Vertical Tasting of Quinta do Noval's Nacional Vintage Port
The first vintage of Quinta do Noval's Nacional port, the 1931, is considered one of the greatest wines ever made by those lucky enough to have tasted this extremely rare bird. (I haven't seen a bottle in more than 20 years.) But a spectacular vertical tasting back to 1962 held in New York City in September made it clear that the best recent vintages should likewise be cellar treasures for those lucky enough to latch onto a bottle or two
AXA Millesime put the talented Christian Seely in charge of Quinta do Noval following its purchase of the house in 1993, and beginning the following year Seely oversaw a major replanting program as well as the rebuilding of the house's lagares
, or flat-bottomed fermenters in which the grapes can be trod by foot. Among other improvements he made, Seely replaced the porous schistous rock with granite, which is easier to clean, and painted the joints between stones with epoxy resin. He also installed a radiator system that can heat or cool the grapes and must, and developed a robotic treader. Seely, incidentally, has also managed numerous other AXA Millesime vineyards since 2001 (including Pichon-Baron, Suduiraut and Petit-Village in Bordeaux, Domaine de l'Arlot in Burgundy and Disznoko in Hungary).
Seely put the estate's wines back on track in short order (the '70s and '80s here rarely produced any fireworks), beginning with a
remarkable 1994, and the vintages of Nacional made under his direction
have been consistently outstanding.
The Nacional vines are not vigorous and look scraggly in the summer, typically producing half of a normal yield. In fact, the five acres yield barely 200 to 250 cases of wine in a declared vintage, and based on the wine's rarity in the retail marketplace I suspect a good number of cases are held back in Quinta do Noval's cellars. The average age of the vines is about 35 years. While no pre-phylloxera vines remain, the vines were never grafted onto American rootstock. "We don't really know why the ungrafted wines have survived," said Seely. Nacional, incidentally, is a reference to the estate being able to survive using Portuguese rootstock in Portuguese soil.
As a rule, said Seely, the Quinta do Noval vintage port is "aromatic, delicate, fine," while the Nacional is "bigger, even monstrous, with powerful tannins at the beginning." Interestingly, Nacional only includes 30% touriga nacional, which normally provides the backbone of vintage ports, while Noval's regular vintage wine includes up to 50% touriga nacional. But Seely believes that the quality of Nacional is less a question of its varietal make-up and more due to the fact that the vines are ungrafted and give much lower yields.
Quinta do Noval is the only traditional port house named after its vineyard rather than its founder, and it's also based in the vineyard, rather than in Vila Nova de Gaia or Oporto. "Our great wine is a single-vineyard wine, which is the opposite of everyone else in the heart of the Douro region," noted Seely. This tiny vineyard, a highly specific microclimate if ever there was one, is capable of making wine that merits the Nacional label in years that are not considered great port vintages (e.g., 2001, 1999, 1975); on the other hand, a Nacional bottling is not always offered in widely declared port vintages, such as 1997 and 1977.
Seely describes 1927 to the mid-'60s as the great period for Quinta do Noval, as the estate was managed by Luis Vasconcelos Porto, the son-in-law of the owner, Antonio José Da Silva, who had purchased the estate in 1894. The Van Zeller family became owners and managers of Noval after Vasconcelos Porto's death and they ran the property until they sold it AXA in 1993.
For the most recent three vintages we tasted, Seely also poured the basic vintage wine, and the 1997 was a knockout. You might actually find this one in the retail market, or at auction.