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Old Port From Niepoort

December 26, 1996|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

OPORTO, Portugal — In his corduroy trousers, old pullover and out-of-date rectangular wire-framed glasses, you could mistake Dirk van der Niepoort for a librarian or the sales clerk in a hardware store. However, one taste of his sensational 1994 vintage Ports will convince anyone that he is one of Europe's leading winemakers.

We were tasting Niepoort's two 1994 vintage Ports, and the components from which they were blended. "It's the best harvest I have ever seen," he said casually, playing down his own role. Although only 32 years old, Niepoort has plenty of vintages with which to compare the raw, young wines we are assessing. At this point, they still had another year to go before bottling.

In the cramped Niepoort tasting room, which looks as if it has not changed since the company was founded in 1842, all he has to do is reach out for one of the dusty bottles that line every available wall space. Most of the last 50 vintages are here somewhere among the serried ranks of dark bottles.

Minutes later we were in the cavernous Niepoort Port lodge, a huge above-ground storage facility with massive stone walls and a roof constructed of wooden beams and thick tiles. Ancient casks (534-litre "Lodge Pipes") were stacked in rows three high.

We started our tasting with a 1989 Colheita. Colheitas are single-vintage wood-aged Port and something of a Niepoort specialty. I liked the wine, but he immediately drew attention to its weaknesses, commenting, "Not bad, but rather simple flavors and not so elegant."

Then came the firm, spicy 1987, the supple, elegant 1983 and the rich, nutty-raisiny 1976. From here we progressed in dizzying leaps: the powerful, silky 1962, then the vibrant 1937, with a fascinating candied citrus character.

Finally he drew a sample from a cask at the bottom of a stack in the darkest corner. "You have to guess what this one is," Niepoort said.

He eyed me intently as I tried to guess the wine's age. From his look I could tell he was curious--not because my answer might be flattering, but because it could tell him something important about his wines. "The '20s?" I ventured hesitantly.

"We don't know the vintage, but it is one of the 1880s," he answered in a matter-of-fact tone.

The wine's vitality was extraordinary for its age. You could taste the care with which this and all the old wines in the Niepoort cellars have been tended over generations.

The concentrated flavor came in part from a century of evaporation. During 20 years in the Niepoort lodge, each barrel of wine loses fully a third of its volume. "A drop of this goes into our oldest Tawny Ports, wines like the 30-Years-Old," said Niepoort. "And it really makes a difference."

The Niepoort family is unique in the Port trade for many reasons, not least their Dutch name. The Port trade, both the making and the selling, has traditionally been dominated by the Portuguese and English. The latter have been involved with the wines of the Douro Valley since the late 17th century.

Vintage Port, bottled only two or three years after the harvest while still very tannic and aged many years in the bottle before it is drinkable, was invented by the English around 1820. English houses such as Taylor, Fonseca, Graham, Dow and Warre still dominate the market for vintage Port. The strength of Portuguese houses such as Calem and Burmester is usually Tawny and Colheita Ports, which are aged in wood for many years before being bottled when ready to drink.

Niepoort is an anomaly. On the one hand, it makes magnificent tawnies in a "Portuguese" style; on the other, its vintage and LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) Ports are in the rich, powerful, tannic style of the English houses. And it now makes dry table wines as well.

In his book on vintage Port, James Suckling compared Niepoort to Krug in Champagne. This might seem ridiculous, since the products of the two houses are so different. But it's not so strange; both are small companies, and produce genuinely hand-crafted products in an age of mechanization.

Although Dirk Niepoort is totally committed to his family's traditions when it comes to Port--like this father, he completely rejects the filtration of Port wines, for example--in other areas he is full of innovative ideas.

Perhaps it was Dirk Niepoort's streak of naivete that enabled him to jump into the dry white and red wine fields, although he is self-taught as a winemaker with no experience of making either style. With his very first red wine, the 1990 vintage "Robustus" from the company's Quinta do Carril estate, he hit the bull's-eye.

"However," he says now, "when it was young it tasted too heavy, too aggressive and uncommercial." So his father, Rolf, used it as house wine for the company's workers. By the time Dirk realized that the ugly duckling had turned into a magnificent swan, only one barrel remained, and subsequent vintages had been vinified in a lighter style.

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