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Sunday 16 October 2011

Noval Dinner at Cambridge Hotel du Vin‏

Last week I was invited as a guest to a Port and Portuguese Wine Dinner with Christian Seely, MD of port house Noval, at Cambridge's Hotel du Vin.

In the library before dinner, we were presented with hors d'oevres and a vertical tasting of Noval's LBV ports from 1997 to 2004.

Port, made by adding spirit to partially-fermented wine, comes in various styles with vintages "declared" on average only three or four times a decade.

When a vintage is declared, the port is bottled, unfiltered after around two years in cask with the intention of aging for upwards of 10 years.

In a non-vintage year, the port is blended into basic ruby or tawny, with aged tawnies spending several years in cask.

Finally, Late Bottled Vintage is port from a single year that has spent longer in cask than standard vintage and therefore has taken on aged characteristics more quickly and is ready for drinking sooner than vintage port.

According to port expert Godfrey Spence, if basic ruby is Economy Class, then LBV is Premium Economy and Tawny at least business class, in some cases (depending on the vintage Port) better than the First Class vintage.
I started with the oldest wine first, working forwards in time; the 1997 Noval LBV was a brick red with a relatively restrained nose and aromas of liquorice.

On the palate, it felt soft, elegant and well-integrated.

The subsequent younger vintages had unsurprisingly similar flavour profiles but were increasingly darker and more youthfully primary - the 2000 had more liquorice on the nose and felt younger and fleshier with peppery spice on the finish, whilst the 2001 and 2003 showed increasingly more ripe, upfront fruit.

The 2004 Single Estate, however, was a somewhat different beast; made with a different composition of grapes from the steeply sloping vineyards above the Douro and Pinhao, it felt fresher, more vibrant and more intense.

We then sat down to a superb dinner with each course matched to one of Noval's wines by the hotel's chef and sommelier Nicolas Arthuis, starting with a white port.

White port has the dubious distinction of being perhaps even more unfashionable than sherry at the moment, but like sherry, is starting to reinvent itself.

Traditionally, white port is a fairly dull, heavily-oaked, sweet drink and interesting ones are the exception rather than the rule. However, the Noval Extra Dry White was both very different from this and rather wonderful.

It sees no oak at all, but is fermented in stainless steel to preserve the aromatic freshness of the grapes (Malvasia, Verdelho and Viosinho) and whilst labelled Extra Dry, it does have some complex residual sugar, balanced by the natural high acidity of the grapes.

Hotel chef Jonathan Dean had matched this with the biggest, fattest, sweet and juicy scallops I have ever had, cooked to perfection and placed atop some sweet, slow-cooked pork belly with apple sauce - and it was gastronomic heaven.

Before our mains, Christian explained that he oversees a number of other estates in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hungary but that Noval was for him where it all started and therefore he retains a special affection for it.

His remit - the estates are all owned by French insurer AXA Millesimes as a somewhat leftfield investment - is to increase the capital value of the property which means the task is a more interesting one of focusing on quality and reputation, rather than increasing volumes and grinding out market share every year.

In 2003, as something of a sideline, Christian began making table wines at Noval but it was only by 2007 that they were producing something that he was happy with.

We had two mains, each with a table wine to match and, for me, this was the most interesting part of the meal as, having tried Portuguese wines a number of times now, I feel that they probably need not just food, but the right type of food, to show their best.

We started with a 2007 Cedro do Noval, a blend of native grapes Touriga Nacional,  Touriga Francese and Tinto Roriz as well as 15% Syrah whose addition means it has to carry the humble classification of Vinho Regional Diuriense.

Matched with poached cannon of lamb with pea mousse and mint, the nose showed blueberry and elderberry fruit, complex vanilla spice, liquorice and touch of funky woody undergrowth with mushroomy leatheriness.

I have historically found that Portugal's native red grapes result in a very focused, somewhat lean-feeling wine, whilst the addition of international varieties seems to round them out, making them easier drinkers.

That proved to be the case here with the wine having some of the rounded softness of the Syrah on the palate, whilst the characteristic aromas of eucalyptus and liquorice matched perfectly with the mint and pea accompaniment.

The next wine was a Quinta do Noval 2007 and, with only native varieties, it carries the more prestigious tag of Douro DOC.

It is a blend of Touriga Nacional for elegance, Touriga Francesa for freshness and Tinta Cão whose effect on the wine Christian explained as rather elusive other than that it "just makes the wine better".

It had an intense nose of mint, liquorice and chocolate with leatheriness and mushrooms and, with dark berry fruit and more minty liquorice and vanilla on the palate, it is very impressive in a "demanding rather than quaffing" sort of way.

It was matched with a farce of venison - essentially a poshed-up but very delicious venison meatball flavoured with rosemary - and spiced pickled red cabbage.

Again, the match worked on several levels with both the rosemary / eucalyptus and the spice / vanilla aromas complementing each other, whilst the slightly leaner mouthfeel of wine matched the texture of the meat.

To me, both wines had a slightly funky nose, albeit in a very pleasant, Pinot-esque way and , recalling a conversation I had with Charlotte Oakley when tasting her Portuguese wines, I asked if there might be any Brett in the wine.

Christian replied that historically Douro wines showed a lot of Brett (a fault due to bacteria, which makes the wine smell of sweaty saddle) which the Portuguese had blithely taken as their gout de terroir.

Now pointed out to them as actually a fault, it is much less common as a result and Christian's opinion was there was no Brett in the wines so I therefore assume the funkiness must be either a characteristic from the grapes or a very mild case of Brett.

Discussing the idea of blending wines, my neighbour then asked about the role of the blender and the answer he got bears repeating.

Christian started by saying that really good blenders are very hard to find - and equally hard to live with - before telling the story of one who decided he would like a glass-fronted tasting room overlooking the vineyards in which he could be inspired to make the great blends of the future, adding "And if next year I do not feel quite so inspired, perhaps the blend will be not quite so good".

Having worked for many years in agencies full of creative people, this sort of prima donna behaviour is very familiar to me, albeit decreasingly in my profession as the long, boozy lunch and uber-creative culture of the 1980s gives way to a more workmanlike approach under the eye of multi-national corporate owners and client procurement departments.

So it is wonderful to see this sort of creative excess, indulgence and one-upmanship continuing in other spheres, knowing that the whims and humours of creative geniuses are being pandered to, all in the pursuit of the very best that can be.

It dovetails neatly with the point Christian made earlier about his remit being to increase the capital value of the business and means that funds spent on a glass-fronted tasting room become an investment rather than a mere operating expense.

He rounded off the story by explaining that there were also a small number of olive bushes nestling in the vineyard and these are visible from the tasting room.

Whilst the economist or accountant would tell you to pull them up and plant grape vines instead, the blender has decided he rather likes them being there and so they stay.

For our cheese course and dessert, we were given two ports to choose from as we wished - an aged 10 Year Old Tawny and the 2004 Single Estate LBV again.

To me it was no contest as the nutty, less fruity and more prominently acidic tawny cut through the cheese perfectly - very pale in the glass, almost rosé-like, it was beautifully fresh on the palate.

By contrast, the younger, bigger, more fruity and spiced LBV paired wonderfully with the dark chocolate tart, marinated cherries and Chantilly cream, and would have overpowered the cheeses.

After coffee and discussion about whether Chinese billionaire wine enthusiasts follow European wine trends or, as I firmly believe, are now setting the pace for the rest of the world, there was a chance to try Noval's new offering, Noval Black, three ways.

It is designed to be a straightforward, uncomplicated port for bartenders and mixologists and sampled neat, as it were, it was just that - if also very pleasant.

I have historically been somewhat sceptical about the idea of using complex aged spirits in cocktails, but have had the odd occasion to revisit that attitude of late.

And whilst decent port is normally the last thing I would want to throw into a cocktail, with the chance to try it in either a "creamy" or a "refreshing" cocktail, I found that in both cases it worked very well; the refreshing cocktail had a crisp, dry finish whilst the creamy one tasted of cherries and coffee from the addition of Kahlua liqueur.

For me, aside from the opportunity to chat with the MD of the company producing the wines, the most interesting aspect of the evening was the food matching, something I have long wanted to try out with Portuguese wines, and I was very impressed with the way Chef Jonathan Dean had started with the leanness and minty, darkly spicy aromas of the wine, building up the whole match from there.

But when I asked him at the end of the dinner if it had been difficult to come up with suitable dishes that worked so well, he modestly replied that it had been pretty straightforward.

The evening cost £65 per head, which is extremely good value given not just the range and quality of wines and the superb food, but also the presence of the winemaker and the bespoke nature of the event.

Details on future events can be found on the hotel's website - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx - or by calling the hotel on 01223 227 330.

Recommended Wine

With such a variety of wines, it is hard to pick a single one out.

The most interesting port was the 2004 Single Estate LBV, but lay down to see it at its best.

The best easy-drinker was the Extra Dry White Port with its floral aromas and touch of sweetness.

The most impressive table wine was the Quinta do Noval for its complexity.

The wines for each of the courses for the dinner were sourced from Cambridge Wine Merchants who also offered a discount on cases of all the wines sampled.


Quinta Do Noval - http://www.quintadonoval.com/

Hotel du Vin Cambridge - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx

Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

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