Portugal’s most famous Winemaker

Dirk van der Niepoort, a celebrated name in Port, pictured at the Niepoort lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia

The Douro region in Portugal is a historical register of iconic names defying any idea of precedence: Taylor’s, Symington, Sandeman, Croft, Fonseca et al. It’s a long list. If you stand on Gustav Eiffel’s bridge that crosses the Douro River from Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia you will see these names all displayed above the red roofed lodges that cascade down the slopes of the south bank towards the river. It’s many years since I had last visited the region and in those days I almost immediately caught the train from Porto station upriver to Pinhao to the terraced vineyards and white painted wineries and the wonderful hospitality that awaited.

This time I wanted to cover new ground and was continuing from Pinhao, south to Dao and returning via Barraida. But first a client needed me to call on Dirk Niepoort, another celebrated name in Port at his lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. It looked an easy journey from the airport but when you leave the motorway and encounter the warren of narrow, sloping, one-way cobbled streets the GPS ceases to be your friend. Suffice it to say the second time around I decided a pedestrian approach would be better. Street numbers are small and intermittent, the famous names invisible at street level. Niepoort’s lodge is behind an old iron gate that looked unopened in living memory. I had met Dirk Niepoort only once previously. I remembered him as a larger than life figure topped with chaotic curly hair, dispensing high energy. How in all my years had I never photographed this man? I was excited that the hour was at hand. It was Dirk who came to unlock that gate.

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It felt as if I was entering a secret world through a large creaking door. Distant roof lights illuminated the dusty air in the alleys between huge vats and large barrels. The dust was from the dirt floor and the view limited to a few yards beneath the roof lights. Barrels decorated with old insignia and numbers greeted you as you passed. It was a dark, catacomb-like atmosphere which I was reluctant to disturb, but warm rather than menacing.

I never travel with lighting, or, for the last few years with even a tripod. Digital cameras have such wonderful sensitivity that I can manage with a steady hand. But it WAS dark in here……What proved to be half way into the depths of the building Dirk stopped and turned in a pool of light coming from the right. “Here’s the office, the light’s better here.” And so it was, illuminating walls of old ledgers and sample bottles in a small office. Growing concern gave way to great relief as I saw my picture take shape in seconds. Dirk is not an impatient man, just dynamic and busy and had disappeared on other business leaving me to “sort myself out”. I had my stage, I just needed him to perform for me, which he did with calmness and understanding and even seemed to be enjoying himself.