Every book or website about the Douro comments on its magical landscape and remarkable wine culture. But nothing can prepare you for impact of the majestic river, the sweep of the steep and extensive terraces, the autumn fog or the baking heat of summer; or for the remarkable wines which are a product of this harsh landscape. We should properly save a precious word such as ‘unique’ for a place such as this. My pictures will probably do a better job than my words.
Of course it really helps if you visit one of the very top estates, in this case Quinta do Noval. Antonio Agrellos, chief wine maker, is an expert guide to the business of growing vines on these slopes. It is quite clear that taming the slope is just as important to him – and to making wine in an economically sustainable way – as all that goes on in the cellar. Among its many innovations, Quinta do Noval pioneered new ways of growing vines on these slopes. The traditional way was very narrow, 1-2 vine wide, stone-built terraces. These are attractive to look at but have to be tended entirely by hand. Noval introduced other possibilities which would allow the use of tractors. The simplest is vines planted up and down the slope in those few places where terracing is not required. Much more ground-breaking, literally was the creation of patamares, broad terraces with three or more lines of vines. These can be created by bulldozers as there is no stone-walling involved, just a shallow-sloped bank down to the next level. The drawback is that the terraces are much more susceptible to erosion and have to rebuilt from time to time – as indeed we saw happening on our visit of early December 2014 (see the picture above with mini-bulldozer and men repairing the terrace). Broader terraces of this sort can be worked by machine and do not spoil the great contours of the slopes.
If it prides itself on its innovation, at one point Quinta do Noval is as traditional as you can be: the grapes for the top ports are trodden by foot in the shallow granite troughs known as lagares. Although the winery also has the modern, punch-down machinery which does the job for basic Ports, it continues to believe that the soft, steady, tread of human beings for an hour and a half on the first evening and then through the next day is the very best way to maximise the extraction of flavour and tannins without getting any harsh substances from pips.
But in many ways the real treasure trove at Noval is to be found in the mundane warehouse which holds the ageing ports. In here you will find not just the short-term-aged vintage ports but the LBVs and Colheitas (up to a decade and a half in barrel), and the wines which will become the 10-, 20- and 40-year aged wood ports. In the cathedral-like gloom, the barrels and vats do the business of mildly oxidative ageing which here is counted in decades not years. Some of the wooden vats are believed to be 150-200 years old. Most came from Vila Nova di Gaia after the fire in the warehouse led Noval to be the first port house to have all its operations in the Douro Valley itself from 1997. That must have been an amazing move to behold! Antonio Agrellos makes the key point: with the arrival of air conditioning and humidity control (82% on the day of our visit), the slow maturing process can take place in the hot valley of the Douro, just as well as in more temperate Vila Nova.
Quinta do Noval is known for its Ports with good reason. It was either the first or one of the first to introduce the popular LBV style in 1958, a wine which has 4+ years of barrel ageing, is from a stated vintage but, unlike Vintage Ports, is ready to drink on release. It also has a range of excellent wood-aged ports: 10, 20 and 40 year old, plus fine Colheitas, plus a range of Ports for drinking young. At the top of the tree there are Vintage Port and the rare vintage Nacional. The latter is made from the fruit of tiny plots of ungrafted vines, thus in true contact with the soil of the nation, hence its name. But Noval has also been at the forefront of developing Douro table wines, up to now mostly red. As the market for fortified wines has become more difficult, the far-seeing house have diversified into table wine. My essay on this subject can be read here. Of the Quinta’s 750,000 bottles, 70% is Port and 30% table wine.
Cedro do Noval, 13.5%, 2007 – a second wine being a blend of Douro varieties (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cao) with 10-20% Syrah depending on the vintage. The presence of Syrah means it can’t be a Douro appellation wine. Excellent depth of blackberry and some red berried fruit, very smooth tannins, lifted and elegant, a real achievement to get this level of extraction and elegance in this supposedly ‘second wine’. Antonio Agrellos believes in long maceration times (15-22 days post-fermentation) and that ‘the longer the time, the silkier the tannins’. That is only possible where the tannins are fully mature as they clearly were here. A fine oak sheen is given by ageing 80% of the wine in 1-year old barrels from sister AXA-winery, Pichon Baron, Pauillac, plus the other 20% in new barrels.
Labrador Syrah 2011 – 100% Syrah, 6,000 bottles only, with a nice reference to a favourite dog and to the Portuguese for ‘farmer’ (Lavrador). Very elegant and intense violets and red fruit on nose and palate. If every where else can make good Syrah, why not the Douro?
Quinta do Noval, Douro DOC, 2011 – 60% Touriga Nacional, 40% Touriga Franca, again 20% new oak. Making a great table wine is 2011 was an interesting challenge for the Douro wineries as there was inevitably an internal tussle for the best fruit to go into the really outstanding 2011 vintage Port. This is perhaps three years off the beginning of its best drinking window but shows very good potential with the intense mature fruit and balancing acidity and structure.
10-Year Old Tawny – a judicious blend of many years’ wines and many varieties if mainly the five principal Port ones. To carry ’10 year old’ on the label the wine must be of the character of a 10-year old tawny, irrespective of actual age and this is checked by the Port authorities. Pale tawny in colour but still with a hint of red; fine combination of dried fruit with some fresh fruit notes and sweetness attenuated by all those years in the barrel; long, fine, everything you want in this style. Tawnies are a miracle of good house keeping: the best quality fruit of course goes into vintage Ports, then to the unfiltered LBV, then Colheita; but the long, oxidatively-aged Tawny style makes something outstanding out of the next quality of fruit.
20-Year Old Tawny – very pale garnet in colour and by now 20.5% alcohol by volume as alcohol levels rise with evaporation in the cask. Walnut, smoke and attractive acetic and iodine notes of old wine plus complex dried fruit, now just a touch of sweetness, extraordinary length. For Antonio Agrellos the 20-year olds strike a perfect equilibrium between developed fruit and aged notes, a ‘marriage of wine and cognac’.
Colheita 2000 – just released, bottled 2014 and so well over a decade in the barrel first, nearly twice as long as the required 7 years; that’s commitment to quality. Some fruit richness here, midway in style between the 10-Year Old and the 20-Year Old, lovely sweetness, very fine.
Vintage 2011 – just 18 months in the barrel before this, the grandest of the styles, sets off on its journey of development in the bottle which could be a year or a lifetime, that’s up to you. Now deepest ruby in colour; very intense and powerful mineral, even salty notes on nose, sweet deep blackberry on palate, powerful well-tame tannins. Extraordinary structure and balance for the long term. Outstanding.
Vintage Nacional 2011 – All of the above as shown in the Vintage 2011 but a powerful dark chocolate theme over the black fruit, real elegance; a clear step up in quality again to the this remarkable wine.
Vintage Nacional 2003 – of course great wine is for drinking, not just tasting, and our group had the pleasure of dinner at the Quinta and of drinking the two last wines of the evening from the decanters in front of the fire on a cool December evening … the perfect setting. The 2003 Nacional was still in the first flush of youth with intense black fruit, that smooth chocolate effect again, a fantastically full and refreshing mid-palate, great freshness despite the hot year and liquorice notes on the finish. The length will develop further as it ages. A fitting climax to one of the Douro’s finest and one of the world’s great wine places.
With thanks and acknowledgement to AXA Millésimes who sponsored this visit to Quinta do Noval.