It was a wine lover’s paradise: 6 hours of non-stop drinking with Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Spanish reds, and Rieslings galore. In fact, I had never seen so much intense sipping, sluicing, slurping, swilling, and spitting in my life!
Six hours earlier, Dirk Niepoort’s winemaking friends (with a few journalists thrown in) from across Europe had gathered to share their craft and sample eachother’s wines at Dirks’ estate in the Douro–Quinta de Nápoles. It takes a certain amount of bravery to be judged by your peers, and everyone in the room was eager to show off their wines, but also to sample their neighbor’s offerings from across the table. Dirk, always one to challenge convention, offered us a selection of Port vintages from Niepoort. The wines were uniformly excellent but one date stood out in my mind: 1863.
If someone had told me two years ago, before I started my journalism career, that I would be drinking Port from the 1860s, I think I would have laughed for a week. It was an awesome privilege to drink such an ancient wine and even more surprisingly, one which had plenty of flavor and energy left to give. The port had a brilliant tawny color with plenty of spice and vigor on the palate and this wonderful caramel and tobacco finish. Amazingly, Dirk predicted that it could last another 15 to 20 years!
A smorgasbord of good wine followed: Blancs De Blancs Champagne (100% Chardonnay), a selection of German and Austrian Riesling, some excellent white and red burgundies, and some exciting Spanish red wines from old bush vines. It was almost overwhelming, to sample so much exciting wine in such a short amount of time. Perhaps the saying should go, “so much to drink and so little time.”
By now, anyone who pretended to be completely sober was clearly lying as there is only so much Chambertin you can spit in an evening. Dirk very thoughtfully gave us all dinner to mop up some of the excess alcohol, and then the evening began. Winemakers were debating, arguing laughing and discussing eachother’s wine with good humor and full glasses. Events like these remind me of why I decided to leave my old life in favor of the vine; the camaraderie of this industry is infectious. As much about the people as the wines themselves, wine is a great career choice, unless you plan on making serious money!
Our group eventually rolled home, the bus winding its ways towards the Aqua-Pura hotel. I must admit, we got a bit close to the edge once or twice–this is not a road to drive on when your slightly tipsy! Thankfully, the only thing the driver had sampled was water. Poor sod.
Back at the hotel, I struggled, swore and huffed and puffed over how to turn off the light. A nicely designed hotel but getting things to work in the bedroom required a Ph.D in modern hotel design. Not to mention oodles of patience.
Day 3 would see over 500 visitors descend on Dirk for a grand tasting like no other. After breakfast we left to join to hordes of people queuing to access the winery at Quinta de Napoles. Winemakers from across Portugal and Europe had gathered to showcase their wines to anyone who cared to turn up. I had never seen so many tables, wine bottles and people crammed into one space in my life. Dirk and his team organized everything perfectly and with amazing dexterity, the only request being that each visitor enjoyed themselves. There is no one in the wine world as hospitable as Mr Niepoort.
During the morning’s tasting I had a bit of a revelation involving Baga. This grape is indigenous to, and widely planted in Portugal, and notable for its thick skin and dry, mouth puckering tannins–second only to the Barolo grape Nebbiolo. The best examples apparently come from the Bairrada region but until my trip to Quinta de Nápoles I had never understood the attraction of Baga. I had tasted several examples, all of them so astringent that my mouth felt like it had been given the once-over by a nightclub bouncer . However, sampling a 12 year old version was a totally different story, all elegance and perfume with a wonderful earthy bouquet. Lesson learned–don’t take Baga out on a date until she’s fully grown up.
Lunch was served at 12:30 by a brave army of staff. They managed to provide over 500 visitors with a selection of starters, confit du canard and every pudding under the sun. My deepest respects for everyone who looked after us, and of course–the chefs. I wonder how many chefs could produce over 500 palates of confit de canard and live to tell the tale? Mass catering mostly leaves you wanting but the food was really rather good. I certainly had no complaints.
After we ate and drank until we could no more, we headed back to Porto for an evening of … eating and drinking. Our final privilege on this trip was to have dinner in the Niepoort cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia, the historical center of the Port trade in Porto. Traditionally the wine was shipped down Douro from the Quintas to the port lodges on the narrow sailing barges called barcos rabelos. We saw some of these at the Vila Nova Gaia quay.
What a gorgeous sight–tables laid out in the heart of the cellar with yet more fantastic food and wine to come. Before dinner, Dirk gave us an extensive tour of the cellars–quite the romantic location for wine and dining your loved one in candlelight. A lot of emotion flew around that evening, as Dirk’s closest friends thanked him for his hospitality and limitless generosity. He is someone who obviously commands and has earned great respect and admiration because of this from those around him. While I fall short of recommending Dirk’s canonization, he did provide a wonderful weekend of entertainment and for that he has my warmest thanks.
My last morning in Porto saw nothing but rain and wind. I arrived back Sunday afternoon in London to sunshine and smiles. Maybe the UK climate isn’t so awful after all?