By Dirk Niepoort
I love true vignerons – they are rare but they still exist – mostly in France, though there are a few in Germany and other places in the world. True vignerons believe in terroir, they have usually learnt from the previous generation, they probably have not travelled much and they are not specialists in anything because they do everything:
they tend the vineyards during the year,
they make the wines at harvest time,
they oversee the ageing of the wines,
they organise the bottling of the wine and
they are responsible for the labels, the marketing etc. etc.
I love the true vignerons because of their empiric knowledge, the wines they make and the way they live their lives. It has been by travelling and sharing knowledge with other people (most of them true vignerons) that I have learnt the most and I believe that this sharing experiences is of the utmost importance, as the following will illustrate.
Making wine in different countries and with different people has greatly influenced the Niepoort wines.
Would our wines be so elegant without people like Wilhelm Haag – I think not.
The Niepoort wine style has evolved since 2004, the year when Telmo Rodríguez started making wine at the Niepoort Quinta de Nápoles; he taught me not to extract too much from the red grapes.
Angelo Gaja was very important for me; by seeing what he did for wine in Italy and especially Piedmont, he helped me understand distribution and understand my own world.
Making wine in Carnuntum, Austria with my ex-wife Dorli made me understand that maybe my craziness for loving the high vineyards in the Douro was not so stupid after all. I learnt that it was only a matter of timing and understanding how differently the high altitude, cool climate grapes ripen; compared to the grapes at the lower altitude, south facing vineyards in Douro – it is all about acidity.
Discussing wine for hours with Elio Altare because I could not understand what appeared to me to be his stupid brutal and short macerations of the Nebbiolo grape, made me make a Douro wine called Charme.
It was listening to him and being totally against him in the beginning that made me grow and understand certain things in life.
Making wine with Raúl Pérez in the Ribeira Sacra and at the Niepoort Quinta de Nápoles has been a revelation. Firstly it is so humbling and stunning to work with someone who is so good and gentle and fantastic as a person as Raúl but particularly seeing him follow his own way, constantly doing things I did not really like but loving his wines more and more despite or because of this.
Though I probably had some influence on Raúl by getting him to pick his grapes earlier and make wines which now rarely go over 14%, while before they were always above 14.50%. We both have been pushing more and more in using stems; him as usual making no compromise, doing more and more winemaking with 100% stems.
The experience of making some fortified wine in South Africa with Eben Sadie was fantastic. I was doing all the hard work in those days and making all the wine by hand but it was very rewarding. While I changed his wines dramatically because of my love of using old vines and picking earlier, I learned enormously from him and we made a red table wine called Cape Charme and this was lots of fun.
Visiting someone like Jean-François Ganevat for the first time and after talking to him for 5 minutes and getting the feeling that you have known him for years was a wonderful experience. My son Daniel was with me and after 15 minutes, asked me how long I had known Jean-François. I told him that I was meeting Jean-François for the first time and my son said “that is impossible, he talks the same stuff as you do”.
Because of what I saw and tasted at Ganevat, I wanted to experiment with making a riesling in Piesport with Philip Kettern and share my knowledge with him. The wine is a 2012 riesling that was bottled just after the harvest in November 2014 and I am so pleased with it. Also, seeing and tasting the improvements to Phillip’s wines since 2012 is tremendous and very rewarding.
Jean Mark Roulot in Meursault is someone very special who makes wonderful wines and from whom I have learnt a lot.
One day, a Portuguese winemaker, Luis Cerdeira contacted me, asking my advice on an oaked Alvarinho. My response was to ask if he meant the disgusting wine he made, bottled in half litre bottles. He confirmed this and asked me if I would help him making an excellent oaked Alvarinho. I said I would under the condition that he would also make a un-oaked Alvarinho my way. This was the beginning of a wine called Primeiras Vinhas, the first vintage being 2006. While I believe that Luis is thankful for my help, I learned quite a lot in the process; particularly because it is so easy to work with someone as intelligent, kind and generous as he is.
Making Dado, which now is called Doda and is a blend of Dao and Douro, with Alvaro de Castro has also been a fantastic learning process for me and it is undoubtedly part of the reason why Niepoort bought the Quinta da Lomb in the Dao in January 2014.
Having Eric Rousseau come to Portugal for a Niepoort event called “Another big day at Quinta de Nápoles” in April 201 was fantastic but hearing him tell me that it was the best event he ever had been to made me really proud. Tasting his wines with him is an amazingly inspirational and educational experience.
It is not only winemakers that give us ideas for the future. Englishman John Crook has been helping me considerably in consolidating my ideas; not only about winemaking but also about ideas for labels and marketing strategy. Tasting and drinking wines with John is always fun and educational. Indeed, tasting, drinking and discussing wine should be about sharing experiences and learning but sadly, these days, the prohibitively high cost of some wines has rendered them out of reach of most young winemakers.
Very early in my wine career, Jose Nogueira and his son Zeze, who have been working with Niepoort as cellar masters alongside my father were very important to my understanding of wine. They are the 3rd and 4th generation respectively of their family who have held this position at Niepoort and the way that the knowledge and experience has been passed down from father to son is crucial to the success of Niepoort.
More and more I believe that by sharing and being open minded, wine areas can become much more interesting and will be more able to show what they really are capable of. For example, I believe that it will not be with techniques and great machines that Bairrada will show its pedigree but by respecting traditions and empiric knowledge and incorporating inspirations from other traditional areas such as Barolo and Barbaresco the real character of Bairrada will show itself.
I think it is so important for winemakers to share their knowledge and experiences and indeed it is because of the considerable input from others, as described above, that the Niepoort wines are becoming purer, more refined and elegant but without giving up their identity, power and their ability to improve with age in the bottle.
It appears to me that the world is going totally in the wrong direction with winemakers working more and more by the book, making a standard, global wine. We used to talk of old world (where only terroir mattered) and new world (where only the winemaker mattered) and I now believe that this is becoming absurd. We need to talk of old world style and new world style, irrespective of whether the wines are being made in the old world or the new world.
However, I am seeing more young winemakers not going by the book but trusting to their gut feeling, which most of them acquired from travelling and visiting other winemakers and discussing their wines with them. It is wonderful to see so much energy building up.
The globalisations of the world continue and are unstoppable but in parallel to that there is a new, old school of wine making appearing, which to me looks fantastic and I am truly honoured to be part of it.
Dirk Niepoort is the fifth generation of a Dutch family established in Portugal in the mid XIX century. The Niepoort House was founded in 1842 by Franciscus Marius van der Niepoort, born in 1813, in Hilversum, Holland. In five generations the handing over was done successfully and without major surprises. Until the late ’80s, the business consisted in buying wine from local farmers in Douro, ageing the Port Wine in the cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia and finally selling it worldwide. Dirk Niepoort, was born in 1964 in Porto, attended the German School until the 12th grade, having followed his studies in economics in St. Gallen in Switzerland and in spite of the family business, he was not particularly interested in wine or in the wine business. It was during an internship in Switzerland Moevenpick at the end of his degree that everything began. Dirk discovered the world of wine and the enthusiasm to fully understand what is behind the production of great wines has become his way of life. In 1987, Dirk joins his father Rolf Niepoort in the family business. The biggest challenge for him was and continues to be, managing the balance between tradition and innovation. And his first step towards innovation was the acquisition of vineyards in 1987: Quinta de Nápoles and Quinta do Carril in Cima Corgo region, which traditionally produces the finest Port Wines. In the early ’90s, Dirk starts a small revolution within and outside the company. By that time, the Douro was still known only by the Port Wine, although there were 2 or 3 wines renowned as Barca Velha, Quinta do Côto or Duas Quintas, no one ventured to produce table wine. In 1991, and without the full agreement of his Father, but with his permission, Dirk started to produce the DOC Douro wines and in 1993 Niepoort launches its first red wine, Redoma, 1991. Dirk needed however to understand what was being done elsewhere in the world, and to satisfy his curiosity and willingness to learn, began a series of trips to discover the great wine regions: France, Germany, Austria, Spain, California, Australia. He discovered, met, learned, applied and transformed Niepoort in the company which is currently a symbol of quality worldwide, represented in over 50 countries.