"It is always a magical time at Quinta do Noval: the Quinta which so often at other times of the year is a vision of peace and tranquillity, teems with life. The harvesters arrive from outlying villages, most of whom are regulars who come back every year, and are part of the extended Noval family.
The core team of Noval full timers organise the teams, who will often be harvesting different parcels on the same day. The lagares are manned 24 hours a day, with complete treading teams in the lagares each evening from 8 o’clock till nearly midnight. It is one of my favourite times of the year at Noval. I often feel that this place is the heart of the kingdom of Bacchus, and the harvest atmosphere confirms the impression.
I decided that it would be fun to try to share this harvest experience with you online, and for this reason invited the talented artist and writer David Eley to come and stay at the Quinta during Vindima, with the aim of producing a harvest diary online that would give some idea of the very special nature of Vindima at Quinta do Noval.
I hope you enjoy it, and that it will inspire you to open a bottle of Noval and drink a glass or two to the success of the 2006 Vintage."
MD Quinta do Noval
So vivid were Christian’s descriptions of big luminous skies, rugged terrain and a warm good natured race of people, that having traversed an arid Spain by car from my home in St Jean de Luz, I finally approached the Portuguese frontier with a knowing sense of deja-vu. I had never before visited Portugal and passing through the countryside west of Braganca I was reminded of rolling Scottish lowlands. As I continued along the auto-route towards Vila Real the landscape metamorphosed into a splendid melange of faded pink and ochre punctuated by dense evergreen woodland and dry river beds unfolding beneath an infinite Cobalt sky.
The sun was easing towards the western horizon as I turned south off the IP4 on the final leg of my journey. By-passing Alijo my car radio falteringly lost reception of the station to which I had been curiously tuned; the language had seemed familiar, I assumed that ‘Russian’ transmitters were so powerful they reached all the way to Oporto, only later did I discover I was listening to the Portuguese language and not Radio Vladivostok!
If great wine were blessed with a musical voice then fine Port might sound like a deep mellifluous Cello: unlike Champagne whose effervescent personality is echoed by a silvered flute, or the reed like elegance of a St Julien evoking a finely tuned violin, great Port wine is emotionally warm, deep and harmonious. As I re-tuned the Motorola selecting ‘Antenna’ radio on the LCD display, I approached the small and careworn village of Vale de Mendiz and at the very moment I began my topographical descent into the Douro, YoYo Ma unexpectedly embarked on Bach’s Cello Suites. Apposite and profound they provide the perfect soundtrack for Quinta do Noval and as these glorious tones issued forth, a golden sun sank beneath the distant hillside and row upon row of terraced vines turned a ruddy plum-like hue.
This is the best part of day to arrive at Noval for the very first time: the sun shone blindingly through my fly-spattered windscreen and inadvertently I drove past the wrought-iron main gates. Above and to my left I read the massive painted white on black letters proudly spelling ‘NOVAL’: sitting four-square amid a verdant escalier of Touriga Nacional vines, rising vertiginously perhaps 100 metres above the winding narrow road. I had unknowingly arrived at my destination.
Doubling back I turned right on the apex of a blind bend and began my ascent of the long vine encased drive to the Quinta. The magnificent approach through a tunnel of gnarled vines, offering much needed shade to those on foot during the heat of the day, creates a deep violet tracery of sharply delineated shadows at which to marvel in the early morning and late afternoon sun. The long cobble stoned drive at Noval is one of the property’s greatest features and is unique, it supplies the perfect overture to a visit punctuated by good company, hard work and some serious Port wine tasting. Quinta do Noval is the high-altar of great Port and such a grand and prolonged entrance seems fitting for this legendary vineyard.
My first impressions of Noval fulfilled all expectations: standing on the dusty terrace beneath the protective canopy of the vast and venerable Cedar of Lebanon I surveyed the scene. The terraced rows of vines fall away beneath the whitewashed stone wall which abuts and supports the drive. As the sun descends it illuminates the grey-green Olive trees which be-speckle and punctuate the vine-clad hillsides, enhancing the attractive and often geometric patterns. As the light continually changes, so do the colours and contours which describe the great estate of Quinta do Noval, from the deepest purple shades to the fluorescent Cinnamon stick tones of stripped cork trees. The Douro wears a coat of many colours: Chameleon like it changes appearance not just seasonally but momentarily – minute by minute you are entranced by a procession of cloud formations and shafts of sunlight. The great virtue of such an elevated Quinta within this undulating landscape enables one to appreciate the ever-changing light on vines and earth; it is simply mesmerising and captures your attention from the very first.
To arrive at such a sublime moment, be met with a cooling aperitif of extra dry Noval white Port and tonic poured over a tall tumbler of ice and lemon, makes modern life seem bearable and once ensconced in this world far removed from the hustle and bustle of commerce and enterprise, one might be forgiven for feeling nothing else in life matters. The next ten days would provide the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with the Noval Christian Seely knows so well and in compiling this account of the harvest I begin to comprehend just why his vivid descriptions of this special place were so meaningful and evocative.
Picking locations: Roncao Valley, Canadas, Corucho (north side)
The harvest at Quinta do Noval has been in full swing since the 30th August and we are now past mid September. The only hiccup in a steady progress towards the perfect 2006 vintage being a short spell of torridly hot weather one month earlier. Having started early the picking was a little spasmodic to begin with and patience was the order of the day – though now the harvest is in full swing. Subject to weather conditions the pickers set out at 7am each day. The teams are smaller than I had imagined, sepia images of times past indicate large numbers of vendangers with heavy wicker baskets at work in the vines, but now the groups seem more modest in number ranging between 6 and 12. The pickers are predominantly women with a smattering of older men and boys, the stronger men taking on the task of carrying the grape laden boxes back to the trucks parked on the precariously narrow tracks which zig-zag the hillsides of the Douro valley. This is truly arduous work and one cannot fail to be impressed by the steady and systematic execution of such a back breaking routine. One virtue of this modern age is the introduction of plastic boxes, the grapes are heavy and any reduction in the Portuguese picker’s load must be warmly appreciated.
The Daily Harvest Routine at Noval
The daily routine at Noval comprises the picking of selected parcels of vines according to ripeness of the grapes. Each parcel has a name and grape varieties vary from plot to plot. Antonio Agrellos the winemaker and his team know every square each of the Noval vines intimately and according to their great experience take the decision of when and where to pick. All trucks carry three large square stainless steel tanks, at the start of picking they are parked adjacent to the parcel and duly filled. Once fully laden, the truck will descend to the loading bay of the chais abutting the main Quinta, here the grapes are de-stemmed and passed directly into the shallow cement vats known as ‘Lagares’. Once each Lagare is full with grapes a group of men and women perform the treading, usually in the evening beginning at 8pm, though treading also takes place during the day-time. The resultant juice is drained into the fermentation vats and a process of vinification begins.
Monday dawns bright, if a little hazy: most Douro mornings begin with mist or low cloud and as the late summer sun rises ever upward the heat takes its searing grip on the dusty hillsides below and the blue-grey veil is steadily lifted to reveal ever more sharply defined rows of vines. The rounded undulating hillsides of the valley appear as if clad in a corduroy cloak, so regular and regimental is the contrast between parched earth and stone schist with the ribs of lush green foliage.
This being my first visit to Noval I need to find my bearings and learn a little of the daily routine. After a splendid breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice and home cured bacon and eggs I decide to ascend the north side of ‘Corucho’ the hill on which the Quinta is perched, to gain a clearer view of the property and my first sight of the harvest in progress.
Picking today will take place on Corucho and some distance away at Canadas and in the Roncao valley to the east of Noval. The grape varieties being picked are Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca and work will continue, punctuated by a short soup break, until lunchtime around 1-1.30pm. Walking up the stony track behind the Quinta you approach what amounts to the harvest worker’s ‘bunkhouse’, white with enormous bold black letters painted on the façade spelling ‘NOVAL’ - it sits immediately above and behind the main house.
The early morning air is filled with the pungent and pleasing aroma of decaying figs. Several fig trees line the track and I am now walking over a carpet of spoiling fruit. As I look down over the outbuildings of Noval to the valley below I hear the grunting of pigs, clearly it is breakfast time for the three resident and stately Porcos who inhabit the best situated sty in the world - sitting incongruously betwixt and between the ancient and world famous pre-phylloxera vines of the legendary Nacional vineyard.
The north side of the hill is still bathed in a cool blue light, contrasting starkly with the sun-soaked hillsides across the valley. As I climb a little higher I catch the sound of distant voices, locating the pickers is not always easy when approaching from below, so steep are the terraces they remain concealed by the foliage. I take some shots of the middle-aged ladies and young girls hard at work.
Two hours later as I walk back down the rubble-strewn track a grape laden truck passes me by on its way to the chais to unload the morning’s bounty and looking up the sun begins to warm the cold white face of the distant Quinta, colour slowly floods our part of the valley and lunchtime beckons.
Michael Broadbent, his distinguished palate and wife Daphne are about to arrive, they will be staying as fellow guests at Quinta do Noval for several days and Rute Monteiro , Noval’s very able Public Relations manager tells me they might be here in time for lunch. Back in the vineyard harvesting of the Tinta Roriz progresses during the baking afternoon sun and concludes around 4.30pm. It seems like a successful day: nearly 20,000 kilos of grapes have been picked and the activity in and around the chais will continue throughout the evening. This is the busiest time to be at Noval and the most exciting, everyone is filled with anticipation and all are striving to contribute their best efforts in a push to make yet another great vintage. Important visitors come and go, noted wine writers and journalists, film crews reporting for foreign TV stations and proprietors of other famous Quintas are simply dropping in to talk wine. Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education and tomorrow’s Noval Harvest Report will offer an insight into the Norwegian sense of humour....
Picking Locations: Roncao Valley and Corucho
Grapes Varieties : Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca
Looking south today from the splendid terrace of Quinta do Noval one can clearly see the mighty Douro river and the small ‘town’ of Pinhao perhaps 2 kilometres distant. A tiny opaque stream the colour of raw umber lends this cluster of nondescript buildings their collective name. The Pinhao valley contains a large portion of Noval’s 140 hectares under vine and the narrow ribbon of water at its base acts almost as the spine to a great and learned volume of vine covered pages. From this marvellous elevated vantage point one can trace the grey road below as it follows the stream to its confluence with the parent river and every now and then another heavy load of Touriga Nacional grapes wends its way south, ultimately no doubt destined for yet another deep and brooding vintage Port.
Today we are visiting the Roncao valley due east of Quinta do Noval. Here there are many Noval hectares under vine, in this case the grape varieties are Tintas Roriz and Barroca. By mid morning the sun is beating down and as Rute Monteiro drives me to our first location I am able to admire the glorious scenery and handsomely rugged stone buildings which dot the hillsides. We are perhaps twenty minutes from the Quinta and decide to stop alongside the dusty road. A truck is parked hard against the earth and stone parapet adjacent to the steeply terraced vineyard. The sun is almost directly overhead and a team of pickers are hard at work in the vines below the road. Rute explains these are sub-contractors who work for Noval and supply much valued labour. They work at a fast pace, some of the ladies, though pleasantly round, appear agile and dextrous with their secateurs. Laughter abounds amid these ancient stone terraces, unfortunately known as ‘Mortuaries’ – a reference to the original vines that perished from the terrible phylloxera plague in the 19th century.
The authenticity and warmth of the workers makes one feel entirely at home, though some are undoubtedly shy, their reticence soon fades and we are all laughing together. This all too brief and spontaneous experience is rounded off when one of the men pulls a large wicker covered wine bottle from the truck, extricates its cork and in an attempt to consume at least part of the contents deposits a dappled deep crimson pattern across his shirt. Though I have enjoyed many encounters with vendangeurs from Spain and France including the hard working Gypsies, once so popular at harvest time in Bordeaux, this particular day will stand out as something quite special.
We travel further down the Roncao valley and find ourselves standing high above the magnificent Douro river gazing towards Quinta da Romaneira, it is very bright and visibility is far from perfect, the atmosphere feels almost as if the air is filled with dust particles. As the picking of the Tinta Barroca continues we witness various river craft travelling up and down stream, one wooden boat with a dark green canvas awning momentarily catches my eye and as it steadily makes its way upriver this sleek and rather elegant craft seems to symbolize the slower pace of life found in this magical corner of Portugal.
Occasionally a very steady diesel train appears and moves slowly along the railway line that hugs the riverbank. There are many small stations along the track and certain Quintas have their own halts, making it perfectly possible to travel up the Douro by train from Oporto stopping at many obscure locations.
The picking progresses under a cloudless sky, by 4 pm the truck is fully laden and ready to return to its Noval base. It has been a good day in every sense and a further 16,000 kilos of Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz contribute to the steady flow of grapes entering the Lagares at Noval.
A lesson in terroir from Antonio Agrellos
The ancient terroir of the Douro valley is unique: Antonio Agrellos the exceptionally talented wine maker at Noval explains to me in his softly spoken manner just why the vines planted across this untamed valley are able to survive and prosper in a climate which at best might be described as inhospitable. Extremes of temperature play havoc with the equilibrium of any vineyard, in the Douro, the hardy vines which include Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz amongst their number, have their roots safely implanted many metres beneath the sun-baked terraces.
Scanning across this unforgiving landscape of splintered stone one wonders how on earth such vines might penetrate more than a foot or two beneath the scorched and dusty surface. The answer lies in a quirk of nature: the Douro valley is composed of a fragile pre-Cambrian stone schist – ordinarily this type of terroir would prove impenetrable to a mere vine root, but here we have a geological phenomenon – the schist has been ‘upended’, rather than the rocky strata running horizontally, the whole Douro valley forms a perpendicular filling between a sandwich of hard Granite and blue-black slate. Instead of obdurately resisting the probing tentacles of the gnarled vines, the near vertical schist encouragingly channels them tens of metres down to where the temperature remains constant and moisture steadily feeds their growth.
Upon my return to Quinta do Noval a charming Norwegian camera crew have arrived, they are planning to film the harvest at Noval tomorrow for a home-based television programme. They could not believe their luck in finding Michael Broadbent as a fellow guest, nor could they have anticipated the excellent sense of humour his wife Daphne might exhibit. Dinner was hugely enjoyable with a superb variety of noble wines accompanying the home-grown produce that is de rigeur at Noval. Subsequently, we all retired to the Quinta’s drawing room for coffee. One member of the team, a Swede named Christer Berens who lives in Norway (and hosts his own wine and food radio show), is quite a tall fellow and though not particularly overweight he does carry a considerable bulk on his 6 feet 4 inch frame. Whatever his exact proportions it now seems clear that very large visitors are not particularly commonplace at the Quinta. Michael and Daphne were already seated around the small table as were the other two members of the Norwegian triumvirate… Christer drew up his antique (and no doubt priceless) Noval chair and without so much as a backward glance lowered his large torso onto the plushly upholstered seat. Under normal circumstances when posterior meets sprung cushion a satisfying accommodation is reached, in Christer’s case he had clearly failed to read the instruction manual. Rather like a pile driver on a pancake his downward momentum made short work of the upholstery. Suffice to say he ended up wearing the chair frame around his bottom which by now was making intimate contact with the floorboards beneath. For the remainder of this jovial evening, Daphne Broadbent took every opportunity to gently remind Christer of his rapid and untimely descent…accompanied by fits of laughter from us all.
Tomorrow I will continue my intensive Port wine education and the Noval Harvest report will carry an explanation of just what the mysterious chanting sound was emitting from the Noval Lagare late in the evening.
Picking locations: Renova, Jardim Feco and Quinta da Foz
Grapes Varieties : Touriga Nacional, Old Vines(mixed varietals)
This north side of the Quinta is beautiful in the early morning light: its walls take on a pristine zinc white tone and as the sun begins to creep over Corucho this virgin canvas is suffused with soft local colour and a luminous reflected glow. This is the time when the vindimadores begin their preparations for the busy day ahead. Today the men arrange boxes along several rows of vines in the large parcel of Touriga Nacional known as Renova. The team of pickers soon arrive: stepping down from the old camion they stream out along the infinite columns of stone schist and green foliage. Occupying perhaps two rows, picking begins in earnest and soon one of the members of the group begins to sing. It is easy on the ear and folk-like, with a sing-song rhythm that seems to suit the pace of picking. Often perfectly in tune and with an attractive melody, I can easily imagine how once away from Noval a familiar refrain heard in these vineyards might suddenly come to mind – a sure sign of just why these old harmonies have survived. Though I do not know the meaning of the words, the feelings evoked by the melodic sounds seem to warm the heart and lend a sense of great tradition and pride in hard toil. An elderly lady will often strike up an a cappella tune as she picks, her lone voice echoing across the stone terraces and soon a descanting male voice joins in, sometimes a little frail and struggling to match her vocal quality, after a verse or two the voices peter out only to recommence elsewhere among the pickers. One of the most treasured memories I will take from the Douro is the sound of vindimadores singing among the vines.
This particular section of the vineyard cascades downhill all the way to the Pinhao road several hundred metres below and sitting amid the serried ranks of noble vines you see the giant painted white on black letters spelling ‘NOVAL’ a familiar sight to all passers-by and occasional wine tourists. The day ahead looks busy and the Norwegian film crew are planning to capture footage of the pickers at work in the morning sun, as an added bonus they will conduct an interview with Michael Broadbent on the dappled terrace beneath the great Cedar of Lebanon. This promises a rather fitting conclusion to their brief and welcome visit to Quinta do Noval . The hot afternoon sun continues to beat down on the Renova vines and most vindimadores wear protective hats, some the wide brimmed traditional Portuguese straw. The last boxes of Touriga Nacional are carried up the steep hillside and personal possessions are gathered together ahead of the final trek to the camion and a much needed rest…perhaps. Today’s harvest is considerable though not quite the volume harvested during my first two days at Noval: picking has taken place in three separate locations and a total of 12,000 kilos of Touriga Nacional and Old Vine varietals have been transported back to the chais. The human foot is considered far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing, it would be hard to argue against this ancient method, for the quality of Noval’s great Port wines is unsurpassed. Provided you have a force of dedicated workers who consider themselves part of a great winemaking family, this laborious but invaluable human process will continue for generations to come. At 8pm every evening during the harvest (and occasionally during the day), the treading teams commence. Bare footed and bare legged, clad in T-shirts and shorts, each individual climbs carefully into the massive volume of freshly picked grapes. At first sight the whole thing appears faintly amusing, however, it takes but a moment to realize the atmosphere combines respectful solemnity with a marathon runner’s dedication and desire to see this two part, three hour job through to the end. When the Lagares are very busy up to three or four teams of nine people will be employed at once. The nine individuals in each team link or place arms around each other’s shoulders, in the fashion of an open Rugby scrum, thus, forming a continuous treading line. One designated individual acts rather like the ‘stroke’ in a rowing team and quite loudly begins to call the treading rhythm, as he does so the left and then right leg of each of the nine individuals rises and falls in unison compressing the moist fruit with the bare soles of their feet. Like wading through heavy Scots porridge the nine continue relentlessly on for two full hours without a break, to the chanting of their leader. Once this first stage known as the ‘Military’ is completed, a further one hour of ‘freestyle’ treading follows whereupon each person is free to express his or her own individuality of style without anyone dictating a particular pace. When this long and arduous process is complete, pale skinned legs are stained by the purple flesh of grapes and one imagines rendered soft and tender to the touch… tonight I will ponder this particular thought and continue my intensive Port wine education. In tomorrow’s Harvest Report I plan to reveal some of the wonderful and delicious non-alcoholic products of the Noval estate while introducing readers to three of its most distinguished and revered inhabitants…
When looking north-west from the Quinta, mid-way along the cobbled main drive at a point where it veers 90 degrees and disappears from view, there is an earthen platform with a tree and small stone seat. It is to here the Renova grapes are carried and deposited into a collection truck.
Every day, during the month long harvest or vindima as it is expressed in Portuguese, is full of activity; though not simply confined to the vineyard and chais. When there is a large workforce to feed three times a day the cooks in the kitchens are kept extremely busy. From the ‘staff kitchen’ approximately 90 main meals are passed through the revolving serving hatch daily and the traditional Douro dishes are of the highest quality. Wonderful casseroles of beef, chicken, lamb and Pork are popular. Soup is a great tradition here at Noval and there is even a mid-morning ‘soup break’ for the hungry teams of workers, a fabulous assortment might be sampled including Potato, Cabbage and Spinach. I fear for my own rapidly expanding waistline as the splendid Noval cooks, Barbara and Maria-Joao prepare and serve the most delicious puddings including chocolate mousse and fabulous Fig, Lemon and Almond tarts…
On my second evening at Quinta do Noval (18th) I was introduced to the traditional process of treading grapes by foot. Though not unique to Noval only a handful of properties in the Douro maintain this labour intensive tradition. All other Port wine estates utilize robotic or mechanical systems. Treading takes place in the ‘Lagares’ (as they are known) situated within part of the main Quinta buildings. They comprise a series of open shallow cement vats, perhaps one metre deep and several metres square. Each Lagare contains a large drain connected directly to the fermentation vats in an adjacent room and all are top filled with the grapes every clement harvest day. Treading is taken very seriously as it is this process which lends Noval Port wine a very special quality.
The nightly routine
This particular section of the vineyard cascades downhill all the way to the Pinhao road several hundred metres below and sitting amid the serried ranks of noble vines you see the giant painted white on black letters spelling ‘NOVAL’ a familiar sight to all passers-by and occasional wine tourists.
The day ahead looks busy and the Norwegian film crew are planning to capture footage of the pickers at work in the morning sun, as an added bonus they will conduct an interview with Michael Broadbent on the dappled terrace beneath the great Cedar of Lebanon. This promises a rather fitting conclusion to their brief and welcome visit to Quinta do Noval .
The hot afternoon sun continues to beat down on the Renova vines and most vindimadores wear protective hats, some the wide brimmed traditional Portuguese straw. The last boxes of Touriga Nacional are carried up the steep hillside and personal possessions are gathered together ahead of the final trek to the camion and a much needed rest…perhaps.
Today’s harvest is considerable though not quite the volume harvested during my first two days at Noval: picking has taken place in three separate locations and a total of 12,000 kilos of Touriga Nacional and Old Vine varietals have been transported back to the chais.
The human foot is considered far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing, it would be hard to argue against this ancient method, for the quality of Noval’s great Port wines is unsurpassed. Provided you have a force of dedicated workers who consider themselves part of a great winemaking family, this laborious but invaluable human process will continue for generations to come.
At 8pm every evening during the harvest (and occasionally during the day), the treading teams commence. Bare footed and bare legged, clad in T-shirts and shorts, each individual climbs carefully into the massive volume of freshly picked grapes. At first sight the whole thing appears faintly amusing, however, it takes but a moment to realize the atmosphere combines respectful solemnity with a marathon runner’s dedication and desire to see this two part, three hour job through to the end. When the Lagares are very busy up to three or four teams of nine people will be employed at once.
The nine individuals in each team link or place arms around each other’s shoulders, in the fashion of an open Rugby scrum, thus, forming a continuous treading line. One designated individual acts rather like the ‘stroke’ in a rowing team and quite loudly begins to call the treading rhythm, as he does so the left and then right leg of each of the nine individuals rises and falls in unison compressing the moist fruit with the bare soles of their feet. Like wading through heavy Scots porridge the nine continue relentlessly on for two full hours without a break, to the chanting of their leader. Once this first stage known as the ‘Military’ is completed, a further one hour of ‘freestyle’ treading follows whereupon each person is free to express his or her own individuality of style without anyone dictating a particular pace.
When this long and arduous process is complete, pale skinned legs are stained by the purple flesh of grapes and one imagines rendered soft and tender to the touch… tonight I will ponder this particular thought and continue my intensive Port wine education.
In tomorrow’s Harvest Report I plan to reveal some of the wonderful and delicious non-alcoholic products of the Noval estate while introducing readers to three of its most distinguished and revered inhabitants…
Picking Locations: no harvesting today
As I open my shutters and peer out expecting to see the now familiar sight of row upon row of terraced vines I am greeted with a damp panorama of low cloud and steady drizzle. It is only 7.30 am and the Douro weather is known to change in minutes but having consulted wine maker Antonio Agrellos last evening, the forecast does not bode well for the day ahead. He has determined there will be no picking today: a little rain is needed for the grapes and the harvest has been going so well, a slight interruption will not harm the 2006 vintage. Work in the vines will resume tomorrow morning and though there will be no picking there is much to be done elsewhere, not least in the busy Noval chais. This temporary hiatus provides the perfect opportunity for me to reveal some of the non-alcoholic treasures of Quinta do Noval and share the story of three very fine fellows who inhabit what is arguably the greatest Port wine vineyard in the Douro valley.
As I open my shutters and peer out expecting to see the now familiar sight of row upon row of terraced vines I am greeted with a damp panorama of low cloud and steady drizzle. It is only 7.30 am and the Douro weather is known to change in minutes but having consulted wine maker Antonio Agrellos last evening, the forecast does not bode well for the day ahead. He has determined there will be no picking today: a little rain is needed for the grapes and the harvest has been going so well, a slight interruption will not harm the 2006 vintage. Work in the vines will resume tomorrow morning and though there will be no picking there is much to be done elsewhere, not least in the busy Noval chais.
This temporary hiatus provides the perfect opportunity for me to reveal some of the non-alcoholic treasures of Quinta do Noval and share the story of three very fine fellows who inhabit what is arguably the greatest Port wine vineyard in the Douro valley.
Though Quinta do Noval has 140 hectares under vine, many other activities unrelated to Port wine take place. Across the estate a magnificent array of fruit trees produce apples, pears, peaches, oranges and fabulous figs, along with almond trees whose gently roasted bounty provide the perfect and essential accompaniment to drinks at sunset. Well-tended vegetable gardens supply the Noval kitchens all year round – large plump tomatoes whose flesh is succulent and tender, potatoes that form the backbone of many Douro dishes, not least the delicious soups referred to earlier in this diary. The property, though not entirely self-sufficient can hold its own with truly organic produce.
Noval olive oil production
The grey-green olive trees might provide decoration and much needed shade among the rows of vines but they too earn their place by contributing high quality olives to an award winning oil, handsomely bottled and sold in strictly limited quantities under the Noval marque.
Though the oil is pressed and blended locally, plans are underway to build a press at Quinta do Noval in the near future. Olive oil production fits very well alongside wine making and the superb quality make it very desirable, though given its limited production, demand far outstrips supply.
Animal, vegetable and mineral all come together at Noval: Port wine is born of vines whose roots penetrate the deep veins of schist far beneath the earth’s surface; the bewildering multitude of fruit and vegetables are enough to satisfy any gourmand’s palate; but when we speak of ‘animal’ a whole esculent vista opens up before us.
At the apex of Noval’s epicurean pyramid sit three magnificent beasts: fine and noble pigs whose residence within the Nacional vineyard stimulates much respectful interest among visiting wine professionals. Each of these portly Porcos is handsome; their bristled coats, taught pink bodies and grey-black markings distinguishing them as very fine swine indeed. I am unclear as to how long pigs have lived among these ancient vines, but perhaps they too are pre-phylloxera like many of their motionless neighbours. How many pigs can claim to live within such a hallowed sanctuary and just how many receive such devoted care and attention during their short time on earth?
The Noval pigs take the air twice a day, once in the morning around 8.30am and again at the end of the afternoon. Blissfully happy rooting around on this elevated balcony, with a glorious view across the valley, their snortling and drain like grunting reverberates on the still morning air. Treated with gentle respect they enjoy a splendid existence housed in their deluxe sty high in the Nacional vines. This form of compassionate farming is seldom seen and though their fate is predetermined, the thoughtfulness of their temporary guardians sets a fine example to piggy proprietors elsewhere.
On a crisp frosty day after the first new moon of the year, the traditional Noval Pig Roast is held and assorted winemakers from Bordeaux are invited, along with friends and local Douro growers. A carefully chosen butcher is brought to the Quinta in order to prepare the feast. Everyone joins in and staff and guests thoroughly enjoy the party atmosphere. Pork is one of the staples of Douro cuisine and every part of the animal is utilized. This is an important event in Noval’s calendar and such a special occasion brings together all those whose lives are dedicated to Noval and its great Port wine.
Jams and Preserves
The succulent Noval figs provide enormous pleasure to all who visit Noval during the early autumn season. There are many large fig trees on the estate and the quantity of fruit is immense, Barbara and Maria-Joao the Noval cooks, put this substantial crop to very good use by baking superlative tarts. In addition, breakfast marmalade is made from home-grown oranges and quince, with jams from all manner of berries and soft fruit on the property, including plums and cherries.
Having recently arrived at Noval I know little of Douro traditions: what I have learnt so far is that Noval almonds are very special and provide the perfect and irresistible accompaniment to evening drinks on the terrace. On my very first evening at Noval, as the sun sank beneath the hills across the Pinhao valley, I was greeted with a welcoming aperitif of ice cold Extra Dry White Noval Port and Tonic. The drink was unknown to me; though I could not help feeling this was one of those fresh encounters where something entirely new feels subconsciously familiar. This knowing sense has permeated much of my brief time at the Quinta and I am led to suspect this impossible familiarity results from Christian Seely’s vivid descriptions of the Douro when I lived in Bordeaux.
Almonds: freshly picked and lightly roasted in the kitchens of Noval, duly seasoned with fine salt and pepper are essential for evening contentment on the terrace or drinks in the drawing room. When first I heard the daily repetitive tap-tapping on the Noval kitchen steps, it put me in mind of a Song Thrush using his beak to crack the shells of garden snails. I soon discovered the source of this mysterious sound: Maria- Joao was seated on the granite step alongside a large wicker basket brim full with almonds. With a small hammer she cracks open each and every shell; once removed from their clam like enclosures the nuts are roasted to a golden honeyed hue. Removed from the oven, salt and pepper are liberally applied and the resultant flavour is indescribably delicious. This rare treat, when served beneath the majestic arms of the Noval Cedar of Lebanon, is truly unique.
End of the day
The rain has now stopped at Noval, it is late afternoon and the skies are clear once more. Happily, Christian Seely has just arrived from Bordeaux and Antonio Agrellos promises sunny skies in the morning and the vindimadores will be back among the vines and as busy as ever.
Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education and tomorrow I hope to tell you about some serious Port tasting at Noval in the distinguished company of the Guild of Dutch sommeliers.
Picking Locations: Corucho, Vale do Seixo, Roncao and Quinta da Foz
Grapes Varieties: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao and Old Vines (mixed varietals)
The Douro is an extraordinary place: this ancient landscape, epic in scale and wild in nature makes man seem diminutive and his place within it paradoxical. By planting row upon row of vines across tens of thousands of hectares the vigneron has nudged God’s hand, sculpting and adding grandeur to a place already blessed with unimaginable breadth and a magnificent beauty. We live in a restricted age of planning regulations and protectionism, yet some of the most beautiful places on earth have been influenced and shaped by man, the Douro valley is one.
This is a day to savour true Douro light: yesterday’s rain has washed away the dusty arid veil and reinstated an amazing clarity. Transforming the bleached hues of mid-day for technicolor brilliance. Visibility has been regained and now the distant hills can be glimpsed; shadows chase across the rolling landscape, alternating light on dark, lending drama to a scene of intense activity within the vines.
There is a busy day ahead, sadly, Michael and Daphne Broadbent depart after breakfast and later in the morning the Dutch Guild of Sommeliers will arrive at Noval to taste a range of vintage and Tawny Ports under the guidance of Rute Monteiro. Before this I plan to spend some time in the vineyards with Antonio Agrellos, the winemaker at Noval, he has kindly offered to take me out to the picking teams in his four by four.
Making a zig-zag ascent of the steep hillside known as Corucho we rise high above the valley floor. The elevated view is truly impressive and as we crunch along Antonio explains a little more about Noval’s grapes and how many parcels are planted with old vine mixed varietals – very different from other classic wine regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy, where each parcel is planted with a single grape variety.
This is Antonio’s life: he eats, sleeps and breathes Port wine and handles the rugged precipitous terrain with a casual regard for his own safety, though not, I am glad to say, for his passengers. He kindly notes my facial expression as he effects an extraordinarily rapid three point turn with his bulky Landcruiser, on a track barely wide enough to accommodate a lady’s shopping bicycle and with a vertiginous drop I would prefer not to contemplate. The vineyards are very hard on all mechanical transport; at harvest time one imagines the estate mechanics are permanently engaged with maintenance, as the suspension of most vehicles would find these rocky tracks hard to survive.
When we arrive at the top of Corucho picking of Tinta Roriz is in full swing and the vindimadores are working hard carrying boxes of grapes down the long flights of stone steps bisecting the deep terraces. This human conveyor belt makes short work of retrieving the picked fruit and boxes are filled as quickly as the men can descend and return for the next. At the base of a tier of three terraces the collection truck is parked and two men oversee the flow of grapes into the three stainless steel tanks. Everyone is good-humoured, going about his or her work with a great sense of purpose and determination. The older men and women are singing and the younger men make light work of carrying their heavy burdens down the long flights. The grapes look to be in perfect condition and will make a valuable contribution to this year’s Noval vintage.
From this part of the vineyard the Quinta cannot be seen, there are two or three small stone houses perched on the broad terraces though their roofs are very well maintained, they are not habitable. Some of the stone steps extend from the base of Corucho to the very top and the complete climb of several hundred metres is exhausting. In between trips up and down to the truck, the men take a welcome break and admire the familiar view.
Hitching a lift with the driver of the collection truck I travel back down the rocky track to the Quinta and discover Rute Monteiro with the Dutch Sommeliers as they begin their Port wine tasting. The sun is shining brightly through the windows of the upstairs tasting room and a film crew from Portuguese television has arrived to film events.
The Dutch group are learned and informed, they clearly comprehend the quality of Noval. Some of the sommeliers represent Michelin starred restaurants in Holland and are at the top of their profession. An array of vintage and Tawny ports are arranged along one of two chestnut tables. The Dutchmen spend considerable time making tasting notes and asking pertinent questions, while the Portuguese film crew shoot a variety of sequences. At a time like this one realizes just how much reverence is afforded these truly great Port wines and the more one is able to taste, the more one appreciates the infinite complexity of Noval and its many vintages.
After a splendid lunch we bid farewell to the marvellous and entertaining Dutch and I return to the vineyards, specifically the parcel of Touriga Nacional vines known as Vale do Seixo. This is considered one of the finest on the whole estate and the grapes here are in perfect condition, juicy and succulent they taste deliciously sweet. My afternoon ends in the vines high on Corucho , reunited with the same band of vindimadores I encountered in the morning. Faces are becoming ever more familiar and greetings of “Bom Dia” are exchanged by all. My Portuguese vocabulary is expanding rapidly; I now know five words in total. The working day is coming to an end and so the pickers wind down and relax, if fatigue has taken its toll on the older men and women – it certainly does not show. As this picture clearly demonstrates.
Spending time with these marvellous people lifts the spirit; they work hard and fit so well the landscape into which they were born. Displaying a warmth and generosity of spirit admirable in our modern age, their authenticity and durability seems to epitomise and echo the very nature of Noval’s great Port wine: a combination of integrity and lack of artifice.
Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education in the excellent and inimitable company of Christian Seely, Managing Director of Noval. A man dedicated to the cause of copious Port wine consumption and a firm believer in handmade wines. The weekend ahead promises some legendary Ports and a meeting with the new man at AXA Millesimes, Aymeric de Gironde.
Picking Locations: Vale Tanque, Carvalheira, Corucho, Quinta da Foz and Quinta da Passegueiro
Grape Varieties: Tinta Rorica, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca
Monday dawns bright but misty: as a brilliant sun rises over the arched back of Corucho, a fresh blue-grey canvas absorbs the radiating light and the resultant warmth dissolves a hanging veil of cloud across the terraces. Soon, the hills on the western side of the Pinhao valley are illuminated and a glorious golden light permeates the ethereal fog. This subtle early morning light viewed from the cobbled yard of the Quinta is magical and reveals a range of nuanced tones impossible to capture with palette or lens. Never repetitive, the Douro’s repertoire of morning effects is seemingly limitless and continually inspires the human spirit.
The day ahead promises to be full of activity: the busy weekend saw distinguished journalists from La Revue de Vin de France visit Noval and Aymeric de Gironde arrive in the Douro for the very first time. He is the new and vital commercial director for AXA Millesimes and his introduction to life at the Quinta was rapid and intense. On the Noval terrace, after a tour of the estate with Christian Seely, he took part in a candle-lit blind tasting of nearly two dozen wines … all before dinner.
Vindimadores hard at work
The harvest continues across a large part of the estate and no less than five parcels are being picked this morning, it looks as if the Lagares will be busy well into the night. Many of the vindimadores will be scattered across the terraces immediately in front and below the Quinta. Soon the collection truck arrives, José Eduardo, the man in charge of the teams is animatedly speaking on his mobile phone. Minutes later the workers arrive by camion and out they pour like ants dispersing among the rows of vines. Boxes have been distributed and now the task of carrying each load back to a truck parked on the top terrace of Noval begins. The vindimadores are in full cry and the men carrying the boxes up the steep incline are stretched to keep up with the rapid picking.
The sun is now high in the sky and after leaving the vines my first port of call is with Antonio Agrellos the Noval wine maker, in the laboratory like atmosphere of the tasting rooms. This is where the juice from each parcel is evaluated and first indications of how good the 2006 vintage might be are assessed. Antonio is optimistic and seems very pleased with the way Noval’s harvest is progressing. The weather has been fairly steady and though there was a short spell of extreme heat in August things have settled down and it looks as though this vindima will draw to a very satisfactory close by the second week in October.
After a superb and happy harvester’s lunch in good company I return to the vineyards: much of the front terraces of Vale Tanque have now been cleared and all work in the vineyard will finish a little after 4pm, though this is far from the end of Noval’s day. The grapes are pouring into the Lagares and by 5pm nearly 25,000 kilos have been harvested. This proves to be the busiest day since I arrived at Noval over a week ago.I return to the Quinta and discover preparations are well underway for a very special tasting. An impressive array of vintage Port wines have been assembled on one of two large tables in the Quinta’s tasting room. This is the room where many visiting professionals are received: it is adjacent to the private chapel and shares a connecting door with the vat room and chais.
‘waiting to be opened’ – a twenty year vertical of vintage Noval and Nacional
This amazing vertical tasting comprises every Noval vintage (Quinta do Noval and Nacional) from the 1987 to 2004 and will be conducted by Christian Seely and Antonio Agrellos. It is an extraordinary opportunity to directly compare some of the greatest Port wines of the last two decades, several of which achieved superlative scores of 100 points from both Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.
When this tasting begins the atmosphere feels special: though each of the tasters is serious about the task of assessing these fine Ports, all retain a relaxed sense of humour. Antonio and Christian are ultimately responsible for what goes into each and every bottle of Noval vintage Port and it is an enormous privilege to be present and participate on such rarefied occasions. The four tasters scribble copious notes and as this exercise is repeated time and again over the coming years, the evolution of each great bottle will gradually be charted and the knowledge gleaned hopefully improve future vintages. By adopting this fastidious approach Christian and Antonio add to the accumulation of thoughts and ideas which ultimately keep Quinta do Noval and Nacional at the top of the great Port wine pyramid.
I am in the presence of the winemakers and their wines: this is why being at Noval is a precious experience. To be part of this world, albeit for a short and transitory period makes an enormous difference to the breadth and depth of one’s own fine wine appreciation. To taste differing vintages over and over again from a single monumental Port estate, familiarizes and increases one’s reverence for truly great wine making. The complexity of these legendary Port wines continues to astound and when variations within any given year are identified, the conversation is animated and notes are compared. All palates vary enormously and it is endlessly fascinating when consensus is achieved on any given vintage.
This wonderful day has drawn to a close: the sun has disappeared beneath the horizon; as it did so, the reflected light cast across the ridged flanks of Corucho metamorphosed from golden-green tones to the colour of a pale Tawny Port. A fitting conclusion to such a magical day of good conversation, shared passions and a unified desire to pay homage to the fruits of so much hard work.
Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education and tomorrow will sadly bring my final full day at Quinta do Noval.
Picking Locations: Canadas, Quinta da Foz, Quinta da Passegueiro
Grape Varieties: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
This is my last full day at Quinta do Noval: the past nine have offered a truly profound wine experience. For my final entry in the Harvest Diary of 2006 I would like to share some personal observations of just what sets Noval apart and why the Douro valley is a place like no other.
There are unique places in the vinous world where great wines are born: for my own part, Bordeaux and Burgundy maintain a special place in my heart. Most legendary wine estates have a family or group of people devoted to a singular aim; to make the greatest wines possible from a specific piece of earth or terroir and in so doing, carry forward long held traditions. Writers and learned commentators speak knowledgeably of typicity and the integrity of a wine’s characteristics within a given appellation. This authenticity is vital if we are to maintain the many differing styles of winemaking throughout the world.
At Quinta do Noval the noble ambition of creating a fluid expression of earth and elements was achieved long ago. For almost 300 years the dark brooding style of adolescent Noval Port has captured and retained the true essence of a harsh, sun-baked landscape. Noval is the liquid embodiment of a particular place: when drinking Port wine you taste the DNA of the Douro and through Nacional’s dark impenetrable youth gain a sense of the vine’s torturous journey through metres of dark stone schist. There is something extraordinary about a wine whose slatey subterranean origins contrast sharply with the toasted, heart-warming flavours of evolved maturity. This is a wine whose evolution predates much of modern winemaking and the gradual transition from somewhat bitter inaccessibility to glowing warmth, seems to echo the very climate of the Douro Valley.
Parallels with other great wines are not easy to draw: longevity can be hard to predict and known vintages continue to confound and surprise. Old tasting notes commanding ‘drink up’, ten years on, might venture “a splendid life ahead”.
Though after a shared decanter of the legendary 63’ Nacional, one’s personal immortality seems assured.
The People of Noval
Port wine is an important part of what makes Noval great: the people who work here are equally vital, without their massive contribution the soul of Quinta do Noval would evaporate. The warm heart of Noval beats because of them, every day their dedication helps express why this Port wine is so highly regarded. Adoration is not always easily garnered, but Port lovers from around the world worship Noval’s Nacional. It is an icon of the wine world, but only because of the effort invested by those who work hard on the terraced vines and in the chais.
Christian Seely arrived at Noval in 1993, his first declared vintage – the 94’, was a massive success. Since that time the wines have gone from strength to strength, gathering Parker points by the hundred and transforming its once tired reputation into songs of praise amid a stream of accolades and awards. He and winemaker Antonio Agrellos have made Noval what it is today – but more than this, the atmosphere at the Quinta is unusual. This place radiates enthusiasm and a sense of studied connoisseurship; when arriving at Noval the ambience is all consuming and makes one an instant convert to the Port wine cause. This due to Christian Seely’s personal devotion to handmade wines, combined with a passion that is completely infectious. He loves Port wine and the Douro and inevitably, you end up loving it too…
Being in the Douro during vindima is magical, a feeling hard to convey in words. Time spent walking around the magnificent Noval estate, in the company of people so enthused about their working lives, makes an indelible impression. Great Port wine 24 hours a day helps one comprehend a world entirely dedicated to the vine.
This peerless kingdom encompasses all that makes fine wine matter, a wild untamed landscape, cajoled and persuaded by vignerons through the ages. Its ever changing elements shaping the gnarled vines and suffusing the inky-black contents of each bottle, while helping to etch the Douro’s identity on every vintage Port. There is no vagueness or irregularity of style in these wines, they are bottled truth, offering a vinous snapshot of a moment in time and perfectly describing the windswept undulating landscape. This is a terrain whose expression is found in two forms: one physical and the other by way of a tangible liquid metaphor.
UNESCO designated the Douro Valley a ‘World Heritage Site’ because it has a rare and precious environment in need of protection. Should the same criteria ever be applied to a vineyard, Quinta do Noval would be an automatic choice, it is a Portuguese national treasure.
The majestic Douro River winds its way through rolling hectares of terraced vineyards, some vertiginously steep. A breathtaking scenery encompasses every shade of umber and green, the endless verdant caterpillar vines trace the form of each hillside, like contour lines on a topographical map. Earthly geological shapes are accurately described by these man-made vineyards and stone terraces: by following the curvature of the vines, when light and shade fall flat, the forms of these mound-like hills might still be discerned. The river is large and deep, according to the seasons or time of day, its colour ranges from deep Indigo to a pale pea-green. The effects of reflected light upon the water’s surface are infinite and as assorted river-craft wend their way along the smooth surface, their bow-waves break against the shore, anointing the waterside toes of olive trees. The riverbank is occasionally punctuated by small rustic houses and Quintas, with wooden vessels moored alongside.
This valley is very beautiful and provides a real focus for all who visit the region. The Douro river has been somewhat tamed by assorted dams and hydro-electric schemes, once upon a time these seemingly limpid waters raged and challenged those who navigated its massive watercourse. The warm memories I take away are many: smiling weather beaten faces of the vindimadores hard at work; songs echoing across schist strewn terraces and brightly coloured flowers in young girl’s hair. Happy Noval cooks Barbara and Maria-Joao preparing the most wonderful breakfasts, luncheons and dinners, are simply amazing and never seem downcast.
Rute Monteiro who manages public relations at Quinta do Noval has made my stay at Noval a joy. Her fantastic sense of humour, warmth of personality and total professionalism are a credit to the estate. Antonio Agrellos is the winemaker’s winemaker: his ability is recognized throughout the vinous world, though his great kindness and sense of fun should be praised in equal measure.
As I write this final entry, the Noval vineyards are full of activity with 26,000 kilos of grapes pouring into the Lagares and winery. The 2006 vintage is off to a fine start, though picking will continue until the second weekend in October. The grapes are in excellent condition and results so far are reassuringly good. The day is winding down and Christian Seely is spending the late afternoon with Aymeric de Gironde, perhaps they are discussing the future of this mighty estate and the prospects for ever more great Noval vintages in the decades ahead.
With Christian Seely at the helm, Quinta do Noval is in very safe hands: this quintessential connoisseur of Port has the Douro valley in his blood and is never afraid to proclaim the many virtues of an estate that changed his professional life. The two are mutually indebted and like any passionate affair is likely to run and run. Being here has been a privilege and once home in France I know I will long to return.
The sun is low in the sky and as I walk down the cobbled drive to the Quinta, long mauve shadows reach eastwards. This really is the best part of the day: with light so true that every leaf and stone is clearly delineated.
Christian and Aymeric are walking ahead, drinks on the terrace beckon and I would not wish to miss my very last Extra Dry White Port and tonic, as the sun surely slips behind the distant hills of the Pinhao valley.
What a splendid place Noval is and how well it has lived up to Christian’s promise.