Although it’s that time of year again when we start making our best vintage ports vertical and let the sediment settle for a few days, a port should not just be for Christmas. This is the firm belief of top port house Quinta do Noval who have a reputation for innovating and diversifying since its inception in 1715. Not only do they make some of the world’s rarest ports they also make one for mixologists. The Buyer hit the road and visited this spectacular domain in Portugal’s Douro Valley to find out how else Quinta do Noval has been pushing the envelope, while at the same time keeping its roots in tradition.
The unexpected October release of the 2001 Nacional, the world’s most sought-after port, which Quinta do Noval released alongside the 2014 Nacional is more evidence that this is a port house that doesn’t follow fashion.
I think it was the silence that surprised me.
That, and the sight of a ring of labourers standing in a vat of grapes, all with their arms folded. As if they had been expecting me.
Bit creepy to be honest.
I thought it was going to be more like a foam party.
The fact that it was almost 11 at night and the winery was in semi-darkness also made the grape-treading take on a quasi-mystical feel. A religious communion if you will, that had connections firmly rooted to the past.
The 20 or so farm labourers, up to their upper thighs in black grape juice and skins, do four-hour stints of this – two hours with their arms folded or linked, the last two with music and a bit of frivolity. Some are itinerant workers and move between quintas during harvest.
You can only hope that they get foot baths for Christmas.
It took me maybe two weeks of scrubbing to get my stains out (doesn’t sound right that bit!).
Also, the insects really go for you after the treading when your legs and feet are covered with thick grape juice that is just starting to ferment. The bites took longer to die down.
Every wine journalist, of course, has had their mystical moment treading port grapes in the shallow granite lagares up the Douro. And I am no exception. It’s a tick on the wino’s bucket list – up there with drinking a birth year First Growth and visiting other spectacular wine regions like Salta, Mosel and Hawke’s Bay (PRs please take note ;)).
The grape-treading is an integral part of the port-making process and is one of the only types of wine that still requires manual treading.
Because the fermentation and maceration times are very short in port production, treading helps extract the maximum colour, flavour and tannin in the short period of time there is before spirit is added to the juice and the fermentation halted at 20% abv.
The human foot applies just enough pressure to extract the juice without crushing the seeds that would result in bitterness. I guess that there are some people who are of a size that would prohibit participation.
Treading the grapes is just one of the many highlights of a trip to Quinta do Noval
As soon as you car turns the impossibly tight angle onto a mile-long shaded driveway that hugs the valley sides along the same contours as the vines, you know you are going somewhere very special indeed.
You’re also grateful that you’re not driving.
The taste of the salted, home-roasted, home-grown almonds, washed down with white port and tonic, is the perfect way to arrive before two days of traditional home-cooked food and a taste of the 11 key ports that Quinta do Noval produces.
Much has been made of the beauty of the Douro Valley. All justified, of course, hence its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage listing.
The terraces hold the vines to the sun for best effect, and look as if they have been built by a cartographer rather than a vintner, so perfectly do they match the contours of the steep elevation. When you are there, it is impossible to keep your eyes from staring at the sheer, majestic beauty that is all around you.
It’s one of those places where you wonder if the locals ever get tired of the view.
The steep valley of the Douro and its tributaries also means that the elevation range within the single vineyards is 300 metres giving great quality and flexibility to the winemaker.
All of the vineyards at Quinta do Noval are A category and all of the wines that are made here – from the table wines through to the top end ports – are made from grapes grown by the estate, the top ports all from grapes actually grown at the quinta.
Not only are the vineyards with their broad, white-washed terraces with walls of schistous stone so unique and majestic in layout but they are also studded by orange, olive, almond and cork trees, the latter with vivid red new bark after a recent harvest. Olives are no add-on here with up to 7,000 litres of olive oil produced each year.
There are some 145 hectares under vine at Quinta do Noval with a 1.6 hectare plot that produces the estate’s iconic Nacional Port of which just 200-250 cases are made in a declared vintage.
All of these vines are ungrafted, pre-phylloxera, and the port it produces is in many eyes the world’s very finest.
So prized is Nacional that in 2011 the bottles were sold singly and not in cases.
This port also follows its own timetable – sometimes a vintage is declared when a vintage is not declared in the rest of the estate and vice versa.
The Nacional vineyard itself is an unprepossessing stretch behind the quinta that doesn’t look particularly special, in fact it looks kinda straggly, although the port made from these vines is very special.
In its 12 wines of the Twentieth Century, Wine Spectator listed the 1931 Nacional as one of the dozen, the only fortified wine to be recognised as such.
Ironically the 1931 vintage was one of the occasions that helped Quinta do Noval make its name as a port house. It was a year when no other port houses declared it as a vintage and yet it has gone on to become recognised as one of the greatest ever.
Innovation and diversification
Quinta do Noval has always stood out from the crowd and been rightly proud of the range of innovations it has been responsible for, from the style of terracing introduced at the end of the Nineteenth Century through to more recent developments at the estate and in the products themselves.
Quinta do Noval was the first port house to create a Late Bottled Vintage Port and the first to introduce blended tawnies with an indication of average age. It became the first house to age, blend and store all its port at its quinta in the Douro. More recently it launched Black, an accessible, young port aimed at a younger demographic and mixologists, in particular.
The quinta has only been sold twice, most recently in 1993 to AXA Millésimes, whose managing director Christian Seely then undertook a series of sweeping changes, initiating a 13-year programme of major renovation replanting 60% of the vineyards with premium vines and moving all of the storage, bottling line and warehouse to the Douro Valley from Gaia. In 2004 the winery released its first still table wines.
Naysayers of the effect of terroir should stop at Quinta do Noval and taste through their range of ports that are so distinctive.
It is possibly the estate’s single greatest attribute that everything revolves around the estate itself – the company is named after its vineyard, everything happens at the estate, its top two vintage ports are single-vineyard wines and the whole winemaking process is geared towards strict, precise production.
The ports produced at Quinta do Noval are unique and very good. Staying there was an opportunity to taste many great wines but none matched a 1937 Colheita that was generously poured, so much so that I had enough of a glass left over to do something completely unforgettable.
As the dawn sun started rising and the shadows of the hills played across this unique valley, I awoke and sipped one of the finest drinks that my lips have ever touched, drinking in, if you will, the very terroir itself.