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Q&A: Dirk Niepoort, Niepoort Wines, Douro, Portugal

Q&A: Dirk Niepoort, Niepoort Wines, Douro, Portugal
© Andreas Durst
Dirk Niepoort is the fifth generation of his family to run the port shipping house of Niepoort, based in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. A self-trained winemaker, he is at the vanguard of moves to produce fine table wines in the Douro Valley.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

I really don’t look in the mirror, because sometimes when I see people, I think, 'Wow, that woman or that guy looks really old,' and then I realize they’re younger than me! 

Where did you grow up?

In Porto. I had no connection with the Douro at all, though at home I was responsible for decanting and pouring wine for visitors and guests from about the age of seven or eight.  

Where were you educated?

I was supposed to go to Germany to university, but I ended up doing a pre-university course in Switzerland and stayed on to study economics. At the end of my degree, I had the choice to do a stagiare [internship] with Mövenpick or in a bank. I went to see the people at [Swiss hotel chain] Mövenpick and it worked out well, even though I arrived all dirty because I had problems with my car and, when they asked me about the money, I misunderstood and asked for double the amount I should have.

What drew you to wine? Did you ever rebel against the family tradition?

I never felt pressure to join the family business. At Mövenpick, I spent three months in the French part of the business. My two bosses there liked me very much and let me help pour wines at tastings, and explained why they tasted like they did. That’s when I started getting interested in wine and when I returned to Zurich, I volunteered to help with tastings; my first was Pétrus, then Guigal. They didn’t pay me, but we agreed that at the end of the year, they’d give me a bottle of wine I’d never buy for myself.

After that, I did vintage at Cuvaison winery in the Napa Valley and, in 1987, returned to Portugal and started working with my father.

Other than single-vintage ports, making port is very much about blending, and this is the case with most of your table wines, too. So how do you answer the hoary chestnut: is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery? 

The winemaker’s function is to respect the vineyard – not to influence it too much – but ultimately, I think a blend is always a better wine (though 'better' is always relative). If you have a vineyard that’s special because of its character, then blending it away might be a shame. But in theory, a blend is best. 

Vintage port and Madeira have long enjoyed a worldwide reputation as fine wines. How long before Portugal’s table wines are held in similar esteem?

The first question is, will they get there? Portugal went from making rustic, old-fashioned, big-style wines to making modern-world, fruity, castrated things, which were not as good because the personality had gone. Portugal can make wines with quality and character, but it depends which way people go. What I see at the moment is some people making good stuff and helping us become better known, but at the same time, a lot of other people pushing the quality down. It’s changing and quality is getting better, but there is still a lot of bad wine; unless the average quality level goes up, Portugal will suffer. On the whole, I’m an optimist, so it might take five years or 50 years, but I think it will happen.

Do you make wine for the people, the critics or yourself?

I’ve never made any wine for anybody but myself. 

Your view of the Robert Parker system of ranking wines? 

One day, my Dutch importer phoned to say, 'Your wine got 100 points in Parker.'* I was not happy at all. He was astonished, because he thought I was going to be happy. I said, 'I’m not happy because this is going to destroy all the work I’ve done on the ground – it’s too early to have 100 points.' I wanted to build up the reputation slowly first, so my take was that getting 100 points would mean the price would go crazy and the customers I was trying to gain wouldn’t be able to afford it.

As I get older, I care less and less. And more and more I want to build our reputation on word of mouth with customers who eventually have the money but, more than anything, have a taste and respect for what we do. That creates the image, not the Parker or "Wine Speculator" [sic] way. It’s slower, but much safer – less volatile.

What impact is the recession having on your business? How are you handling the changing economic times?

We have enjoyed 80 percent growth in the first three months of this year, so we don’t suffer anything at the moment. Sometimes I think the recession is a good thing, because otherwise we’d grow far too fast and it would be out of control.

Is there such a thing as luxury wine?

Yes, there’s bullshit wine, which is probably what you mean by luxury wine. It’s built on fake arguments that have nothing to do with the wine, but that’s part of our world. We live in an extremely false world.

In wine terms, who are your heroes?

Our senior master blender, José Nogueira, and his son José Rodrigo Nogueira. [Legendary Italian winemaker] Angelo Gaja was very important for me on doing things very well, but also some things I think he did less well. By watching, I learned a lot from him and – I don’t know how or why – he always had time for me.

What is it you most dislike in a wine?

Points. Very disturbing. I went to a fantastic tasting recently and they forced me to give points. It was interesting because it simplifies things, which is exactly what I don’t like about it. But the modern world is built on 'the best,' and if you have money, you can have it. Nowadays, I realize that there are moments when great wines are too young or it’s not the right setting or the right moment to drink them and, in reality, a petite année [a wine from a lesser year] is preferable to a grand vin – much more fun to drink. The best doesn’t exist as such.

What has been your greatest winemaking achievement?

I thought it was the 2005 vintage, but now I think it’s the 2009 vintage.

And failure?

I don’t believe in failures; they are part of the process of getting better. 

Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.

A bottle from a shipwreck in 1600 which someone gave me. It’s still full – amazing that it’s so old and perfect.

Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?

Pepper steak with young vintage port. Most people have a big, extracted wine with pepper steak, but the pepper makes the wine even bigger and totally unbalanced. With port, the sweetness combines with the green pepper and makes it taste like a wine. 

During harvest, whom or what do you pray to?

The grapes – to have acidity and not to be too fat and overripe.

What would you want the last wine you taste to be?

Cockburn’s 1927 Port. It was one of those perfect wines made in huge quantities and still very good.

Do you have any regrets?

No, it’s all part of growing up.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

Good wines. I was eating at a restaurant in Lille with my son Daniel. When we got there, they started serving Krug '64 or something like that. I was enjoying it and suddenly my son looked at me and said, 'Papi, you really like wine, don’t you? You look so happy.' It’s true. If I go into the cellar or the vineyards in Carnuntum [Austria], I'm very happy.

What do you think would make the world a better place?

If people would be less selfish and less happy about bad things happening to others.

In the end, what really matters?

Health, because it makes it possible to enjoy friends, good simple food and good wine.

*Clarification from Mr. Niepoort: "The Dutch importer was mistaken. Someone told him that our vintage was given 100 points by Parker (which never happened) and so he called me to congratulate me on the 100 points which we never received. I believe that only one Niepoort wine (port) ever received 100 points – from The Wine Spectator: the vintage 1927."

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  • Comments

    Paulo Osório wrote:
    27-Aug-2012 at 12:17:14 (GMT)

    Great Interview of Dirk Niepoort! Good to see that Dirk is in good shape and ageing well, like most of his good wines. Very nice to see that he keeps his priorities right and is not getting lazy to say whatever he thinks. Hope he manages to have enough time to let his children learn from him.

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