Last November we took our first international trip almost 2 years to the day of our last. We chose Portugal for two main reasons: its world-leading vaccination rate at the time combined with the fact that it was very near the top of our wine region bucket list. For years we had heard of the Douro Valley with its steep, terraced vineyards that are so unique the entire region is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. But until you see it in person, no photo seems able to grasp its staggering beauty.
The very first winery we visited was Quinta do Noval, situated in the very heart of the Douro Valley, with the most breathtaking winery view we’ve witnessed yet.
We started our drive to the winery from the bottom of the valley in the town of Pinhão where the Douro and Pinhão rivers converge.
As we made our way up along the hair-raisingly narrow switchback road, we caught glimpses of the river below but only when we had the courage to briefly take our eyes off the road ahead!
Our nerves quickly settled when we stepped onto the driveway and walked the last several metres to the Quinta’s historic house. A familiar sight began to take shape as we came across the towering cedar standing guard out front of the main house; it is the image that adorns so many of the wine labels.
The property consists of 100 hectares under vine planted to Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, and Sousão at altitudes ranging from 50m up to 500m. There are an additional are 45 hectares spread amongst two other properties about 8km away. The soil at the Quinta consists of clay, and a type of shale called ‘schist’ which is medium-grained metamorphic rock. Our guide Patricia tells us it’s the perfect soil for growing grapes: “it’s great for retaining enough water for the vines, but not too much.”
Quinta do Noval dates back to 1715 and its storied history is well documented. The winery’s durability over several centuries is most notably represented by a small parcel of vines that managed to survive unscathed from the devastating phylloxera louse that ravaged much of the region in the late 19th century.
Because phylloxera feasts on the leaves and roots of ungrafted vines, most wineries ended up having to graft their vines onto American rootstock. Inexplicably, these 6000 vines somehow withstood the pesky aphid on its original, ungrafted Portuguese rootstock. Soon after, the vineyard was aptly christened “Naçional”, a patriotic nod to the defiant vines which is also the name bestowed upon Quinta do Noval’s most iconic wine. Today, the Naçional vineyard is made up of ungrafted vines that were planted in 1924 that will soon be celebrating their centennial birthday.
A port shipper by the name of António José da Silva bought Quinta do Noval in 1894 and began replanting the vines that were destroyed by phylloxera.
His son-in-law Luiz Vasconcelos Porto is credited for re-constructing the narrow, older terraces into a larger format to maximize sun exposure to assist with the ripening of the fruit.
It was in 1931 that Quinta do Noval made its mark worldwide declaring a vintage when most Port shippers did not due to a combination of the Great Depression and the large production of the 1927 vintage. The world took notice and Quinta do Noval firmly placed itself alongside its most famous peers.
However, no success story is without its challenges and the winery certainly had its fair share. When Porto’s grandsons Fernando and Luis van Zeller took the helm, the focus on quality and innovation began to slip and poor sales, along with a hit to the winery’s reputation, followed. The next generation took over and things went from bad to worse culminating in a terrible fire in 1981.
In 1993, Quinta do Noval was acquired by AXA Millésimes whose wine portfolio includes Château Pichon Baron Longueville and Chateau Suduiraut, among other notable wineries in France, Hungary and the United States. Since purchasing the Quinta in the Douro Valley, they have invested heavily in everything including its own bottling line, replanting vines and adapting pruning methods that are specific to each parcel, and acquiring more estates.
After touring the property we returned to the house where a spectacular Portuguese lunch awaited. Before heading into the dining room we stood under the great Cedar where we were served a refreshing ‘Porto Tonico’ and a spread of appetizers that included iberico ham, croquettes and a selection of local cheese. A Porto Tonico is a delicious aperitif that we were introduced to on this trip. It is made from 1 part white port combined with 2 parts tonic water and garnished with a mint leaf, served over ice. It is a great alternative to a gin and tonic and has the benefit of being much lower in alcohol.
Lunch was a feast of country style cooking that included Portuguese baked eggs, fish and sausage paired beautifully with a selection of their still wines—the reserve red, Petit Verdot and Syrah on this occasion. While the Quinta is best known for their Port wines, we found their still wines to be very high quality (see tasting notes below).
Of course no meal in Portugal, particularly one at a famous Port producer, would be complete without a taste of their deliciously rich, sweet wine. We were treated to their 2007 Tawny Port and the 2012 Vintage Port. A perfect end to a truly perfect day in the Douro Valley.
It’s fair to say that the quality and reputation of Quinta do Noval has not only been restored, but it is also well positioned to maintain its rightful place among the top wineries in the Douro Valley.
Tel +351 22 3770270
*All visits are available by reservation only