By Margaret Elderfield
Standing in the shade of a 200 year old cedar tree on the terrace, high above Pinhao, it’s easy to imagine that nothing has changed here for over a century. Terraced vineyards hug the curving landscape as far as the eye can see, and it’s only the metal roof of the temperature-controlled storage facility further down the hill that gives a hint we are living in the modern world.
I’ve come to Quinta do Noval, the birthplace of the rarest of ports – the Nacional – a monopole vintage port made entirely from ungrafted vines that grow in a single vineyard adjacent to the quinta. It is produced in tiny quantities, only 200 to 250 cases for an entire Nacional vintage, and released only in the best years.
The quintas of the Douro were traditionally self-supporting farms as well as wine estates. And at Noval they like to preserve tradition. They still keep geese, pigs and chickens to feed the workers on the estate. On the day of my visit, a communal lunch of grilled fish for the workers is being prepared in the courtyard, as I follow Ana Carvalho, my guide for the day, past the chapel and the old dormitory rooms, towards the special plot of vines.
A Viticultural Mystery
The Nacional monopole consists of 2 hectares of vines planted over 5 terraces, all ungrafted. The name ‘Nacional’ was chosen because these vines are entirely Portuguese. They are not grafted onto American rootstock, yet in this small vineyard they have managed to survive the scourge of the phylloxera louse, which decimated European viticulture in the 19th century.
As is traditional in the Douro, the vineyard is planted as a field blend, consisting of 15 varieties inter-mixed. The most prevalent varieties are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Sousao. The average age of the vines is around 35 years old at present.
There are a few European vineyards where ungrafted vines can survive, and these are typically in sandy soils, which phylloxera cannot tolerate. Surprisingly in the case of Nacional, there is no sand. The soil is Douro schist with a high proportion of clay.
So how to explain the mystery? They simply do not know why the vines here have developed an immunity. They have tried planting ungrafted vines elsewhere on the estate, but the experiments have never worked. The vines begin to show tumors on the leaf, and then typically die within 1-2 years.
Needless to say, Noval are scrupulous in their cultivation of this vineyard. They never bring in plant material from outside the plot, and have been treating the vines organically. They hire in a donkey for a week at a time when necessary for ploughing (Ana jokingly calls him their “consultant”).
Vinification is very traditional, and begins with foot treading in open stone lagares. The human foot is the ideal instrument for getting the necessary extraction from the skins without crushing the pips, which would result in excessive bitterness. Typically the workers link arms and begin with 3 hours of military-style “marching”, working forwards and back systematically in a line. Then comes a few hours of “freestyle” treading, accompanied by music and even dancing in the lagares.
The grapes macerate for just 2-3 days, with pigeage 3-4 times a day. One-half of the fortifying brandy is added just as the fermenting juice is being drained from the lagares, to arrest fermentation and preserve sweetness in the wine. The other half of the brandy is added in vat. This facilitates the integration of the spirit.
Wood maturation takes place for up to two years more in a mix of old vats, made of oak, but also cherry and chestnut.
But as with all of the best vintage ports, the Nacional benefits from extended bottle ageing in cellar. The complex and powerful bouquet of a mature vintage port, decanted at its peak, is an incomparable experience every wine lover should have at least once in their lifetime.
The Whims of a Great Terroir
The Nacional vineyard has its own whims, distinct from the rest of the estate. For that reason, Noval do not always declare a Nacional Vintage in the same years as the estate vintage. For example, 1996 was not a declared Vintage year, but the Nacional was so outstanding that Quinta do Noval decided to declare a Vintage Nacional. By contrast, 2007 was a great year for the Noval estate vintage port, but the Nacional simply did not sing, so it was not released.
Allocations of Nacional are tiny. For example, the whole of Belgium gets only 12 bottles, and Canada gets only 6. (Fortunately for those of us in Britain, the UK gets the largest overseas allocation!)
This wine is so rare, that our own Rytis Jurkenas has only ever been lucky enough to taste the Nacional once in his lifetime, when he sampled the 1980 (and awarded it an Excellent 93 pts).
Regardless of the rarity, the exceptional quality of the Nacional is not in doubt.
In the 2011 vintage – that year when growing conditions in the Douro were nigh-on perfect for producing great port – the wine was showered with critical acclaim, achieving 100-pt scores from James Suckling, Robert Parker, Wine & Spirits magazine and Wine Enthusiast.
To quote Neil Martin: “This is the kind of elixir that leaves you speechless.” – 100pts (The Wine Advocate, Issue No. 212)