A Wine Revolution in the Land of Port

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.

Breaking Free from Tradition

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.

But this neophyte wanted to control the quality of the grapes right from the beginning of the wine-making process. To do so, he purchased two old vineyards roughly 150 kilometers (93 miles) away on the Douro River. He invested heavily in repairing their old terraces, and he succeeded in preserving the 60-year-old vines on 10 hectares (25 acres) of the property. At the time, he had new vines planted on an additional 15 hectares. Based "entirely on his instincts," he used the 1991 harvest to make his first wine, a red he christened "Redoma," which was as wild as the landscape the grapes are grown in.

Preserving the Old to Redefine the New

On harvest days, Niepoort drinks his morning breakfast tea before 9 a.m. and heads directly to the modern-looking 5,000-meters-square (54,000-square-foot) cellar to taste the musts in its wooden vats and stainless steel tanks. A lab assistant enters measurements into a laptop. But Niepoort and his cellarer, Luis Seabra -- who is a manager rather than a wine specialist with a college degree -- use chalk to write down directions on how to handle the contents of the various tanks on a large school blackboard.

When the 85-year-old farmer Francelinha drives her dilapidated truck full of grapes to the state-of-the-art weighing station on the Quinta de Nápoles estate, Niepoort greets her in person. After all, her harvest deserves special attention. Her tiny grapes are harvested from extremely old vines from over 80 varietals found nowhere else in the world that grow in slate soil on north-facing hillsides at altitudes of over 800 meters (2,600 feet). And they are destined for Niepoort's favorite tanks.

The toothless old woman is dressed in all black and proud of her harvest. Niepoort had to use all his powers of persuasion to convince her and other suppliers not to uproot their old vines to cash in on EU subsidies. "The old vineyards are our treasures; they make our wine special," he tells the veteran growers. If they give that up, he says, they will find themselves in direct competition with the rest of the world, whose methods of cheap mass production are too hard to keep pace with.

"People make the difference," Niepoort says with conviction. And, sure enough, it's 30 people who use their bare feet to crush over half of his grapes. This year, 16 of those feet belong to trainees who come from as far away as Brazil and Finland. The crews spend five hours a day for two days stomping down grapes in "lagares," the large basins traditionally used for treading grapes in Spain and Portugal, most of which have been replaced by modern equipment. But Niepoort has revived this traditional, labor-intensive method, using round stone basins from the 19th century.

Niepoort has also convincingly shown that it's possible to produce excellent wines using virtually no additives or technological tricks. Instead, he reveals his wizardry in the blending of the musts from a wide range of grape varieties. As he puts it, he's searching for perfection "in the marriage of the typical characters of various vineyards." It's a marriage he has achieved with the wine he's named "Batuta" (the Portuguese word for an orchestra conductor's baton), which he calls "the wine of my dreams."

Despite the global economic downturn, Niepoort has been able to sell his vineyards' annual production of 450,000 bottles of port wine and 150,000 bottles of high-priced table wines within just a few days -- up to 80 percent of it abroad.

His top seller comes from an idea he had in 2002. Neipoort introduced a low-cost wine that he exports to 15 different countries. Each has its own name and bears labels designed by the best-known caricaturists of each destination country. At first, Niepoort says, nobody believed in the project. But now it gets attention. The one he sells in Germany, for example, is called "Fabelhaft" ("Fabulous"), and its label is designed by the famous poet and illustrator William Busch. In Germany alone, Niepoort sells 300,000 bottles of it every year.

And it looks like the next generation of Niepoorts will also produce wines for the world in little Portugal. Dirk's 16-year-old son, Daniel, has already started to learn the trade in Switzerland.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen