Fig-Eating Pigs Share Sty With Port Grapes: Elin McCoy

Christian Seely
Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millesimes, leads a tasting of historic vintages of Quinta do Noval Nacional vintage ports at Eleven Madison Park. Seely was charged with reviving the legendary port house in Portugal's Douro Valley after AXA purchased the estate in 1993. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

In a steep terraced vineyard above northern Portugal’s winding Douro river are 6,000 very special gnarled vines. Their grapes make the world’s rarest, most collectible and expensive vintage port, Quinta do Noval Nacional.

I’d tasted only one vintage of what a critic once called the Mount Everest of port. So there was no way I’d miss the chance to sample 12 historic vintages from 1962 to 2003 with Christian Seely, who brought the Quinta do Noval estate back to greatness.

The soothing beige-walled private dining room at New York’s Eleven Madison Park hummed with anticipation. Sniffs of the filled glasses in front of me brought heady aromas of mint, dark chocolate, licorice and nuts.

Seely, wearing a dark blue Charvet bow tie and Savile Row double-breasted suit, looked pretty enthusiastic himself, admitting, “I don’t lead tastings like this every day.”

Since 2000, he’s been the managing director of AXA Millesimes, the wine division of French insurance giant AXA SA. He was a poetry-reading 32-year-old when the company bought legendary but rundown Quinta do Noval in 1993 and dispatched him to oversee its revival.

Holy Grail

The 145-hectare estate started making port as early as 1715, but its glory days were the 1920s to the early 1970s. The great 1994 put it back on track. Seely says its worldwide reputation was made by the 1931 Nacional, a Portophile’s Holy Grail that’s considered the greatest port of the 20th century. Seely’s only tasted it three times. (Me? Never.)

Unlike most port houses, the quinta (farm) makes its two main ports -- Quinta do Noval and Quinta do Noval Nacional -- from grapes grown in the estate vineyard. Nacional relies only on those from a 2.5-hectare plot in its heart.

Yet comparing the two, I discover how very different they are. I like the plummy, licorice-and-black velvet 2000 Quinta do Noval ($100) as much as I did when it was first released years ago.

The Nacional ($600 to $1,000) has a similar character, but it’s deeper, richer, subtler and more sophisticated, with a distinctive aroma that reminds me of wild lilies. Both have a wonderfully delicate quality that Seely calls Quinta do Noval’s hallmark. The opulent 2003 and savory 1997 Nacional surpass their Noval counterparts.

Superior Harvest

Port producers “declare” a vintage several times a decade, when they decide the quality of wine from a particular harvest is superior. But declarations for Noval and Nacional don’t always coincide.

“The 2007 regular port is wonderful but there’s no 2007 Nacional,” says Seely. “It just didn’t sing.” On the other hand, there’s no regular Noval in 1996, and the big powerful Nacional ($450 to $700) is a stunner.

What accounts for the difference?

It’s not the three indulged photogenic pigs who reside in a deluxe stone sty in Nacional’s vineyard, where they have an unparalleled view of the Douro valley and are fed ripe figs to fatten them for their fate, the quinta’s annual pig roast.

Seely says the intensity and character of Nacional’s ports come from the plot’s ungrafted vines.

Phylloxera Epidemic

After the 19th century phylloxera epidemic wiped out almost all Europe’s vineyards, virtually all vines had to be grafted on resistant American rootstock.

The Nacional parcel near the winery had apparently been spared, and when Noval’s then owner replanted the usual mix of Portuguese varieties, he planted ungrafted vines in that spot, hence the name “Nacional.”

Why the root-destroying phylloxera pest leaves these vines alone is a viticultural mystery; presumably it has nothing to do with the pigs.

Making both of these vintage ports remains a traditional process that involves treading grapes by foot in large square granite troughs called lagares. Colorless grape spirit is added to stop fermentation at the point where the wine will retain its hallmark balanced sweetness.

These powerful, deeply fruity ports need time to smooth out and reveal elegance and complexity. The truly great, ripe, dark, and chocolaty 1994 Nacional ($1,200) will be even more spectacular in another 10 years.

My other favorites were all from the 1960s: a wild, exotic, spicy 1967 ($1,200), a vibrant 1966 ($1,100), and the star of the day for me, the just about perfect 1963 ($3,000).

Chateau Petrus

Nacional’s price (2003, $800) is no deterrent to its sales. Only 200 to 250 cases are made in any declared vintage, which happens about three to four times a decade. That’s a tenth the annual production of Chateau Petrus (2003, $2,500).

This fortified wine might go for much more if port’s image weren’t partly stuck in the past -- men in black tie harrumphing as they pompously pass a decanter after dinner in a Downton Abbey-type drawing room.

So port houses are trying to woo younger drinkers with a different kind of port experience. Noval Black ($20), launched two years ago, is a berry-flavored, spicy-sweet, and affordable ruby reserve port with its own flashy website.

This year the estate enlisted mixologist Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT to create cocktail recipes for it.

They probably taste better if you don’t try them after drinking the sublime 1963 Nacional.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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