Happiness Always Returns to Port
In the heart of Douro, the sun beats down on the old vines and ancient walled terraces of Quinta do Noval as the house continues to produce that marvellous elixir port
Article and Photographs by Andy Barnham
With official records dating back to 1715, Quinta do Noval is one of the oldest port houses changing hands just twice during its history according to records which are tragically incomplete due to the ravages of fire. Perched above the Douro River, the terraced vineyards include the Nacional vines which – when declared – produce only 200 – 300 cases of vintage port. If you can find it, a bottle of Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963 will set you back £4,200.
Encompassing a total of 145 hectares, Quinta do Noval’s oldest records state the Quinta was established a local priest, though it is unclear whether wine or port was first order of the day. Bought by António José da Silva in 1884, the Quinta had been decimated by phylloxera with only the Nacional vines remaining untouched. Following extensive replanting the Quinta then remained under family control for over 100 years, surviving the 1981 fire that destroyed the lodge (warehouse) in Vila Nova de Gaia, where the Quinta lost its historical archives and 350, 000 litres of port stock, until the sale of the Quinta to present owners AXA Millésimes who bought the Quinta in 1993.
Following the purchase control of the vineyard was handed to Christian Seely. An INSEAD MBA graduate in 1987 Christian cut his teeth turning around failing companies for Guinness Mahon Development Capital, “it was like being made the captain of the Titanic. I loved the uniform, but not the view from the deck,” says Christian. Having fallen in love with port while bonding with his father one Christmas, “Port is a great breakfast wine,” states Christian – on finding out of the AXA purchase – wrote to the company and put himself forward to manage the Quinta. Despite a lack of hands on wine experience (he had previously helped his father James Seely write the book Great Bordeaux Wine in 1982) and proficiency in Portuguese, which he claims was “massaged” on his CV, he was awarded the role.
After an initial assessment period it was decided that the Quinta would return to traditional and best practise methods of production following years of quantity over quality. With this aim, 100 hectares were replanted (a process which took eight years), a new winery, warehouse and bottling facility was built and the lodge at the Quinta greatly expanded (following the 1981 fire storage of port moved to the Quinta and has never returned to Vila Nova de Gaia). The fruits of Christian’s labour didn’t strike him until 1997; walking out of the London hatters Lock & Co he received a phone call informing him that US wine critic Robert Parker had just awarded the Quinta the maximum 100 points each for two bottles of Quinta do Noval.
Consisting of three types of slopes, the Quinta’s western facing vineyard – perfect with their combination of warm days and cool nights – start at 50 metres above the Douro River and climb to 500m at their peak. A combination of wide, walled terraces and narrower patamares without walls (made popular in the late 1990s) make up most of the vines with vineyard alto forming the upper most of the Quinta. Compared to the horizontal vines on the terraces and patamares, the vines in the vineyard alto, planted on slopes 30 degrees or less, are planted vertically and offer more plants per hectare. As no terrace and wall is needed, there is no need for maintenance and refurbishment.
Due to the gradient of the slopes harvest – which usually starts in September – takes anywhere from six weeks to two months to complete and with a large investor such as AXA, should it rain during harvest time, the Quinta has the luxury of waiting for the grapes to dry before completing the harvest, paying the local Portuguese workers not to pick while the grapes are wet. This however is rare with the rainy season occurring from late autumn to the end of February; for the rest of the year the Quinta is normally dry with the soil becoming very dusty underfoot by harvest time. Following harvest Quinta do Noval is one of the few port houses that still crushes all their grapes by foot in small, controlled lagares. Believing that the human foot crushes the grapes softly and keeps the seeds intact teams of up to eight spend three hours locked arm in arm slowly marching left, right, left, right.
Producing a total of 500, 000 bottles a year, which constitutes approximately one per cent of the port market, 70 per cent of the Quinta’s production is port for mainly Portuguese, American, French and English consumption; while the English may love their port, as a market the French drink more, lower quality port, treating it as an spirit and aperitif, not as a wine. The remaining 30 per cent of production is wine, sold on the domestic and international markets, making the Douro region unique in the world as the only place both still and fortified wines are produced. Indeed, the recent production of still wine has helped reinvigorate the Douro region due to the relative speed of taking a new wine quinta to market; it is harder to take a new port to market when distributors expect to stock 10, 20, and 40 year old tawnys in addition to any recent vintages which is an impossibility for a new quinta.
Most shippers only make official port ‘declarations’ in special years under guidance from the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), But Noval – walking to the beat of a different drum – has adopted a different strategy. Several key plots in the vineyard produce wines of exceptional quality almost every year so – rather than including them in some of the other ports made at the Quinta – Christian Seely declares them as an official Noval Vintage, but in very small quantities. These are becoming collector’s items for port connoisseurs right round the world. As the name suggests, Noval is unusual amongst the majority of port houses to continue to emphasise the importance of their estate (their Quinta) rather than just reinforce a brand name. With a quinta such as theirs, it would be a crime not to.
So, where to start? For port novices or fans who want to crack open a bottle for an afternoon tipple, try Quinta do Noval Black, a recent addition to the quinta, served chilled and available for less than £20. Moving upwards, the LBV is available from £22 with the Tawnys going for £25, £55 and £99 for the 10year, 20year and 40year respectively. The vintage offerings start at approximately £70 for the 2014 and if you’re willing to open the wallet to the tune of a few grand, there are bottles of 1960s Nacional vintage port to be had and the odd case from the early 2000s. The festive season is coming; which bottle are you going to ask Father Christmas for?