- Published: 17 February 2019 17 February 2019
© Quinta do Noval and Nick Breeze
The roots of ambition
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Speaking at a recent launch of port house Quinta do Noval’s range of new-look red wines, Managing Director Christian Seely digs into the terroir to reveal the fruits of his carefully exercised labour. Is the beautiful undulating land of the Douro, with its extreme climate and steeply terraced vineyards, working its way to joining the ranks of Europe’s highest regarded dry red producers?
The Douro valley has for centuries been the home of fortified wines that have melded into the British wine lovers psyche. When Christian Seely arrived at Quinta do Noval 25 years ago, the focus was on restoring their 154 hectares of vineyards, and to once again elevate the reputation of the house. So when did this idea to produce dry red wine really arise?
Christian Seely: I couldn’t help feeling right from the beginning that this wonderful vineyard terroir of the Douro region, which has always found its expression in great vintage ports and also in great port that become Tawnies, could also find its expression in red wine.
So the real aim that I have had since I started trying to make red wines at Quinta do Noval was trying to make great red wines from the Douro valley that express the terroir of this magical place in a different way to vintage port does.
Nick Breeze: There is a combination of native and non-native varietals. Can you talk about how you go about varietal selection?
Christian Seely: Yes! I should specify firstly that the vast majority of the wine that we make at Quinta do Noval is made with Portuguese, Douro varietals. Something like 90% of what we do is Douro varietal wines. There is obviously some fantastic grape varieties in the Douro, and most of my production is Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão. Those are the 3 varietals that we have isolated as producing either alone or in combination, early exciting red wines.
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We also felt, right from the beginning, that it would be interesting to experiment with a few other grape varietals, on the basis, literally of experimentation. That is to say, we try them, if it works we keep them but if it doesn’t work, we don’t!
So I experimented with four varietals, very high-quality varietals that make great wines in other parts of the world. I tried Cabernet Sauvignon. I tried Mourvédre, I tried Petit Verdot, I tried Syrah. After a few years we realised that neither Cabernet Sauvignon or Mourvédre worked very well in the Douro. They tended to be varietal and not very interesting.
Syrah adapted very well. It has a chameleon quality to it. It gets on very well in the Douro and really tastes like another Douro varietal.
Then Petit Verdot… we only have a tiny amount of Petit Verdot. Petit Verdot is a minority element in blends, in Medoc normally, and is a varietal that does extremely well in the Douro. I think it is fun to have a tiny volume of Petit Verdot grown at Quinta do Noval in the Douro to show what Petit Verdot in the Douro can do!
Let’s taste It (1): Cedro do Noval 2016
Grape varieties: 60% Touriga Nacional, 20% Syrah, 15% Touriga Franca, 4% Tinto Cão, 1% Donzelinho Tinto. Vinified in Stainless Steel and matured in French oak for 10 months.
Aromatics of red fruit, Douro equivalent of garrigue, elegant and refined.
An instant beam of acidity, bright crunchy fruit. Striking freshness, gentle bite of tannin, leaves the mouth highly desirous for more!
“Syrah has really adapted to the Douro... smells and tastes like a Douro wine” Christian Seely
Nick Breeze: In the wines we tasted today, the freshness was preserved very well. Is this an important part of what you are setting out to do?
Christian Seely: Well good! That is definitely the aim. It has to be said, the vintage helped. That is a characteristic of 2016, the grapes got perfectly ripe but retained the lovely freshness and balance to them. 2016’s are really thrilling red wines in the Douro at Quinta do Noval, and from the area actually.
I have just come back from Portugal where I was blending the 2017’s and it is also a magnificent year but it is not quite so fresh, I have to say. It is more exuberantly ripe; the wines are great but it is different.
That lovely fresh elegant character that they have in the 2016 is something to do with the year but it is also to do with what we are trying to do. We do try to pick the grapes at the optimal moment. The Syrah, we actually picked in August to make sure that it has the necessary freshness.
Let’s taste it (2): Quinta Do Noval Syrah 2016
Grape variety: 100% Syrah, picked at the end of August.
Vinified in Stainless Steel and matured in French oak for 10 months.
More full ripe dark fruit nose retaining that sense of garrigue.
Weightier but structured, full-bodied; impression of dark berry fruit, a decent bite of tannin, gastronomic.
Nick Breeze: In terms of site selection, where you are picking the grapes from, the altitude, how do you deal with the extreme heat? The climate is really extreme, it seems like a massive challenge?
Christian Seely: Well of course it is but there is a significant difference in temperature according to altitude. So at a vineyard like Quinta do Noval, at the lowest point we are about 90metres above sea-level. At the highest point, we are about 550 metres above sea-level. There is a difference of nearly 3ºC between the bottom of the Quinta and the top of the Quinta. 3 degrees is a very significant (on average) difference.
So there are some grape varieties that it is more suitable to have in the higher parts; certain grape varietals that resist heat and drought very well that we have in the lower parts. So for example, we know that Touriga Franca and Tinto Cão do very well in hot and dry places; they resist extremely well.
Touriga Nacional tends to be in middle ranges but also does to do quite well in high places. Also, for example, for white wines… we have some white wines at Quinta do Noval that are right at the top.
Let’s taste it (3): Quinta do Noval Petit Verdot 2016
Grape variety: Petit Verdot, Irrigated to avoid shutting down in the heat
Fermented in stainless steel for 8 days, matured in wooden barrels for 10 months (40% new French oak).
Light bright red fruit nose.
Combination of freshness and tannic structure. Persistent ripe fruit in the mouth with a puckering dryness on the inside cheeks; begs for a plate of food (on the terrace at Q do Noval?). Delicious!
Climate change is a growing concern for many wine producers all over the world. In terms of a hotter, drier Douro, Seely sees varietals as playing an integral role:
Christian Seely: Well, 25 years is not so very long in the history of the world. It is quite long in the history of my world! Yes, we have noticed that we are having more heat spikes. There always have been very hot summers in the Douro for a very long time. There have always been years when there hasn’t been very much rain.
We are getting less rainfall than before and more heat, there is no doubt about that. There are many things we can do. Over time, I think it is a question of evolving the mix of grape varietals in the vineyard.
There are certain varietals; I spoke a lot before about Touriga Franca, which is actually widely planted in the Douro, and Tinto Cão, which is not but Tinto Cão is a really good grape varietal which is probably the most resistant of all of them to heat and drought and I intend to be planting more of it in future years and I think you’ll be seeing more of it.
NB: Okay, so that is a response. Is it the Petit Verdot that you irrigate?
CS: Yes we do but it’s very much in the artisan hand-watering way. The two hectares of land where we have Petit Verdot, a little bit of watering in the hot summer does actually significantly help the grapes to get ripe because the vines shut down without water.
NB: So it is really like a careful intervention?
CS: Exactly, yes.
Let’s taste it (4): Quinta Do Noval Touriga Nacional 2016
Grape variety: Touriga Nacional
Fermented in stainless steel vats for 12 days. Matured in aged wooden barrels for 10 months, 35% in new French oak barrels.
Much more floral, rose, very delicate. (Seely: “With age, those characters reveal themselves much more.”) Bright fruit, lively acidity, decent tannic structure. Gastronomic wine, calling for a range of baked dishes, cold plates on a summer day. Baked aubergine, peppers. Back on the terrace!
Nick Breeze: Is there a tug-of-war from a brand perspective in terms of the port wine heritage and developing this dry wine?
Christian Seely: No, not at all. Quinta do Noval is first and foremost a producer of one of the great vintage ports of the world. Perhaps the greatest of international vintage port, and that is my primary focus and it always will be.
The heart of our focus is on the vineyard and it is true both for making port wines and for making red wines. If you want great wine, you need a great vineyard and you need to look after it, and you need to work very hard in the vineyard to get quality grapes from a quality terroir. That is how you make great port and that is how you make great red wines.
Let’s taste it (5): Quinta do Noval Reserva 2016
Grape varieties: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, & field blends from Quinta do Noval’s vineyard.
Fermented in stainless steel vats for 15 days. Matured in 100% aged barrels for 10 months with 35% in French oak barrels.
Open ripe concentrated fruit aroma.
Lively fresh, fruit is alive. Nice balance of subtle oak, incredible sustained length of flavour and tannic grip.
Nick Breeze: Other port houses do make dry wines. How do you differentiate yourself from other houses, or even other wine producers, in the region?
Christian Seely: Above all, it comes back to the vineyard. Quinta do Noval vintage ports always come back to the vineyard, it is what makes Quinta do Noval special and different. We have 145 hectares of vines, of very great vineyard terroir in the heart of the Douro. What makes Quinta do Noval unique is where these grapes come from. The same is true of these red wines.
[End of interview]
With such a huge number of indigenous grapes, matched by climatic conditions that combine the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Portugal is certainly one of the most exciting wine producing countries in Europe and beyond.
The Douro, as both a place and a signifier of quality, offers the wine drinker something unexpected. The richness of flavour, structure, and balance, in the wines we tasted from Quinta do Noval, strike a chord of pleasure in the experience of fine wine.
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