The Radical Reinvention of Great Portuguese Wine

Wednesday, 6 November, 2013
Ray Isle, Foodandwine
For centuries, the Douro Valley was known for one thing: port. Then Dirk Niepoort decided to make table wine, changing the Douro forever. F&W's Ray Isle catches up with the wine revolutionary. 
The first wine that Dirk Niepoort ever made, back in 1990, was an old-vine blend of local Portuguese varieties, from a vineyard called Quinta do Carril in Portugal's Douro Valley. He called it Robustus. The name was apt: The wine was, as he recalls, "a monster." It was massive and powerfully tannic, almost overbearing in its intensity—but still, he felt, quite good. At the time, almost no one else in the Douro was making table wines. Port ruled the region, as it had since the 1700s. The Niepoort family business, which Dirk's father, Rolf, directed, was port.

Dirk made four barrels of Robustus, then headed off to Australia to work the harvest in the Barossa and extend his knowledge of winemaking. When he returned to Portugal several months later, he stopped by the family cellars in Oporto to taste how his wine was progressing. But the wine wasn't there. "My father," Niepoort recalls, "had given away three of the four barrels I made to the workers."

When Niepoort told me this, we were sitting at the table in his backyard, midway through one of the frequent dinner parties he likes to give. He's a talented cook, and he seems to enjoy nothing more than bringing together a crowd of friends, employees, other winemakers, passing journalists and anyone else, then plying them with terrific food and wine (the cellar under his house is jammed to the ceiling with bottles). It's a generosity of spirit that's appealingly Rabelaisian and very hard to dislike.

I said, "Your father gave away the wine you'd made? Why?"

"He said it was shit," Niepoort replied.

There are a few things to know about Dirk Niepoort beyond his refusal to mince words (apparently a trait that runs in the family). He is 49. The Niepoort family, which is Dutch, has been in the port business since 1842, when they moved to Portugal from Holland. Dirk Niepoort is the fifth generation to work for the family company, and since 1997, he has been in charge.

Prior to his involvement, the Niepoorts ran what was purely a port trading company. They purchased finished wines from growers in the Douro, then blended, aged and bottled them in Oporto, selling the end result under the Niepoort name (not an unusual practice at the time). Neither Dirk Niepoort's father nor his grandfather, in fact, ever spent a single night up in the Douro wine region; they lived and worked in Oporto. And while the company's ports had a good reputation, it was a limited one. As Niepoort says, "We were a good house, but we were a secret. We were well-known in Belgium, but that's it."

Though it may seem so in retrospect, Niepoort wasn't trying to make a statement when, at the age of 26, he produced that first table wine. "My general manager paints me as a visionary, which is bullshit," he says. "I like wine! That's why I wanted to make it." Today wine, not port, makes up 60 percent of the family business, and the company that was "well-known in Belgium" is the third-largest wine producer in the Douro. On top of that, visionary or not, Dirk Niepoort is probably the one person most responsible for changing the world's opinion of exactly how great Portuguese wine can be.

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