Linden Wilkie is an occasional visitor to the For The Love Of Port forum and runs a company in London called Fine Wine Experience. Linden specialises in hunting out rare bottles of wine and assembling some extremely impressive tastings that are open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket. In the next few months Linden is organising a sold out tasting of Chateau Margaux (2003 back to the 1900) and a horizontal of 1934 Bordeaux.
Its been a while since Linden organised a Vintage Port tasting but when I bumped into him in June 2006 he mentioned that on 15th March 2007 he was going to organise a tasting of Quinta do Noval wines paired with the Nacional wine of the same vintage. “Interesting”, I thought to myself, “I might go along.”
“Its going to include the 1931 vintage” he mentioned in a casual voice. I bought a ticket there and then. How many opportunities will I get to taste the fabled 1931 Quinta do Noval and compare it directly to the even more fabled 1931 Nacional? This was and still is the aim of my port life.
The 9 months I had to wait crawled by so slowly. The news that Christian Seely would be presenting the wines just added to the anticipation and the agony of waiting.
March 15th finally arrived. At 6:30pm I walked into the room where we were going to taste the wines and saw a table covered in glasses, Linden working carefully pouring equal measures of port into the glasses around the table and just three other people in the room. One of those was Christian Seely, one was his delightful wife Corinne and one was Julian Wiseman – a member of the FTLOP forum normally based in New York but who had flown over especially for this tasting.
Gradually the room started to fill and the noise of anticipation grew louder. Eventually, when Linden’s work was complete he called us all to order and asked us to take our seats. I was last to sit down and had the honour of sitting next to Christian. But I was nearly the cause of a terrible catastrophe. As I sat down, I misjudged where the table leg was positioned. When I pulled my chair into the table my knee caught the table leg and knocked the table with an alarming jolt. 196 glasses knocked together and rang out a peal of imminent disaster. The precious 1931 Noval jostled with the 1931 Nacional as they swayed from side to side.
Luckily for me, nothing actually toppled. It could have been a very expensive mistake on my part but, after a few comments about how I would have had to explain my actions to a judge, I was forgiven.
While we were still waiting for two more participants to join us, Linden said a few words of introduction. He timed things perfectly since all the chairs were filled when he had finished. My first chance to taste this rarest of Ports was about to happen. Linden recommended that to preserve our palates from the tannic youth of the young wines, we should start with the 1931 pair, a bonus wine of Quinta do Noval, believed Nacional, believed 1947 and then move to the younger wines. No-one disagreed and we further decided to try the 1963 wines before the 2003s.
Christian Seely said a few words to introduce the Quinta, providing the audience with a small insight into the history of the Quinta and the special place it has in his heart as the first vineyard that he was given responsibility for managing. AXA-Milléseme acquired the vineyard from the Van Zeller family in 1993. Sadly, due to a fire in 1981, many of the historical records of the Quinta were destroyed and so much of the detail of its past has been lost but – to some extent – this just adds to the mysterious reputation of its most famous wine.
Then Christian went on to speak about the 1931 Nacional. A wine produced from vines that are believed to have been planted between 1920 and 1925 (but no-one knows for sure due to the lack of records). It is not known for certain what was on the Nacional parcel of land before 1925 and the legendary 1931 vintage of the Nacional wine is the earliest confirmed vintage from these vines. In his book on the Quintas of the Douro Valley, Alex Liddell refers to a conversation he had with Cristiano Van Zeller some years before the sale of the Quinta to AXA, where Cristiano discusses the fact that this parcel of land was one of the very last to be replanted by his Great-Grandfather in 1920 and that there may have been Nacional wines made in the 1924 and 1927 vintages. Prior to replanting, Cristiano believes that only the original, pre-Phylloxera vines were on this parcel of land.
The vines on the Nacional parcel are all on their original rootstock and, while they are attacked by the Phylloxera louse, the damage done is not sufficient to kill the vines but the stress from the louse attacks means that the vines are not able to produce large numbers of grapes. The grapes that are produced tend to be small and with highly concentrated flavours, a very similar description to grapes grown on very old vines.
Whenever a vine in the Nacional parcel dies, it is replaced by a cutting from the same vine. This means that the current Nacional vineyard is genetically identical to the vineyard that was planted in the 1920’s.
Nacional continues to be produced from a field blend of different grape varieties. While there has been a little adjustment in the balance of the blend over the period that Christian has been in charge, there is still a wide range of grape varieties that are picked and fermented together. There are even two white vines in the middle of the parcel but these grapes do not go into the Nacional blend. Instead they are used as table grapes at the Quinta – probably the world’s most expensive table grapes!
And then we were off. Linden invited us to try the first flight, the 1931 Quinta do Noval and its sister, the 1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional.
You could have heard a pin drop. The silence was absolute. Total concentration on the wines in front of us. A few sighs of contentment as people nosed their glasses and sipped the contents.
It took about 10 minutes before Linden broke the silence and invited Christian to lead the discussion. Christian started by saying that this was the first time he had tasted the 1931 Nacional from a UK bottling. I didn’t take notes of Christian’s comments but my tasting notes are at the foot of this article.
Over the course of the next two hours we gradually worked our way through the wines. The 1931 pair was followed by the 1947 wine, then the 1963 pair, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994. Each pair was discussed before moving to the next wine.
At around 9:30pm we had worked our way through all the wines and the group had split up into smaller discussions. Linden formally closed the session with a vote of thanks to Christian and Corinne but invited all of those remaining to stay for the rest of the evening and finish the wines. Most of the bottles still had a pour or two left in them and Linden suggested to us to each take a bottle or two home to taste again on the condition that we sent him a tasting note to record the way the wine developed to the next time we drank it. I also volunteered to take home the remains of the cork from the bottle of “1947 Noval, believed Nacional” to see if I could reconstruct it and verify the identity of the wine.
The rest of the evening was spent chatting to others and sipping what was left of the wines in front of us. There were at least three members of the FTLOP forum at the event and it was a real pleasure to meet two members of the forum who I have not met before - it is always a pleasure to put faces to names.
I did manage to reconstruct the fragmented cork and I was able to verify that the unlabelled bottle we were tasting from was a Quinta do Noval Nacional 1947. At last, my unique skills and experience in cork reconstruction seem to have come in useful for something rather than remain nothing more than a peculiar obsession. Reconstructing a cork is a little like building a three dimensional jigsaw. You have to look for similar patterns in the cork striping, whether the fragment you are looking at fits into the top, the base or one of the sides, whether it has a bit of branding on or is plain finish and whether it is the right shape to fit next to the other pieces. Fragment by fragment, the broken pieces are glued onto the larger pieces that are usually from higher up the cork until the entire cylinder has been rebuilt.
The highlights of the night were so many. Obviously tasting the 1931 Noval alongside the 1931 Nacional, but also having the privilege of tasting such great vintage ports with 14 other port lovers – or perhaps taking home the bottle of 1963 Nacional for my trophy collection, and with a glass of wine still inside it!
One thing was really interesting for me. Linden had arranged this tasting with 3 very old wines (the 1931’s and 1947 Nacional), 2 mature wines (the 1963’s) and 4 much younger wines (the 2003-1994 vintages). I have never really had the opportunity to taste such a dramatically different ages of port against each other before and enjoyed the chance to try a fruit-bomb youngster (the Noval 2003) against a mature and elegant veteran. My conclusion? I found it really tough to go back to the younger vintages after I had been drinking the older wines. While I enjoy drinking the young vintages, I think I clearly have a preference for wines with plenty of bottle age – but that shouldn’t detract from the stunning run of form that Noval is on at present.
Mind you, choosing Noval 1931 and Nacionals 1931 and 1963 as examples of bottle aged wines may have caused a little bias in my conclusions! I also realised as I was writing out my notes from the tasting that I have broken my “oldest wine tasted” record with that now being a wine (or two) from 1931, breaking my previous record of 1937.
As a last note, I would like to thank Christian Seely for providing the majority of the wines from the Quinta stocks for this tasting and for his extremely interesting insights, and also to thank Linden for organising such a tasting and for his kind permission to use several of the photographs that he took on the night. Sadly, opportunities to source bottles of 1931 Nacional don’t come up very often so it may be a while before I get the chance to do this again.
Notes from the Fine Wine Experience’s Noval Tasting
Interestingly, I found that my notes below were only consistent with Christian Seely’s comments on the wines in one or two cases. As there were at least 3 other members of the FTLOP forum who attended the evening, I would encourage them to post their thoughts on the wines on the forum to give some views other than mine.
Quinta do Noval 2003, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours 6,000 cases produced. Over 50% Touriga Nacional, balance Touriga France and Tinta Cao. Deep and opaque purple, staining the glass when swirled. Nose of pure blueberry juice. In the mouth the tannins are huge but soft but the pure fruit juice flavours overwhelm everything else. The mid-palate brings yet more fruit flavours and enormous but balanced acidity. The aftertaste starts with puckered cheeks from the tannins but moves to dried cherries and liquorice and then slowly fades away. This is a wonderful wine to drink now, fruity and up front, but has superb structure to develop over many decades. A wonderful wine and the best showing yet of my three tastings of this wine. This has convinced me to go out and buy this wine. 9/10 on Tom's scale, 96/100
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2003, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours Darker than the regular wine tasted alongside this Nacional. Nose is less developed than the regular wine, but is dominated by the characteristic blueberry of young vintage port. Sweeter and rounder fruit on entry into the mouth but then the tannins surge through and grab your attention. Behind the tannins comes wave after wave of blueberry fruit. A tannic monster, but so lovely. An initial bite from the tannins disappears to leave a long and fruity aftertaste. Not a wine to be drunk today, the regular Noval will be more enjoyable, but what a fantastic wine for 20-30 years. 8/10 or 97/100
Quinta do Noval 2000, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours Impenetrable deep red in colour. Little nose, but lots of swirling releases the blueberry of a young VP. In the mouth comes ripe, sweet fruit wrapped around a tannic structure. The tannins fade suddenly in the mid-palate to the young, blueberry flavours. Length is extremely good and full of fruit. This is an excellent wine that is more restrained than the 2003 but, in my opinion, is preferable for that. Christian Seely speculated that the 2000 is starting to come out of its dumb phase and this bottle would support that view. 9/10 on Tom's scale or 93/100.
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2000, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours Ex-cellars. Slightly deeper in colour than the regular 2000 Noval. A touch of a vegetal hint to the nose, a bit spirity and very closed. Lovely sweet fruit on entry but the initial flavours suddenly turn into a tannic brute playing tag with the lovely ripe fruit and balanced acidity. The wine brings a long, chocolate imbued aftertaste but I noticed my lips were really sticky after tasting this particular wine. My advice - don't drink this now as it is in a dumb phase and will be much better in a decade or two. But it is still pretty impressive for its potential. 9/10 on Tom's scale or 96/100
Quinta do Noval 1997, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours 1,200 cases produced but only 16 bottles left at the Quinta due to an administrative error a few years ago! Deep red in colour but with the first signs of development on the edge of the glass. Fine nose of blueberries, but with a minty freshness that I have not noticed in later vintages. Sweet, ripe fruit impact in the mouth of red fruits and red cherries around a gently tannic core. Masses of fruit comes through in the mid-palate that just doesn't stop, the longer you can hold it in your mouth the more it delivers. All with beautiful, balanced acidity. I found the aftertaste slightly clipped and dropped a point from the wine's score so imagine what this would have been like with a long and luxurious aftertaste. 9/9 on Tom's scale or 97/100.
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1997, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours Corked! Flat and mushroomy on the nose. I didn't taste as I decided there were too many great wines to risk spoiling my palate but Christian sent a replacement over to Linden to allow the participants to experience the true beauty of this wine at a later date.
Quinta do Noval 1994, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours 900 cases produced, the first vintage under Christian Seely's management and with production severely limited by the replanting programme he initiated. The colour shows a distinct sign of development when compared to the younger vintages. The wine is an attractive shade of red now and not the opaque purple of a youngster. The overwhelming youthful blueberry on the nose has taken a slight step back and is supplemented with an attractive floral note. In the mouth the wine takes a few moments to arrive before delivering an attractive acidic structure with plenty of fruit to balance this. The tannins in the wine don't make themselves obvious until immediate after swallowing, when they provide a lovely chocolate start to an aftertaste that eventually morphs into a milky coffee. On Tom's scale I gave this 8/8 and on the 100 point scale it got 93. I don't think that this will ever be a blockbuster of a wine but it has just reinforced my opinion of the 1994 vintage - that this is a vintage to drink now or to drink in 30 years.
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1994, ex-cellars – decanted 4 hours 190 cases produced (compared to the normal 250 and the peak of nearly 300 in 1996). Interestingly, Christian Seely mentioned that in a normal year of production of 250 cases, around 150 are kept in the Quinta's cellars and are intended to be used by the owners and managers of Noval to support the profile and reputation of the wines in future years. A more youthful colour than the regular '94, holding red right into the rim. Still youthful on the nose with little development. Fine and smooth into the mouth but then the acidity dominates - almost painfully - until it fades back to allow layers of red fruits and plums through in the mid-palate. Long, long, long aftertaste of Christmas Cake that just seems to go on forever until everyone else at the tasting has moved on to the next wine and left me behind. Decades from perfection yet, but this seems to me to be a wine that will get there. 8/10 on Tom's scale or 98/100.
Quinta do Noval 1963 – decanted 3 hours English bottled, purchased from Farr Vintners. Mature red centre, touch of orange at the rim. Nose of clementines (someone else called it Star Fruit) and rose petals. Sweet and delicate entry, with strawberry flavours. Still some tannins supporting the structure, nice and balanced acidity supports a fruit-laden mid-palate. Aftertaste appears disappointingly short - but then slides back into focus and stays at subtle levels for quite a while. Very elegant showing. Christian Seely commented that this was the best bottle of the '63 that he has had in quite a few years. A lovely wine, in the top quartile of my drinking expectations for the year, but not one to keep for years - 8/7 on Tom's scale or 93/100
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963, ex-cellars – decanted 3 hours Deep red centre with just a hint of brown. Nose of sweet, stewed red fruits. Neutral entry, then tannins and then a tidal wave of fruit, of cherries and damson. Masses of mid-palate around a superb acid backbone. Needs more time in the decanter (and was better when we came back to this wine 2 hours later). Aftertaste of pure cherry juice that lasts a long, long time. Right at the top of the best wines I expect to drink this year and will only get better! 10/10 on Tom's scale or 98/100
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963, ex-cellars – decanted 26 hrs This tasting note was taken the following day, as I was savouring the rest of the contents of the bottle from the tasting. Deep red centre, slight orange on the rim. Nose of fresh cherry juice, slight hints of mint and eucalyptus. So fruity into the mouth bringing the cherries that could be smelt and then a monster wave of acidity. Slurping gets the acidity to step back and allows the fruit to come through, bringing a lovely figgy richness with it. This wine doesn't make you want to swallow as there is just so much going on in the mid-palate. But eventually you have to swallow. The taste goes from the mouth, then the cheeks start to tingle, the throat warms up and a rich, dark fruit cake aftertaste begins and doesn't stop for over two minutes. Overall, this is probably the best port that I have ever had but I'm docking a point from perfection for a few little niggles. 10/10 and 99/100
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1947, ex-cellars – decanted 3 hours Believed to be Nacional and believed to be from 1947 (both confirmed later from the cork); little is known of the provenance. A very pale, golden colour, like that of a 10 year old Sauterne. Amber, thin and watery looking, green hint at the rim. Weak on the nose, hints of brown sugar. Sweet and delicate in the mouth, flowery impact with icing sugar dust coming through in the mid-palate. But the aftertaste is just astonishing - where did it come from in a wine that was so delicate. This aftertaste was warm, comforting and went through an amazing range of flavours. This is a wine very much at its tawny stage of life. There was some dispute as to whether this was a Nacional, with most people dismissing the possibility due to the lack of body. Some even speculated that this was a 20 or 40 year old tawny that had been bottled a few years ago. My personal opinion is that this is a Nacional. This is based on (i) the length and unexpectedness of the aftertaste and (ii) the similarities of this wine with the 1964 Nacional that was heading in the same sort of direction and with a further 17 years of bottle age I could well imagine the '64 could end up showing like this bottle. I also felt that (iii) the characteristics of the wine showed a reductive bottle aging development rather than the more overt development that you find in a tawny - my (limited) experience with old tawnies is that they tend not to be as delicate and flowery as an elderly bottle aged wine. This is just about in the top quartile of wines that I expect to drink this year and is not likely to change significantly from where it is today over a further 10 years so I score it as 7/7 on Tom's scale or 90/100
Quinta do Noval 1931 – decanted 2½ hours English bottled by Fearon Block Bridges and Routh; purchased via auction from an Oxford college cellar. Deep brown centre with a touch of red, distinctly orange at the rim. Much fresher nose than the '31 Nacional tasted alongside it. A touch of spirit, leather and lots of Christmas pudding spices. The nose just keeps developing in the glass, bringing some meaty, Bisto tones. Very sweet entry, an initial impact of redcurrants and cloves. The wine thickens in the mouth with good development. The aftertaste is very long and incredibly fruity before turning into a smooth, milk chocolate. Amazingly, there are still tannins in the wine. It is a little spirity for perfection, but quite an astonishing wine for its age (the spritiness had gone when we came back to this wine 2 hours later). Wonderful to have tried it and to get a little closer to the legend. Not quite at the top of the wines I expect to drink this year, but certainly in the top quartile and no signs it will fade in the next 10 years so I give this a Tom rating of 8/8 or 94/100
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1931 – decanted 2½ hours English bottled by Justerini & Brooks; purchased via auction from a notable collector. Slightly deeper colour than the regular '31 vintage tasted alongside it but otherwise an identical dark brown centre with orange rim. On lifting this to my nose I felt my heart sink. The nose was dominated by thick, black treacle and cabbage soup. I have smelt similar in other wines and have always put this down to bottle stink - which has blown off after a few hours but we didn't have a few hours. What a disappointment. Little immediate flavour on entry, but a thick and lovely texture. The mid-palate brings the bottle stink flavours, but behind these are leather, roasted meat and a touch of heat. The aftertaste glides in slowly, building on a gentle structure of fruit. What a shame about the bottle stink that started to fade by the time we left but was still the dominant feature. This caused me to mark the wine much lower than it might have achieved, but I couldn't really get past it. Shame. 7/7 on Tom's scale or 90/100
This is the 2nd Guest Corner article penned by Alex Bridgeman, one of the very first participants on FTLOP’s Forum and a guest on the 2006 Harvest Tour. It is a shame we don’t live closer, as I have a lot of respect for his fine palate and would enjoy being able to drink more wine and Port with him.