Dirk van der Niepoort is the New Douro: single-handedly he has cajoled, encouraged, persuaded and hauled the Douro into a D.O.C. age of enlightenment. Substituting his Dutch ancestor's wooden clogs for fashionable plastic Crocs , with an enigmatic expression concealing dry humour, incisive vision and a passion for fine wine verging on the obsessive, he is the uncrowned king of the Cima Corgo. With irreconcilably curly hair and a complex character, this straight talking Beethoven of the bodega has created more stunning wines than might be thought possible in several oenological lifetimes. Beginning with the massively surly and delinquent Robustus in 1990, whose metamorphosis over more than ten years, from ugly duckling into graceful swan, stunned the wine world, not to mention his sceptical father Rolf. Paradoxically progressing to the refined muscularity of Batuta and Burgundian elegance of Charme, his winemaking virtuosity knows no frontiers and continues to push the boundaries of viticulture. Dirk's skills are not simply confined to the adega, among his many talents are the respective abilities to combine quality with commercial success, develop stylish marketing and impeccable design, and above all, communicate in a direct and clear fashion.
Echoing the great seafarers of Portuguese history, Dirk Niepoort has circumnavigated the vinous globe, located landmark wines and created authentic home grown classics to compete with the bottled progeny of his international heroes. Untrained, and therefore uninhibited, he has put the Douro back at the vanguard of fabulous fine wine and undoubtedly deserves a medal for his own Dutch courage.
Dirk Niepoort - a passion for wineEarly life - "the bug to like wine" Born in 1964 to a distinguished Dutch family of Port shippers, Niepoort Vinhos , Dirk rounded off his formal education by studying economics in Switzerland, followed by a rewarding term working for Swiss company Mövenpick, he explains it was two of the company directors who "gave me the bug to like wine". In 1986 after a year as a stagiaire at the Cuvaison winery in Napa Valley, he returned home to Portugal to work for the family firm. Dirk Niepoort's winemaking career authentically began in 1987, though prior to this time the young Niepoort had grown up surrounded by Port wines and when requested, would open, decant and serve at family occasions, though he says "it was not particularly special". During this formative period Dirk noted the quality of his family's own wines and when travelling to different places would occasionally open Niepoort bottles alongside other marques - it was then he began to comprehend why Port is truly "a world class wine".
Making a start: Though Niepoort Vinhos has a long company history dating back to 1842, Dirk is the very first Niepoort to physically make wine. He began in 1987 by purchasing the run down property of Quinta do Nápoles, in the Cima Corgo region of the Douro valley. The following year he added a second estate Quinta do Carril with a vertiginous vineyard situated slightly above Nápoles in the Tedo valley. His express intention was to grow grapes for fine wine, but the properties afforded no physical evidence they might provide foundations for greatness. Thus, the Niepoort family limited their investment to restoring and planting the vineyards alone. Ten hectares of older vines were preserved and an additional fifteen hectares planted anew. Today, the original vines are rising three score years and ten, in 1990 they provided fruit for Dirk Niepoort's first foray into the land of serious table wine - the now legendary Robustus. Four barrels were produced and only one survived his father's guillotine, Rolf Niepoort declared the wine to be "undrinkable" and was not alone in his opinion. The wine's tannic ferocity concealed any future potential and so it remained untouched, only to be rediscovered to great acclaim a decade later - perhaps this simple tale illustrates the perceptive powers of a young winemaker whose credibility was yet to be established.
The gospel according to Dirk: Dirk Niepoort eats, sleeps and breaths fine wine: his winemaker at Quinta do Nápoles is Luis Seabra a charming man of quick wit and formidable winemaking skill. The two men wrestle verbally but are visibly close; they share forthright opinions and are dedicated to the cause. Luis drives along the perilous vineyard tracks at high speed in a careworn Landrover, a not uncommon practice in the dangerously precipitous Douro, his hard work and dedication contribute heavily to the smooth running of Niepoort's DOC operation. Quinta do Nápoles is their personal laboratory, a place for generating, evolving and refining ideas. Like two mad professors, conversation is condensed and abridged - one understands the other and they get along like Mozart and a benign Salieri, conducting the terroir of the Douro like an orchestra. Nurturing each parcel of vines with careful husbandry and vineyard practice, with the invaluable assistance of farm manager Manuel Rodrigues they bring forth true expression, character and balance all the way from the schistous soil to final union with the French oak of Taransaud and François Fréres. Describing the Douro valley, Dirk proclaims "it is the hardest, most impressive, intense and expressive wine region in the world. It is more complicated than any other wine area I know, usually southern exposure is the best, but in the Douro we have 45,000 hectares under vine, with vineyards ranging from 80 to 800 metres. We are talking about 80 different grape varieties and many different expositions - north, south, east, west... The soils are mostly schist but there are variations within the schist, as well as granitic soils. These complications translate into complexity in the glass - it is an enigma to me how we speak about 2000 years of winemaking and only now do we try to understand the local terroir"
Niepoort feels what went before is often good, that modernisation and the uprooting of old plantings in the Douro for the sake of fashion is a mistake. "If we follow the modern logic of continually replanting we will end up in five years where the New World is now...except they know how to do it better. We will be fighting them with uncharacteristic and uninteresting wines, and it won't matter where they come from" He believes the Douro winemaking potential is huge and opines that making table wine beside great Port is "entirely complimentary and not a danger", the highest quality Ports can and should be made alongside stunning table wines. Dirk Niepoort speaks about the ‘treasure of the Douro' and of the many grape varietals contributing to the region's greatness. When you taste his family's vintage Port wine you gain a glimpse of what might also develop with unfortified wines of the future, something ethereal and intangible that Niepoort has already begun to make flesh.
A metaphorical man Dirk Niepoort compares winemaking to learning a language and cites English as a good example, "very easy to learn, but incredibly difficult to master". According to Niepoort it is the same principle when making wine in the Douro valley, many good bottles are made but only a handful can legitimately claim to be verging on greatness. These come from a select group of intuitive winemakers whose understanding of terroir and micro-climate enable accurate interpretation of earth and elements via liquid metaphor. Though Dirk Niepoort speaks of exposure in a viticultural sense, he might equally apply the verb to his own vinous vocabulary. His insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn from other winemaking legends, in France, Germany, Austria and Spain has subsequently benefited the Douro as a whole. The reason
is clear: Dirk Niepoort selflessly shares his thoughts and dreams with fellow winemakers enabling many to profit from his own intellectual and financial investment. By broadening his knowledge and informing his palate, he continues to raise the bar for the whole New Douro movement.
Almost biblical - Dirk Niepoort in his element Luncheon in the long modern dining room at Quinta do Nápoles is a privilege: Dirk sits at the head of a large narrow wooden table, with sufficient space to seat 20 people comfortably. He doesn't hold forth as many egotistical hosts might do, but engages in quiet wine conversation with those seated nearby, dextrously dipping from one language into another. Invited guests bring wines, and uninvited guests do the same. Often, those who bring bottles are actually responsible for making the contents! This international talking shop of celebrities, winemakers, writers, critics, neighbours and disciples is fuelled by bottle after bottle of superb Niepoort wines... Tiara, Vertente, Redoma, Batuta and Charme. Delicious country food is conveyed from adjacent kitchens, all prepared by Dirk's magnificent and legendary cook Maria José da Fonseca Mansilha. The whole scene punctuated by laughter and the recurring clink of crystal stemware, combining elements of Dorothy Parker's Round Table with the Last Supper and demonstrating clearly why Dirk Niepoort is so highly regarded. He shares his food, wine... and his ideas, inspiring and encouraging those around him to be brave, search for answers and think the unthinkable. Wine is this man's life and Douro wine will clearly provide his epitaph. read more - Quinta do Napolés..