2011 New York Wine Experience: Wine Star Christian Seely
For Port lovers, Quinta do Noval is a special place, and its rare Quinta do Noval Nacional bottling is the most famous Vintage Port of all. But the property had its ups and downs over the past century. Christian Seely became a leading force in Noval’s revival after taking over in 1993, just after it was purchased by the insurance giant AXA, replanting the vineyards and building new winemaking facilities.
“He honored its history while bringing it into the 21st century,” said Wine Spectator managing editor Kim Marcus, introducing Seely, now managing director of AXA Millésimes, which owns numerous other European wine estates including Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron and Château Suduiraut in Bordeaux.
To celebrate Wine Spectator’s 30th anniversary, Seely broke out the Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional 1994 (100 points, $400 on release)—giving the audience what for many may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In 1994, only about 190 cases of Nacional were made. “Today is certainly the biggest tasting there has ever been of Nacional ’94—and certainly the biggest tasting there ever will be,” said Seely. “So I hope you like it.”
Quinta do Noval is the only one of the major traditional Port houses whose principal Vintage Port always comes from one vineyard, Seely explained. And the Nacional comes from ungrafted vines in a 5-acre parcel in the heart of that vineyard. Even though almost all the vines in the Douro Valley were grafted onto American rootstocks after phylloxera devastated European vineyards in the late 1800s, this parcel survived without resorting to that measure.
The Nacional plot is profoundly different from the rest of the estate; some years they can make both Nacional and Quinta do Noval Vintage Ports and some years they can only make one or the other. “Nacional is great when it wants to be,” Seely said. For example, in 1996, they didn’t declare a vintage year for Noval, but the Nacional lot clearly stood out as great. In contrast, 2007 was one of the great Quinta do Noval Ports, but Nacional “just didn't sing.”
Why is it different? The wines are made by the same people, and the winemaking is very simple. The grapes are trod by foot in traditional lagares and left to ferment in these open stone vats. But while Quinta do Noval is characterized by elegance and finesse, the Nacional has “another dimension—extraordinary power and structure. It can be almost brutal when it’s young.” Extremely reserved for many years after bottling, the 1994 now gives the impression of great youthfulness.
“I think of it as the finest expression of the Quinta do Noval vineyard,” Seely concluded. “It has something unique that comes from the place, comes from the grapes. Like all great wine, that’s where greatness comes from; it’s really nothing that we do ourselves.”