Portugal’s Quinta do Noval declares two vintages in a row

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Talk about lightning striking twice—Portugal’s Quinta do Noval has declared two vintages in a row. Again. They should know what they’re doing, having produced great port in the Douro Valley since 1715.

      A word about the word vintage. Most of the time we use it to refer to the harvest year of the grapes, when the wine was made. These days we’re drinking primarily the 2009 vintage of domestic whites, the 2008 or 2007 in reds. But in Portugal, vintage means something quite different, as in “declaring a vintage”. This means a year when the grapes are of exceptional quality and everything came together just fine, and refers only to port. And when a leading producer of this loveliest of fortified wines releases a vintage, it is something to be on the lookout for.

      Mind you, it’s never that simple. Within the vintage category are various subgroups: “vintage ports” are considered by connoisseurs to be the best and are traditionally the costliest. These wines are made from grapes of a single year and are bottled within two years. That is the “declared” vintage, and a port house doesn’t make a traditional vintage port in an undeclared year. The best vintages can easily last half a century—longer if you have them in a cellar and have the patience of a saint.

      “Second-label vintage ports” are sometimes made when a firm doesn’t want to declare a vintage port, but the wine is still very good. “Late-bottled vintage ports” (LBVs) are made from grapes of a single harvest, even though the quality isn’t quite as good as that of vintage port. “Colheita port” (sometimes known as “single-vintage port” or “dated port” is the same thing, while “vintage character ports” are basically higher-quality “ruby ports”, aged in wood for a couple of years and from good-but-not-brilliant years. Still with me?

      Quinta do Noval is a fine port house, and we regularly see quite a few of their offerings here in B.C. They make a broad range of ports in all categories—dry, ruby, tawny, vintage character port, LBV, Colheita, aged tawnies—and three vintage ports when they decide to declare them: Silval, Nacional, and Quinta do Noval Vintage. The latter wines are still trod by foot in the traditional lagares (cement vats); in press materials, managing director Christian Seely points to “disciplined and intense treading [which] is fundamental for a good final result”. How do you tread grapes in a disciplined way?

      In our market, we often see Canadian, Australian, and South African “ports”, but they really aren’t. True port comes only from Portugal; all others are wannabes.

      The LDB has over 80 separate port listings in its current guide. Prices range from $15.99 to $267.67. Quinta do Noval’s currently available vintage is the 2007, priced at $134.99. (There’s also still some wine from the 2003 vintage, for $103.)

      And then there’s the impending 2008, just declared—likely priced in the $135 range, like the 2007. Start saving and keep checking. The 2008, the second vintage in as many years, is perhaps unusual but not unheard of. In fact, Quinta do Noval did it earlier this decade, following the declaration of the 2003 with a 2004, and in the ’60s, with 1966 and 1967. As Seely points out, “It is a Noval tradition to be different,” going on to say that the 2008 is a small declaration, less than 1,000 cases, for the world. How many will we get here? He simply says, “It will be quite rare and hard to find.”

      But worth it if you’re a port lover. Seely again: “strikingly different”¦from the 2007 Vintage, the 2008 [has]”¦great depth and harmony.” Care to know what the grapes are? None you’d find far beyond Portugal: Touriga Nacional, to the tune of 50 percent; Touriga Francesca, 40 percent; and Sousí£o, 10 percent. Then 20 months’ aging in large wooden barrels in air-conditioned cellars at the Quinta before it’s bottled. It will arrive here by the end of the year, just in time for Christmas, we’re all hoping.

      I had the considerable good fortune of tasting both vintages side by side: a “preview” bottle of the 2008 found its way to me, and the 2007 came from the LDB shelves. The 2007 has been scored in the mid-to-high 90s by those who do that wine-by-numbers thing. Allow me to be among the first to share some taste impressions.

      The 2007 commences with massive aromas, and has velvety tannins, a fascinating full-on sharpness of raspberry, lots of black toffee, and an endless finish. In a retaste four days later, it remains full in the mouth with a gentle astringency, as well as long-lasting fruit and acidity. Twenty years from now, I expect it to be even better: rounder, mellower, richer. Yes, food goes with it—ripe blue cheese, nuts, dried nectarines, shortbread, fattening desserts. (In Oporto many years ago, I had a French-trained chef serve me some with a rich, slow-cooked roast lamb, and it was glorious.)

      The 2008—the “better” vintage? Tough call, but I can see why they wanted to declare this one too. Darker, deeper, with a shorter presence in the nose; subtlety, fullness; dead-clean, grand fruit. Stunningly smooth, with some brambly spice at the back, leading into the rich, round finish.

      Both still taste just a teensy bit raw, but this will mellow out with time. The retaste found the 2008 lighter but fuller (if that makes any sense), and luscious. Ahh, port. Could be my downfall. Could be worse.

      The oldest port I’ve drunk from my cellar? An 1898 Niepoort. Opened it on a memorable birthday; it was alive and heavenly. Favourites from past vintages? A 1963 and 1970 Burmester, bought in Alberta decades ago as a treat for flying over gas pipelines in small planes one summer. A 1966 Porto Calem, in magnum: a wedding present from a Portuguese connoisseur, yet unopened. The best port event I ever attended? Taylor’s 350th anniversary in a bank in London. Appropriate setting, wines going back hundreds of years. Jancis Robinson was to my right, Georg Riedel, the glass magnate, on my left.

      Sigh! Life is short; drink up.