Lunch with Dirk Niepoort

Niepoort Composit_

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.

Extraordinary Portuguese tea

CháCamélia Composit

Camellias reign supreme in the gardens of the north of Portugal. They love the rainy, temperate climate and the slightly acidic soil. The first camellias were probably brought from China by Portuguese merchants five centuries ago. These merchants also brought back some leaves that, when infused in hot water, produced an extraordinary drink called tea.

Tea is made from the leaves of a camellia shrub called sinensis. If camellias grow so well in the north of Portugal, how come no one has tried to produce tea there in the last five centuries? The answer is that tea production requires great patience, there’s a five-year lag between the plantation and the first harvest. It also demands knowledge, dedication, and the humility to accept the whims of nature. These are the same traits necessary to produce port wine. Perhaps that is why Dirk Niepoort, whose family has traded port since 1842, and his wife Nina Gruntkowski had the courage to venture into tea production.

Knowing that Dirk and Nina share a passion for tea, a friend offered them a small tea shrub. They planted it in a cold corner of their garden in Oporto and made each other a promise. If the plant survived, they would try to produce tea in the north of Portugal. The plant thrived, so in 2011 Dirk and Nina imported 200 shrubs and planted them first in their garden in Oporto and then in one of the Niepoort properties, close to sea. This year they harvested the first leaves.

Nina took us on a tour of the lush plantation. She talks about her plants with great affection. “These are my babies,” she said with pride “they will have a very happy life.” The production process is entirely organic and the leaves are harvested manually. Haruyo san and Shigeru Marimoto, a couple who produces premium organic tea in Japan, offered Dirk and Nina technical assistance. Producing tea is as complex as producing wine. But while enologists have plenty of time to make adjustments to their wines, tea leaves are processed in just four nerve-wrecking hours right after the harvest.

We tasted several premium green teas produced by the Marimotos. Some are mixed with herbs and flowers produced in Portugal, such as lemongrass, rose petals, elder flowers, and lemon verbena. They offer a wide palate of floral, grassy and nutty flavors.

We then sampled one of Dirk and Nina’s experiments: oolong tea aged in port-wine barrels. It is a blend of east and west that is enticing and new.

Finally, Nina brought out a small can, took out some leaves and brewed one more cup of tea for us. “Try it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement. “It is the first tea made in continental Portugal.”

We closed our eyes to sip the precious liquid. It does not taste like Chinese or Japanese tea. It has the understated elegance of a great port. And it marries the exuberance of the Douro valley with the melancholic aroma of the sea. Why did we have to wait five centuries to drink this Portuguese tea? Perhaps it was the time required to wait for someone like Dirk and Nina, someone with the audacity to forsake the ordinary to strive for the extraordinary.

Click here for the Chá Camélia web site.