I am recommending a wine from a Port estate, but not a port. This is not as cryptic as it sounds as Port houses have been producing unfortified table wines for many years, but recently, with greater attention, production has started to garner greater interest.
If you look back in history, the Douro produced table wines before it produced Port. It was in the 17th century that spirit was added to the wine during fermentation to stabilise it and then Port became the dominant category. There is little chance of table wine knocking Port off its pedestal, but production volumes are increasing. Thirty years ago, Port dominated production by a ratio of 10:1 in contrast to table wines; it is startling to think that ratio now stands at 10:7.
It was during the 1990s that table wine production saw a real resurgence, largely on account of EU subsidies and it has taken a while for the estates to figure out the map of Douro vineyards and refine the output. When you think about it, why wouldn’t table wines from major Port houses hold interest? The vineyards are well-established, planted largely with indigenous varieties and located on particular terroir – all the prerequisites for high quality wine production seem to be in place. That said, vineyards that deliver fruit ideal for fortified wine production may not be ideally suited to producing refined, elegant table wines – for Port production you want ripe, powerful fruit with thick skins, high in colouring material and tannin. Taming such characteristics to produce an elegant red table wine isn’t straightforward.
The Douro is one of the greatest rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, snaking its way from northern central Spain to its outlet at Porto. The undulating river valleys provide many incredibly steep slopes with different orientations, rising in places to 1000 metres – it is no surprise that terracing for vineyards was necessary to ease access and maintenance, as well as to prevent soil erosion. North-facing slopes used to be considered unsuitable for wine production, but this is changing on account of climate change – it provides some way of mitigating the heat and delaying ripeness. New plantings are being established with the focus on traditional Portuguese varieties, but also more international varieties such as Syrah and Petit Verdot, that seem to perform well on the schistous soils and in the Douro’s climate.
Quinta do Noval’s origins hark back to 1715, and it is situated near Pinhâo in the heart of the Douro. It was purchased by AXA Millésimes in 1993 and since then an extensive replanting exercise was undertaken, some 100 hectares in total. Carlos Agrelos, the technical director at Quinta do Noval, comments that ‘quality in the last few years has risen exponentially’ in terms of Douro table wines, stating that quality is good each year, rather than randomly as might have been the case before. Noval’s Reserva comes from their own vineyard, not new plantings, and is the product of a strict selection of two main indigenous varities, namely Touriga Nacional (80%) and Touriga Franca, also known as Francesa, (20%). These two varieties work well together, Touriga Nacional providing the structure and intensity as well as dark fruit, much in the same way as Cabernet Sauvignon, and the lighter, more aromatic Touriga Francesa showing more delicacy and fleshing out the wine. Certainly, the team at Noval has worked hard to refine this wine as it now shows much more finesse than I recall from an early vintage, yet no lack of substance or character. Please see my note below.
I should add that 2018 was a low-yielding vintage in the Douro, after an extended period of drought, rain came in the spring, followed by a hot dry summer that led to deep, intense wines with fine aromatics.
2018 Quinta do Noval Reserva
£180 per 6 bottle case in bond
Made from a blend of 80% Touriga Nacional and 20% Touriga Franca, aged in French oak for 12 months, 35% of which was new.
Deep, bright purple, inky in the glass, the aromas are striking, suggesting abundant ripe berry fruit, gently violet-scented but with a fine freshness. Structurally it is hard not to draw some comparisons to a young Bordeaux as there is a firm yet fine backbone to this wine and a captivating fruit of blackberry, blueberry with subtle notes of toast and vanilla, as well as certain spicy nuances. It is a full red yet not headstrong – it shows far more refinement than I anticipated, and the palate has an ample, generous weight with no loss of poise. What fascinates me is how the tannins pick up notes of graphite and lead the wine to a long, persistent finish. You can sense this comes from a climate where ripeness is easily won, but there is a softness and sense of precision that highlights just how far Douro wines such as Noval’s Reserva have come on. One thing is certain; while you could start drinking in a couple of years’ time, this wine would age for a couple of decades and beyond. Drink 2022-2040+ (SL)
Please let us know of your interest.
All the best,