It was a superb evening for many reasons, but was especially memorable for me as the first time I really felt I understood Portuguese wines.
It was telling that for today's tasting in London, he presented only table wines - whilst port remains 75% of Quinta do Noval's output, the emphasis on Douro table wines has clearly increased somewhat over the past year.
Christian - a dapper and well-spoken gent with a self-deprecating sense of humour who talked of buying a vineyard before adding that Venture Capitalists were involved because "you need somebody who has some money" - started by recapping his 20-year involvement in Quinta do Noval, eight of which were spent as MD.
He also emphasised Quinta Do Noval's much more terroir-focused approach compared to the other port houses - Quinta do Noval is named after a vineyard, not its founder, and has moved its base away from the traditional port shipping area of Gaia to the Douro itself. It also produces a port, Nacional, from a single vineyard.
He then talked about the extensive replanting of the vineyards that took place during the 1990s after 20 years of gradual decline and that start of making table reds in 1996 with 2004 being the first year he felt the results were acceptable.
There were a number of recurring and inter-related themes to Christian's talk:
- the wines from the Douro have a strong sense of place, they are very vineyard-driven / terroir-driven and could not come from anywhere else
- Quinta do Noval is one of the world's great, iconic vineyards
- Quinta do Noval table wines started as something of an experiment in 1996 and the winery continues to learn and develop
- whilst the Douro is a hot place that is busy re-inventing itself, its wines are distinctly not New World in style
- the focus on table wines allows new wineries to create wines based on smaller vineyards that would just not be possible for port
- the key challenge in making table wines is tannin management; the wines need to be approachable in their youth in order to be sold (they don't yet have the reputation to be sold for laying down). Moreover, if not handled properly, the tannins can be overly prominent and a little rustic, which is not a problem in port with its higher alcohol, sweetness and longer ageing.
My own view of the main marketing challenge that the region faces is simply that people do not yet think of the Douro as a producer of table wines, let alone great ones in a classical, Old-World style. The clumsily-titled Discover the Origin campaign seems to have done little to improve matters and what is really needed is a high-profile celebrity fronting a television documentary series with lots of shots of the Douro's wonderful UNESCO World Heritage scenery in the background.
The tasting started with a vertical of the Cedro do Noval, their main wine intended to be a serious, high-quality Douro red that is both approachable and affordable. This was followed by a vertical of the Quinta do Noval which is made in limited quantities from grapes that would otherwise be made into vintage port with finally what Christian described as a few things he'd done for fun.
Cedro do Noval
This includes an amount of Syrah in the blend (around 30% to 40%) as it does well in the Douro; Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, was a disaster, an ugly tourist that produced a vulgar varietal wine in the New World style. The other varieties are varying amounts of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Touriga Francesa.
Cedro do Noval 2005 aged paleness around the rim, dark elderberry fruit, herbaceous mint and vanilla, purity of fruit expression and a soft, Syrah texture with perfectly ripe tannins and good, prominent, rounded acidity. Mellow and well-integrated.
Cedro do Noval 2006 this includes 30% TN from Quinta do Noval grapes and felt gently superior as a result; dark fruit, herbaceous aromas and cigar box on the nose. The palate is younger, more lively and grippier. There is a firmer tannic structure but also a velvety texture. Again, soft and harmonious.
Cedro do Noval 2007 a darker purple in the glass, this feels younger and more lively, more grippy.
Cedro do Noval 2008 this showed more prominent herbaceous and liquorice aromas.
Quinta do Noval
These are made from varying blends of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Francesa; the oaking regime has been reduced over the years to make a more delicate wine - Christian explained that TN is a delicate and fine grape variety and not a Big, New World Blockbuster. In hot years, they put the higher-alcohol grapes into the ports and use more of the lower-alcohol grapes for the table wines.
Quinta do Noval 2004 signs of age in the glass - brick red hue and paleness at the rim. Precise aromas of elderberry fruit and mintiness, it feels harmonious, balanced and mellow. Delicate floral / wild rose aromas from the high proportion (70%) of TN and a long palate.
Quinta do Noval 2005 a darker purple in the glass with dark fruit aromas. A soft velvety texture with grippiness, herbaceous minty aromas and spice, dark fruit and good, balanced acidity, grippy finish.
Quinta do Noval 2007 from a more balanced year with cool nights, this is more aromatic on the nose with complex savoury and herbaceous aromas and dark fruit. The palate is vibrantly herbaceous and minty, the tannins feel more ripe, rounded, smooth and full. Texture is soft and mouthfilling with a muscular, firm grip and some vanilla sweetness developing.
Quinta do Noval 2008 there is dark fruit and mintiness on the nose; it feels younger and more lively. Tannins are prominent, but well-balanced - it is grippy now but lovely. There is good acidity and black-cherry fruit with herbaceous, almost medicinal notes. Very precise and harmonious.
Labrador 2009 the first of the "for fun" wines, this is 100% Syrah and is named after the winemaker's dog. There is lots of ripe, dark and black cherry fruit, a lovely soft texture with pleasant grippiness. It feels very classy and well-balanced.
Christian noted that there is some debate in the Douro about whether blends or varietal wines are the way forward; he sees merit on both sides and has made a varietal Touriga Nacional.
The overall impression of this wine for me was a little like comparing a blanc de blancs Champagne to a blend - more delicacy, finesse and precision.
Touriga Nacional 2008 dark purple in the glass, the nose is herbaceous and aromatic with elderberry fruit and floral notes. It has a lively, soft texture and ripe black cherry fruit. It feels very delicate, poised and precise.
Touriga Nacional 2009 herbaceous aromatic and lively with good acidity, poise and precision.
The standard of all the wines was very good to excellent and I am beginning to love the food-friendliness and elegance of Portuguese reds, whether from native varieties or the international Syrah.
A general trend was for the quality of the wines to improve over the years due to improvements in winemaking but for the older wines to show as more harmonious.
My favourites within each flight were:
Cedro Do Noval 2006 for its soft harmoniousness
Quinta do Noval 2007 for its complexity and vibrancy
The Labrador and Touriga Nacionals were also excellent.
Quinta do Noval - http://www.quintadonoval.com/
Image of Christian Seely reproduced from http://www.agoodnose.com/index.php?action=page&p=christian_seely