesture of irreverence, the two enologists named the wine after their dog, Pintas. Soon after it was released in 2003, Pintas became a symbol of a new era for the Douro valley. An era in which young wine makers produce superb table wines from grapes traditionally reserved for port production.

Another dog, Guru, provided the name for a brilliant white wine first released in 2004.  It is inspired by the great whites of Burgundy. But, like Pintas, it is made only with indigenous varietals (Códega do Larinho, Gouveio, Rabigato, and Viosinho) that give the wine a distinct flavor and aroma.

In 2008, Jorge inherited Quinta da Manoella, a wine estate established in 1838. It has been hard work to improve the quality of these old vines. The steep terrain makes mechanization impossible so, like in Roman times, the work is manual and the land is tilled by horse-drawn ploughs. But the results are extraordinary, every time these wines grace our table, our meals turn into a celebration.

In 2014, Wine Spectator awarded Pintas’ 2011 vintage 98 points. It is a score rarely given, the highest ever awarded by the magazine to a Portuguese table wine. This success doesn’t surprise us because Jorge and Sandra make their wines with two unique ingredients: love and the grapes of the Douro valley.

A visit to Wine & Soul is a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the Douro Valley. Click here for more information about how to book a visit.

 

A perfect blend in Alentejo

Composit Monte da Ravasqueira- 2Sometimes you have to look far to find what you have near. The enologist Pedro Pereira Gonçalves left his homeland in search of a new world, first in Australia and then in Chile. But he found his calling back in Portugal at Monte da Ravasqueira, in the heart of Alentejo.

The estate was purchased by José Manuel de Mello, a successful entrepreneur, in 1943. He turned the 3,000 hectares into a family retreat where he bred Lusitano horses and planted vines, cork and olive trees.

What attracted Pedro to the property, still owned by the Mello family, are its unique virtues. Twelve dams help create a micro climate with cooler temperatures.  And even though the Atlantic Ocean is 120 km away, it cools the nights because there are no mountains in its way. While most of Alentejo is flat, Ravasqueira has slopes with different sun exposures that produce diversity in sugar and acid levels.

Pedro uses high-resolution aerial photographs to study each individual vine so that grapes can be combined into ideal blends. The result is wines that are truly made in the vineyard.

We tried some great examples. An enticing 2015 dry premium rosé with delicate fruit flavors and rich minerality. A 2014 premium white, aged in contact with the lees, that combines freshness with complexity. An elegant 2014 red called Vinha das Romãs, made from vines planted where an ancient pomegranate orchard once grew. The pomegranate roots are still there, lending the wine unique flavors and aromas.

Our wine tasting was followed by an appetizing lunch during which the Ravasqueira wines proved their ability to pair perfectly with food. The feast started with a gazpacho and continued with two traditional main courses: codfish with cornbread and roasted goatling.  The finale was a “mille feuilles” layered with artisanal jams made on the property, accompanied by exuberant port-style fortified wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is a perfect blend of passion and technique, of tradition and modernity. It is a place where the Atlantic breezes join forces with the Alentejo sun to create exquisite wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.

Missing Portugal

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When we’re away from Portugal, we miss the taste of the fruits of our land and sea.

We miss the golden light that guilds castles and palaces, valleys and hills.

We miss the touch of the breeze, the perfume of the ocean, the sound of the waves rehearsing their steps on the seashore.

Our solace is a glass of port wine shared with friends. Every sip is a reminder of the sweetness of Portugal.

The gift of friendship

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We have a friend who’s always there for us when we need wise advice, a word of encouragement or someone to intercede for us. As if these prodigious gifts were not enough, every time he visits us, he brings wonderful wines. His latest present was a bottle of Syrah 24.

The wine is produced by José Bento dos Santos in a magical 17th century farm near Lisbon called Quinta do Monte d’Oiro (golden hill farm). The wine is a result of the friendship between Bento dos Santos and famed Rhone Valley producer Michel Chapoutier.

Chapoutier offered Bento dos Santos an extraordinary gift: a large collection of cuttings from Chapoutier’s old Syrah vines in Hermitage. These precious vines were planted in parcel 24 at Quinta do Monte d’Oiro.

In an estate that produces noble wines with meticulous care, the Syrah made with the fruit from parcel 24 is treated like royalty. And it shows. Syrah 24 is a graceful, elegant wine, perfect to celebrate the gift friendship.

Click here for the Quinta do Monte d’Oiro website.

In vino veritas

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In Roman times, wine making was a simple affair. The grapes were crushed and stored in large clay amphoras where the fermentation occurred naturally. The skins, seeds, and stems were stirred. Then, the pomace fell to the bottom of the amphora, acting as a filter so that the wine, extracted through a spigot, ran clear.

Wine makers in Alentejo are using old amphoras, too large to be made in modern ovens, to revive these ancient ways of making wine.

We’ve been looking forward to trying these wines. After our recent visit to Esporão, we finally got our chance—we brought home a bottle of their amphora-made Moreto wine.

Drinking it was a grand occasion. After all, this was the kind of wine with which Caesar celebrated the conquest of Gaul, the wines with which Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra. We closed our eyes and sipped the precious liquid. It tasted pure and clean. Suddenly, the Romans adage ‘in vino veritas,’ in wine truth, had a new meaning.