Sophia Longhi recalls her visit to the exclusive Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley and shares the five things she learnt during her stay. Is it time to grab yourself a taste of the Douro?
During a stay at Quinta do Noval, one of the oldest Port houses in the Douro Valley, I immersed myself in Quinta culture and in the wines of the Douro (quite literally, too). Here’s what I learnt on my visit:
Port has swagger
For those who like their baller bottles, you might be interested to know that there is less Quinta do Noval Nacional in the world than there is DRC (Domaine de la Romanée Conti, for the non-ballers) and that a sought-after vintage will set you back upwards of four grand (Vintage Wine & Port are currently selling the 1963 for £4,900.00).
Nacional is the most famous Vintage Port in the world because it comes from a 1.6 hectare parcel of vines, which are grown on their original Portuguese rootstocks, rather than grafted onto American rootstocks. Once a vintage is declared, only 200 to 300 cases are produced that year.
“Nacional tends to age slower,” says Ana Carvalho, Noval’s Brand Ambassador. “We don’t do anything different, no ritual; it’s the place that makes the difference.”
In London, the kind of places you can find back vintages of Quinta do Noval Ports (if you’re lucky, maybe even some Nacional) is in The Ritz or The Connaught – that is how exclusive they are.
I also like how it’s traditional to gift a bottle of Port when a baby is born, which now seems to me so much cooler than giving any other wine. A Nacional would be the ultimate bottle to open on an 18th birthday because of its stunning ageing potential. “In the long term, it usually wins,” says Ana.
The scenery in the Douro is jaw-dropping
Views over the Douro Valley
With every turn on the road leading up to the Quinta, I pressed my face up against the car window, marvelling at the landscape. In the end, my arm got tired of me whipping out my phone to film the view every three seconds. Endless peaks and valleys, patterned with thousands upon thousands of neat, wavy rows of vines. These stone terraces are the result of 2,000 years of man working with nature to create a world-renowned wine-producing destination. To protect their future, in 2001 the Upper Douro Valley, known as the Alto Douro, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The view of the hills, the valleys and the vines – with the majestic Douro river snaking through it all – does not get old. Especially when you are looking at it from Quinta do Noval’s infinity pool, which is built into the hillside in front of the Quinta. Did I mention – Port has swagger?
You can drink Port throughout a meal
Food is very much an important part of Quinta life. If you’re treading grapes in the lagares during harvest time (like I had a go at doing) you’ll all eat a big, hearty meal together beforehand. Or, if you’re a guest visiting the Quinta, you’ll be presented with salted almonds and olives, before sitting down to eat a lovingly-prepared four-course meal on a set of patterned plates which have been passed down through the family. Port goes with all of it.
A White Port and tonic over ice, garnished with a slice of lemon and a mint leaf, is a fantastically refreshing aperitif. Or a chilled glass of Ten Year Old Tawny Port on its own is perfect before a meal or with a light starter. You might prefer the dry wines of the Douro to pair with your rare duck breast and black beans, such as a spicy and dark-fruited Touriga Nacional-Touriga Franca blend, but a Ruby Port would also work beautifully. For dessert, a rich Vintage Port is heavenly with crêpes and Port-laced sauce and, to finish, how about rather special bottle of Colheita Tawny Port (we had the 1995 vintage) to accompany spoonfuls of gooey Queijo Serra da Estrela?
There are dry wines in the Douro
I mentioned the dry wines of the Douro above. This region hasn’t been known for its dry wines, historically – it’s a hot place and the acidity that you need to make wines refreshing and moreish just wasn’t there in the past. It also didn’t help that the Douro winemakers were looking for inspiration in the big, tannic wines of Bordeaux – and the result was somewhat… soupy.
“Much of what was happening in the Douro in the ‘70s was emulating what the French were doing,” says Carlos Agrellos, the Technical Director at Quinta do Noval. But, of course, the French are in France – and this is the Douro.
With that in mind, over the last ten years, Carlos has embraced the unique personality of the Douro and, with technological developments in the winery and extensive research into the terroir of the estate, Quinta do Noval is now producing dry wines with astounding freshness and “drinkability”.
Two of Quinta do Noval’s dry red wines
“It’s a hot area,” says Carlos, “but the acidity just runs through the wines. I personally think there is a huge future for white wine in the Douro, too. The quality is there, the demand is there and the price is right.”
It’s an exciting time for dry wines at Noval, as the first of the new “Terroir Series” has been released: the Vinhas da Marka Douro red wine. Managing Director of Quinta do Noval, Christian Seely, says that some time ago they had identified the terroir at the Quinta da Marka vineyard as having “exceptional potential for making quality wines”. The first of these offerings, the Vinhas da Marka, is a field blend of over 30 different traditional varieties from old vines, and Christian describes it as “fine, profound and powerful, with complex aromatics that develop in the glass, but above all harmonious, fresh, balanced and elegant”.
Time to grab yourself some dry Douro!
Timing is everything
It was in the Douro that I learned a saying from a fellow journalist: “Better to be a hour early than a minute late.” I wish I’d learned that earlier in life. Though it’s not exactly an appropriate lesson for Port, it is true that when it comes to Port, timing is everything.
Tredding grapes at Quinta do Noval
“20 years is a very flattering age for a Port,” says Ana Carvalho. “You start to get the tertiary toffee, caramel, dried fruits, as well as the fresh fruit and cherry.”
“Up to 30 years of age you get those harvest aromatics in Vintage Port,” says Carlos Agrellos, referring to those unique smells that come from the lagares during harvest time. “Dried figs, fresh dates, almonds, eucalyptus, dried herbs, raisins… It’s this style that links all the Vintage Ports, a freshness of fruit with cedar and eucalypt.”
According to Carlos, 40 years is the category where Port it reaches it pinnacle. I can attest that the Romaneira Tawny 40 Years Port was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever tasted. Butterscotch, smoke, peatiness, a length that goes on and on… It was Port on a whole new level for me.
Another thing to concern yourself with, timing-wise, is how long you keep a Port in a decanter. Ana tells us that you can keep a Tawny port in a decanter for two months and a Vintage Port for two days. So, even though a decanter half-full with Port might look cool on your vintage bar trolley, make sure you remember to drink it!
All in all, Port doesn’t need to be kept as long as it used to for all of the flavours and layers to integrate smoothly. Modern vineyard and winery techniques mean we can now drink our Port younger and it will still taste delicious.
“We’re not making port to be drunk younger on purpose,” says Carlos. “We believe we’ve never made port as well as we do now. The aguardente quality is much higher now than it used to be – it’s very neutral, very smooth – and we can buy our own spirit, instead of being given anything.”So, whether you like your Ports young, old, from a decanter or straight from the fridge, make sure you’ve got your timings right.
For your own taste of the Douro, a house like Quinta do Noval would be the perfect way to begin your adventure into the Valley.
Are you a Port fan? Let us know in the comments below!