Quinta do Noval   
Visiting this leading producer from Portugal's Douro region, part 1 - background and the table wines

Quinta do Noval is a spectacular property in the Pinhão Valley of the Douro. It’s also quite large, with 145 hectares under vine. Despite its illustrious history, Noval went through a dark period in the 1970s and 1980s. The vintage Ports, previously so good, were no longer very imressive, and the vineyard was allowed to run down. But since 1993, when the property came under the stewardship of Christian Seely after French insurance group AXA purchased it, things have turned around spectacularly.

I visited in September, as the harvest was finishing, and was lucky enough to be hosted by Christian himself (below), who has since moved on to head up the whole of AXA’s wine portfolio, although he clearly retains a great love for Noval and the Douro. The visit included one of the most remarkable tastings I’ve taken part of, looking back at Noval’s Vintage Port and famous Nacional Port going back to the 1960s, and even taking in the ‘dark era’ wines.

Christian commented on what he encountered when he took over. ‘Some of the vineyards were fine,’ he said, ‘but the grape varieties were mixed up in the vineyard: I don’t believe in that.’ He says that there can be as much as four weeks between the ripening of early (Tinta Barocca) and late (Tinta Cão) varieties, and if everything is harvested together, quality can suffer. In addition, there were funky grapes such as Mourisco, and some mediocre varieties which were simply planted because they produce reliable quantities.

‘A lot of the Douro was like this, but over the last 30 years we have seen a big revolution, with a concentration on viticulture,’ says Christian. In the old days, the growing of grapes was separated from the making, ageing, blending and selling of wine. The emphasis was on the latter four processes, which is why everyone was based in Vila Nova de Gaia. There was no emphasis on the vineyard, and the owners of the companies based in Porto didn’t travel to the Douro all that often. This is now changing.

Winemaker Antonio Agrellos in the winery

In Christian’s opinion, the noblest varieties are Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão. The former can suffer problems with flowering, and for both you are lucky if you get 23 hl/hectare, whereas with other varieties you can get as much as 50 hl/hectare. But 25–30 years ago there was very little Touriga Nacional in the Douro, and Tinta Cão was almost extinct. From 1994 Christian’s team began renovating the Noval vineyards, replanting in single variety blocks, mainly with Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Everywhere they could get a tractor in, they mechanized. They even replanted the old terraces so they could be mechanized. 


A more recent move for Noval is the switch from making just Port wines to making both Ports and table wines, which occurred with the 2004 vintage. ‘I’m very excited about Douro red wines,’ says Christian. ‘It has made the Douro a more dynamic place. As a small producer, it means you can make a go of it.’ He explains that it is very difficult for a grower with 5 hectares to operate in Port, but with 5–10 hectares you can make table wine and get it to market in two years, and then you can sell it. For a Late Bottled Vintage Port the earliest you could get to market is 4 years. ‘The thing that enthuses me about Douro red wines is that it will make the Douro more prosperous. The more prosperous the Douro, the more high quality grapes there will be,’ he adds.

As part of the table wine program, Noval have planted Syrah in their separate vineyard in the Roncão Valley, which has 35 hectares of vines. Part is rented on a 25 year lease, part is owned. ‘So far, I’m seriously encouraged about Syrah in the Douro’, says Christian. He views terroir as absolutely crucial to making great wine: ‘55% of Pichon is grand terroir. If you make Pichon from 70% of the vineyard, you are diluting it. When we blend the first tastings are blind, and it is uncannily accurate over time how the great wines come from certain parcels.’

THE WINES, part 1, table wines

Since the 2004 vintage Noval has been making top class table wines, which in my view compete with the best from the Douro. Cedro is the entry level wine. It’s more commercial, and is more open younger. ‘It’s our Merlot,’ says Christian. As from 2005 it has had some Syrah in it. It rivals the LBV Port in terms of positioning, at just under £15. Noval itself is described as a ‘Grand Vin that should age. It’s a serious attempt to express the terroir in a great wine that rivals Vintage Port.’

Cedro do Noval 2004
Lovely dark, fresh, slightly meaty, focused fruit on the nose. Dark cherries and red berries. The palate is really fresh and supple with berryish fruit and good acidity. Nice definition and freshness, with a little bit of tannic grip. Lovely. 90/100

Cedro do Noval 2005
Lively, sweet, pure berryish nose with some dark cherry richness, and appealing fresh fruitiness. The palate is sweet and vibrant with a savoury, subtly tarry, meaty twist adding some complexity. There’s some structure here. Meaty and berryish with nice freshness. Quite serious. 90/100

Cedro do Noval 2006
Very fruity, slightly meaty, spicy nose. Light but with some nice complexity. The palate is fresh, a bit sappy, and vibrant with open sweet fruit. Appealing in a lighter style. 88/100

Cedro do Noval 2007
Super-fresh cherry fruit nose with some lifted floral aromatics and spicy sternness. The palate is fruity with red berry notes and savoury structure. Some density here: is this the Syrah? Very youthful with good acidity, and some nice structure. Lovely. 90/100

Quinta do Noval 2004
Smooth, quite elegant nose of brooding dark cherry, blackberry and raspberry fruit and some sweet spicy notes. The palate has density and lovely structure with generous rich dark fruit and some spicy notes, as well as a subtle meatiness. Potential for development. 94/100

Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional 2004
Just 500 bottles made. Lovely nose: dark, floral, a bit meaty with hints of tar and spice, as well as a subtle green herby edge. The palate shows intense, savoury, meaty dark fruits with lovely acidity offsetting the rich, sweet fruit. 92/100

Quinta do Noval 2005
Very stylish nose. Pure, sweet, brooding plum and dark cherry fruit with floral aromatics. The palate is structured and bold with some dense tannins hiding under the concentrated, mutlilayered fruit. Power and elegance here, finishing tannic but not angular. One for the future. 95/100

Quinta do Noval 2007
Thrillingly complex aromatics: spice, meat, dark fruits and flowers. Brooding. The palate is fresh and vibrant with good acidity and lovely pure fruit, with a minerally depth to the sweet fruit. There’s a wonderful combination of purity of fruit and firm structure. Should develop beautifully. 95/100

In the next part of the series, I’ll be looking at the Noval Ports, including a remarkable vertical tasting taking in the Noval Vintage and Noval Nacional back to 1962. I'll also be reporting on the Nacional block in the vineyard.

A short film from the visit


See also:

Photographs from Quinta do Noval
Photographs from Quinta do Noval's Nacional Vineyard
Tasting Noval Nacional and Vintage Port back to 1962
An older report on Noval's table wines
The new Douro (series)

Wines tasted as 09/09  
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