Pipachá: When Tea Meets Wine or When Leaf Meets Oak Barrel

Pipachá in cask. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

Crowning a sunlit hillside, on the Northern coast of Portugal, is a centuries-old vineyard that has given life to an exciting combination of flavors. The traditional Niepoort family of vintners has merged the worlds of tea and wine in a unique blend of tastes. Award-winning wine growers since 1842, they have created Pipachá (“pipa” means barrel in Portuguese, and “chá” translates to tea) by storing tea leaves in finely aged Port wine barrels. This creative process infuses the leaves with a palatable allusion to port wine. Pipachá has found a healthy niche in both the tea and wine communities of Portugal, Germany and England.

Nina Gruntkowski, the wife of Dirk Niepoort, is a passionate tea advocate and creative force behind Pipachá. Her teas have gone from eccentric side project to self-sustaining brand. Pipachá is unique among them, a seed of an idea grown out of the Niepoorts viewing of a collection of antique tea containers while traveling in Asia. Gruntkowski’s reaction was immediate, “I know tea imbibes a lot of aromas, and an empty port wine cask retains some moisture and a fantastic aroma after years of use. The concept was simple – why not connect these two wonderful worlds of flavor.” Thus, Pipachá was born.

At the Cha Camelia Teas estate, examining tea plants. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

A Combination of Tea Leaves, Oak Barrels
Upon returning to Portugal, the Niepoorts quickly went about turning Gruntkowski’s idea into a reality. Tucked among centuries-old port casks they installed a modern climate chamber and other necessities to test their idea. The assumption about the combination of tea leaves and oak barrels was quickly proven correct. “Over decades the wood in our casks have absorbed the port wine flavor, and we store the tea leaves in these casks for six months. We chose Oolong leaves because they already have a bit of a fruity taste profile. It is also lighter in comparison to the stronger black tea, so it opens a space for the port wine essence.”

The casks are turned regularly and leaves are removed from casks periodically, by hand, to air out and then reintroduce the leaves inside the barrel ensuring even infusion. As they have grown, the Niepoorts still assure their production processes remain organic with all leaves harvested manually. It is a demand of Gruntkowski, who views the plants as an extension of her values and family. The project has morphed from a small experiment, in a cold corner of their garden, to dedicating a section of their valuable wine acreage to the cultivation of tea plants.

Tea plants at the Cha Camelia Teas estate. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

12,000 Tea Plants on 10 Acres of Land
After seven years of importing leaves, Gruntkowski and her husband began the process of creating a commercial tea plantation in Europe; making Pipachá a completely Portuguese product in 2019. Initially, 200 shrubs were imported from Miyazaki, located on the most southern island of Japan (chosen for a similar climate to Portugal), as an initial trial. Over the ensuing five years, it has scaled up considerably – 12,000 plants on 10 acres of land, to support their growing line of teas. “For Pipachá, we selected semi-oxidized organic Oolong tea for harboring the flavors of dried fruit, plus it has a delicate tannin that gains a second life inside our casks.“

Using locally grown tea was an important mile marker and one that came with a learning curve. “We were skeptical, not knowing if the plants could survive much less thrive in our climate. The poor plants were subjected to cold, wet, wind and heat to test sustainability. It was not easy on the plants. First we rooted along the Douro river, but it was too arid and the soil slightly acidic in nature. Eventually, we found ideal conditions further North and closer to the sea in Fornelo.”

It was not a journey the Niepoorts could have made alone. Gruntkowski went to great lengths pointing out an enormous debt of gratitude they have to the Morimoto family of Japan. The Morimotos took on the role of mentor, visiting Portugal annually, advising Gruntkowski on possible pitfalls before and during harvesting. As well as educating them on other seasonal demands. They brought a blueprint of success that has elevated Japan to the forefront of tea culture. The Morimoto family shared half a century of experience; in return, the Niepoorts distribute organic teas of the Morimoto estate (and five other small family-owned producers) with their merchant contacts in Europe.

A Cha Camelia Teas tour and tasting. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

An Eco-Friendly Company
The Niepoorts are proud of their status as an eco-friendly company. Everything is designed with minimal environmental impact and simplicity in mind. Working in accordance with organic and biodynamic principles, no heavy machinery is used aside from rolling and drying purposes. Absolutely no pesticides or chemicals are used in any stage of production. All teas are vacuum packed, allowing them to maintain peak flavor while ensuring a larger number of packages per shipping container to reduce their carbon footprint. Whenever possible they recycle packaging materials and have received organic certification by the European Union.

Despite hailing from a long line of vintners, Niepoort appreciates that his wine casks only play a supporting role to the tea. “It is important to us that the tea is not overpowered by the wine. It is firstly tea, our leaves retain their flavor and should not fight for the palate. Our blending and storage process ensures this, working together for the right balance. Pipachá is about coexistence and unity.” Niepoort’s sentiment is a great encapsulation of their tea, as pipachá seems a perfect blend of European and Asian culture.

Nina Gruntkowski planting tea bushes. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

Pipachá is not widely available, mostly sold by specialty tea distributors in Europe and the United Kingdom, and it’s best sampled at a tea shop or restaurant in Portugal. House blends (aside from pipachá) are hand-sold to restaurants by Gruntkowski, who provides tea variants specially coordinated for their menu. The best way to keep up with the latest developments, such as plantation tours, tasting events, and other tea inspired concepts is to visit the Niepoort’s Facebook page for their teas: Facebook.com/ChaCameliaTeas.

On their Facebook page, you will also find a link to the Niepoort’s tea company website (Chacamelia.com), which contains the complete list of restaurants and businesses that carry their range of local and imported teas. The website provides details on their entire line of teas, as well as accessories, but only ships to European Union and the United Kingdom addresses at this time. However, you may contact a representative at the website to inquire about the availability of pipachá in your region.

Pipachá from Cha Camelia Teas. Photo: Courtesy of Cha Camelia Teas.

Martin Mulcahey is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., who covers health-related topics, travel, books, music, sports, etc.