A dusty, curvy gravel road winds its way out of the valley and up the mountain. The road is flanked by terraced vineyards whose low supporting walls meander up the hillsides. Near where the Tedo River flows into the sluggish Douro, a long building suddenly comes into view. The building is made of the same grayish-brown slate of the rock it rests upon. Though simple in design, it's as formidable as a castle.
Although he's the fifth generation heir to a family dynasty founded by his Dutch ancestors in 1842, there's nothing aristocratic about the lord of this hip fortress. Dirk van der Niepoort, 45, greets his visitors in gray rubber crocs, Bermuda shorts and a loose-fitting shirt. He manages the second smallest -- but certainly the finest -- port wine houses in Portugal. Two years ago, he inaugurated his cutting-edge wine cellars here at Quinta de Nápoles, one of the region's oldest estates.
Crowds of very special pilgrims now flock here from all over the world to visit this wine bastion in the remote northeastern corner of Portugal. His visitors include graduates of the Austrian Wine Academy, award-winning sommeliers from Norway, Sweden and Finland, expert critics from the US, gourmet chefs and celebrated cellarers from nearby Spain. They all want to taste Niepoort's fine creations -- and give him a pat on the back in person.
Niepoort was born in Porto, but he inherited his Dutch nationality from his father and a German passport from his mother, who hails from the western German city of Wuppertal. The young port wine baron has taken Portugal's fabled sweet wine, traditionally popular mostly among the British, and introduced it to stylish bars stretching from New York to Madrid and Oslo.
But even that accomplishment has been eclipsed by his idea of producing top-quality table wines in the Douro region, which was the world's first wine region to be given a formal demarcation, in the mid-18th century. Niepoort's brainchild has triggered a veritable revolution in the industry. In addition to boosting sales of Niepoort wines, he has put this entire forgotten region on the world map of wine connoisseurs.
Robert Parker's "Wine Advocate" newsletter, the vinophile bible, lists a number of Niepoort's creations as "outstanding" and rates him personally as the best winemaker in Portugal. Hugh Johnson included two of Niepoort's reds and one white on his list of "1,001 Wines You Must Taste before You Die." And the magazine Wine Spectator has raised him to cult status, saying: "Niepoort is to vintage port what Krug is to champagne."
With his shock of reddish-blond curly hair, Niepoort does virtually nothing the way traditionally trained enologists believe it should be done. "I live for the wine," he says, adding that he doesn't want to create any of the "big fat monsters with a high alcohol content" that only impress on the first sip. "I make what the grapes give me."
After studying business in St. Gallen, Switzerland, Niepoort developed a keen interest in the art of his ancestors and decided to school his palate and nose in California's Napa Valley. In 1987, he moved to Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto's sister city, where he assumed the helm of the family business, which purchased basic wines from contract vineyards in the region, which it then matured, blended and marketed.