This was an exceptional opportunity to taste some very rare wines indeed. Quinta do Noval is a historic property in the heart of the Douro region of Portugal, and has been producing wines since 1715. This was the first Berry Bros tasting I've been to and while certainly not cheap, it provided probably the only opportunity I will ever have to taste some of these wines, and given the (theoretical) cost of some of them, it was actually very good value.
Having loitered in the shop for a little while, we went back onto the street, fought off the beggars selling greetings cards (you get a better class of beggar in St James', don't you know) and were directed into a courtyard off St James' that I never even realised was there. It felt rather like being let into the outer sanctum of Berry Bros. We were directed into an anonymous doorway in the corner of the courtyard and instructed to go down the stairs. I couldn't resist a quick peek around, and up the next flight of stairs on a shelf was a bottle of Quinta do Noval 1931. Empty unfortunately.
Descending down several flights of stairs into the bowels of St James' we came to the Pickering cellar and a glass of Berry's United Kingdom Cuvée champagne, made by Binet (a very pleasant, full-flavoured fizz, by the way). The cellar has been converted into a pleasant, well-lit seminar room, complete with high-tech facilities like plasma screens and decorated with some very entertaining prints from the gallery next door. We went the old fashioned route with unassisted voice and spittoons.
On the table as we filtered in were the empties: combined with the heady scent of port in the room, this was enough to get the palate racing!
We each had 8 glasses, ready poured (rather inconsistently I thought, looking at some of the levels!), some overly strongly flavoured biscuits and some cheese. Shortly after the tasting started, plates of canapés were produced: membrilla and blue cheese, little tartlets, lamb kebabs with mint sauce, baby yorkshires topped with a healthy amount of horseradish and roast beef, etc. Very nice, but a lot of it did rather fight with the ports.
Antonio Manuel de Sousa Pinto Agrellos, winemaker at
Noval, with the Noval buildings in the background
|The wines were introduced with great fluency and charm by Christian
Seely, MD of Axa
Millésimes (owners of Disznoko, Suduiraut, Pichon Longueville etc, as
well as Noval), and a man clearly still in love with Noval, which he
managed for several years after Axa bought the estate from the Van Zellers
in 1993. Axa and Seely introduced a number of technical improvements from
the beginning and started a big re-planting schedule. By 1996, they had
replanted around 35 ha of the original 66ha estate, reducing the number of
varieties considerably, concentrating on touriga nacional (now accounting
for 50% of all the vines on the estate) and tinto cao. Seely also set
about increasing the vineyards, on his own admission by spending much time
in the bars and cafes of Pinhao, discussing Portuguese football and buying
the odd square metres of prime vineyard sites in and around the Noval
estate that for whatever reason Noval didn't own. They now have 100
hectares under vine.
The geology at Noval is basically schist, and such soil as there is is predominantly schist also. Vines are not so much planted in the Douro Valley, as inserted into holes drilled into the rock! As throughout the Douro, the valley sides are so steep that terraces have had to be cut/blasted into the rock: at Noval the vineyard walls retaining the terraces can reach 8 metres high.
So ... what do all those vines produce?
'William Pickering', Finest 20 Year Old Tawny, bottled by Noval for
Berry Bros. £19.95 from BBR.
This wine arises from a deal struck between Seely and BBR just after AXA took over Noval. The deal was very favourable to BBR. I got the impression from what Christian Seely said that it is almost a sort of loss-leader: he certainly thinks it is much better than Noval's own label 20 year tawny.
An even, pale leathery tawny colour. Good nose - deep extract of black fruits with dundee cake. Quite light attack, which then fills very well. Very soft and rounded. Excellent. Quite a bargain (which is not something you normally associate with BBR).
Quinta do Noval 40 Year Old tawny £68.75 from BBR.
Over 40 years old, of course, as the small print always says. Seely expected that there would be some wines in the blend that were 50 or 60 years old, plus of course some younger ones to keep it fresh.
As you always find with the oldest tawnies, this is starting to draw colour back from the wood again and presents a darkening leather tawny appearance. The nose is quite tarry with dried fruits and nuts. Excellent on the palate, rich and round. But also quite tough, with a touch of rancio. I found this a little unsatisfying: unusually for a 40 yr old tawny, it is lacking a little in elegance, really quite a bruiser and, I find, just a little unsatisfying. Good.
Tawny ports are aged in oak barrels, often for many decades before being blended and bottled: they do not improve in the bottle. This is in contrast to vintage ports which are bottled and sold young, and are then left to age in bottle. Talking about the selection of wines that will be kept for tawnies and their dated counterparts, colheitas, Seely said “You have to set aside Port when it is young as if you are immortal”.
1997 Quinta do Noval, LBV £12.45 from BBR (£10.99 from Noel Young)
Since visiting Noval earlier this year, this has become probably my favourite everyday port, and I have to admit to preferring it to some vintage and single quinta ports from other producers.
This was pretty much as I have come to expect. Dark and really quite young in appearance. Warm dark fruit nose - very fruit driven indeed, with a nice citrus peel note. Lots of powerful, concentrated fruit on the palate. Complex, full and very interesting. Great character. Still a bit young: it could easily go on for 20 years, and Christian Seely himself prefers the Noval LBVs - which it is worth noting are all unfiltered - to have some bottle age: he is currently drinking the 94. Very Good Indeed.
Now we come to the serious stuff: four vintages of Noval Nacional and the Noval '55. The Nacional comes from a small parcel (2.5 ha) of ungrafted vines directly below the house. The vines are on average 36-38 years old and mainly touriga nacional, tinta roriz, sousão, tinta barroca and touriga francesa: probably a greater range of varieties than in Noval generally. Sousão is an interesting variety, as it is not particularly highly regarded by other port producers, but for Noval it produces the intense colour in the final ports and also adds an interesting rusticity. Like the rest of the Noval estate, the soil of the Nacional plot is essentially infertile schist. It is high in potash with tiny amounts of nitrates, phosphates and organic matter. Although phylloxera is endemic, Nacional vines live just as long as grafted ones: 50 years or more; and when they die they are replaced with cuttings from other vines in the Nacional plot. Nobody is quite sure how or why these vines and the Nacional plot resist phylloxera, although it seems that in the early 20th Century, the then owner, Antonio da Silva, fumigated the Nacional plot with sulphur. The Nacional ports are incredibly rare - they are not produced every year (in years when Nacional is not produced, it will go into the standard vintage port or into other categories of port in exceptionally poor years - and only 200-300 cases are produced
1996 Quinta do Noval Nacional
A late addition to the tasting, added by Christian Seely, who has a singlar emotional attachment to it!
A deep, viscous youngish very dark black purple couples to a rather ungenerous nose of blackberry, leather and tobacco tar. Very concentrated nose, which continues on the palate. Really deep, complex and brooding, with some bitter tannin notes. Extraordinary intensity, but a touch monstrous and brutish. Very Good Indeed.
1997 Quinta do Noval Nacional
Extremely dark and inky in appearance, with a rather closed, subdued nose. Excellent fruit - full and ripe. Extraordinary complexity. It is very easy to see how the 1997 LBV reflects this wine. Really well knitted, balanced and totally harmonious. Excellent.
I find it very much superior to the 1996 Nacional, but it would be very interesting to compare the two after 20 or 30 years (chance would be a fine thing!)
1994 Quinta do Noval Nacional
A young, dark purple. The nose is starting to open out: soft clean fruit with heavy hints of gentleman's club. Very open on the palate. Much fruiter style than the 96 and 97, and possibly a little simpler in character. Seems to me to lack the finesse of the 97. Very Good.
Time for a deep breath and hallowed silence for an almost legendary wine:
1963 Quinta do Noval Nacional
Trying very hard to be objective, and not swayed by its price tag of well over
£1500 a bottle ...
A lovely bright, maturing colour, just browning and fading on the rim. A very distinctive nose - really quite different: tar and brambles are there, but there's also a strong note of De Kuyper's cherry brandy, and it's also quite fragrant, reminding me of a florist's shop and giving it a real vibrancy. Fascinating stuff.
An entirely stunning attack. Is this really 40 years old? Very pure, incredibly youthful and vigorous. Mouth-tingling. Loads of fruit and plenty of gorgeously elegant tannic structure. Can't possibly be 40 years old !!! Bags of life left in it. Completely extraordinary. Way above being merely excellent. Quite outstanding. Have it shipped to my desert island, please, Ms Lawley.
|I have picked up this label image somewhere: if you believe it infringes your copyright, please contact me and I will remove it.|
Tearing myself away from the 63 Nacional, I turned to the glass of
1955 Quinta do Noval
|The picture at left shows a bottle of Noval's 1995 Nacional
vintage port: this is not the wine we tasted next, which was the
"ordinary" 1955 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port.
How could this possibly stand up in the company of the previous wine?
Christian Seely was a little concerned about this too, but he was intent
on showing this, as it was and still is one of his main inspirations for
the future of Noval. This I found rather at odds with the replanting,
concentrating on a very small number of varieties. Touriga nacional and
tinto cão might be better varieties, but in my view the whole panoply of
varieties that used to go into port were one of its joys: some might well
be inferior varieties, but each added its own character.
Seely regards “Finesse and elegance” as indicating the house style of Quinta do Noval and contrasted Noval with most other port producers, in that Noval only ever comes from what is effectively a single vineyard. Unlike the big port houses, Noval cannot alter the blend from vintage to vintage by including more from one estate or another.
There was just time for a quick further contemplation of the wines, a heart-stopping moment, as others' undrunk 63 was poured into the spittoons, a brief chat with Christian Seely about the 1964 Nacional (he recommends that if you have more than one, drink one in 2004 and leave the other, as it will continue to improve) and to meet his charming mother, before emerging into the darkness of St James' en route to a little light sushi before the train back to Feltham where I was being put up for the night by a friend.
Noval is a truly beautiful property in one of the most beautiful areas of the world. In this photograph, taken by me in June 2003, you see the view from the terrace looking towards Pinhão and the river Douro (Noval is situated high up in the Pinhão valley, of one of the Douro's tributaries).
It was a real privilege to attend this tasting which had probably the greatest concentration of true greatness in wine in one 2-hour slot! Definitely worth the 6 hour drive to get there and the 5 hours to get back, both for the wines we tasted and for the re-kindled memories of an excellent visit.
All photographs are © Copyright Andrew Stevenson, 2003 (except where noted)
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Last updated: 18 December 2005