Niepoort, Lalique and Acker HK

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A most unusual trio of names unravelled. See update at the bottom for the record price fetched at auction.

I’ve met Dirk Niepoort, the iconoclastic wine lover of northern Portugal, in many different settings. In his personal winemaking fiefdom at the Quinta de Nápoles, quirkily designed by him. In his somewhat chaotic but always welcoming home in the suburbs of Oporto. Knees under tables other than his own is another common setting, preferably somewhere good rather than fancy such as the family-run Oporto fish restaurant O Gaveto he loves so much. And he is often to be found lurking in the cellars and vineyards of some of the most promising but least celebrated wine producers of the world.

But sitting, albeit in his usual many-pocketed fisherman’s waistcoat, at a glass table in the Lalique boutique in Mayfair in London is not where I expect to find this maverick who declares port vintages in contrary fashion and makes unexpected wines all over the Iberian peninsula.

Things get even stranger when it turns out I have been invited here to taste Niepoort’s oldest port, an 1863, that has, at the suggestion of my fellow wine writer James Suckling, been packaged in a Lalique decanter to be auctioned by Acker Merrall in Hong Kong this Saturday. A price of 100,000 dollars is mentioned as hoped-for. ‘US not Hong Kong dollars', Dirk points out. The lot also includes the Lalique-designed cabinet below, apparently. So un-Dirk! 

The Niepoorts started out as Dutch négociants in Oporto and this 1863 (‘a great vintage’ for port, according to Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine) was bought by Dirk’s great grandfather for beefing up various blends. It was aged for 40 years or so in wood and then what was left in 1905 was put into nine glass demijohns, the glass demijohns having a capacity of between eight and 11 litres and having been bought by a Niepoort in the late nineteenth century. Dirk is at pains to show me this atmospheric picture of the copperplate entry in the company ledger demonstrating that the precise bottling date was 18 September 1905 (see the 1863 entry bottom left).

The contents of seven of these demijohns were used over the years in various blends, notably the venerable one they call VV, and Dirk has bottled the contents of the eighth in halves for non-commercial purposes. It was one of these he opened for me to taste on Monday.

The contents of the ninth demijohn have been put into five decanters designed, after much coming and going, by the French glass specialists Lalique: four magnums and a fifth that is a slightly greater capacity that Dirk thinks may be the gloriously-named tappit hen (equivalent to three standard bottles). Each of the five is identified with one generation of wine-producing Niepoorts and the one that goes on sale under the Acker hammer this Saturday morning in Hong Kong is Dirk’s.

‘Making the decanters was hell’, according to Dirk, but the final distinctive shape echoes that of the demijohns in which the wine spent 112 years between 1905, when it had already spent 40 years in wood, and being put into the Lalique decanters in March 2017 – after which the wine will not change.

James Suckling tasted the 1863 on a visit to Niepoort and, having already designed a 12-strong 100 Points Collection of glasses and decanters with Lalique (which make mine look like giveaways), suggested this whole enterprise. Lalique, you may remember, is owned by Silvio Denz, Swiss-based owner of, inter alia, Chx Faugères, Péby-Faugères and Cap de Faugères in Bordeaux. A Lalique-branded luxury hotel was recently opened at Ch Laufaurie Peyraguey in Sauternes. Suckling is based in Hong Kong, and doubtless thought that this sort of one-of-a-kind luxury item was best targeted at Asian wine-loving billionaires.

I now realise, having looked at the 100 Points Collection, that my taste of the 1863 was in a £100 100 Points wine glass. You can see its rich colour above. My scrawl behind the wine says, 'draw near with faith' as the minute he poured the wine, there was the most beautiful aroma that seemed to attract everyone in the shop to the glass. It reminded me of what a priest says before anglican communion. Having been aged partly in glass, the wine is technically a garrafeira port. My enthusiastic tasting note is below, along with a note on a 1977 garrafeira that Dirk had brought for comparison, but actually seemed utterly unlike the 1863 to me.

Niepoort, Garrafeira 1863 Port

Fox red shading to bright tawny. The minute the cork was pulled on a half-bottle of this extremely rare wine an incredibly intense, haunting aromatic cloud was released. You didn't need to bring your nose to the glass. Spice rack, citrus peel and somehow ethereal raisins were some of the scents suggested. There is extraordinary lift and freshness to this 155-year-old wine. So clean and transparent, the port almost finishes dry. Richness and concentration are not the watchwords, no matter how high the levels of alcohol and residual sugar are analytically. Incredibly long. 

21.5%
Drink
2017
2037
20

Niepoort, Garrafeira 1977 Port

The port went into glass demijohns in 1982 and into bottle in 2007. This was served by Dirk Niepoort to compare with his 1863 Garrafeira, and I see that both Julia and I have already tasted it. But it was still a bit cloudy from having been brought to London and, as Dirk said, should have been decanted and served a little cooler. It seemed so sweet and bumptious compared with the ethereal 1863. Big, bold and mouth-filling. I found myself unable to make comparisons with any other sort of port because it's nothing like an old tawny (obviously, since it has seen so much less wood) and nothing like a vintage or even ruby, having been put into – large – glass later. A one-off! 

21%
Drink
2007
2040
17

Funnily enough, the port I had most recently tasted before this 1863 was another particularly venerable one, the 1870 colheita that Last Drop Distillers kindly served at our glass launch in New York last week, being members, like my glassware collaborator Ricard Brendon, of the Walpole project designed to promote British luxury.

Having spent virtually all its life in wood, the 1870 colheita tasted quite different from the 1863 garrafeira: much more robust and vigorous. These seriously old tawnies are currently all the rage with port producers but only Niepoort nowadays continues the tradition of garrefeira port. ‘It’s an expensive way of working; bookkeepers don’t like it', according to Dirk. The ageing in demijohn confers particular purity, and the 1863 is delightfully ethereal.

Apparently the next-oldest wine in Niepoort’s cellars is white port from 1895, and then a red port from 1900.

While being hugely impressed by this Niepoort 1863 (I had a chance for a second taste when Dirk and his partner Nina joined us at our dinner table that night), I’m still bemused by the prospect of Dirk in an Acker saleroom in Hong Kong.

He recently bought out his sister’s share in the family wine business. I asked him what his motivation for the sale was. ‘To combine a perfect tawny with craftsmanship', came the reply. 

Here is where you can bid!

11 November 2018  I did insert the price fetched, plus an inaccurate conversion, late at night on 3 November when in Hong Kong but the correct price paid was HK$ 992,000, the equivalent of about US$127,00 or about £98,000. Below are, left to right, owner of Lalique Silvio Denz, Dirk Niepoort (still in jacket) and an official from Guinness World Records.