Quinta do Noval Harvest: Day 4
21st September 2006
cloudy with occasional showers - temperature rising to 23-24 degrees
no harvesting today
As I open my shutters and peer out expecting to see the now familiar sight of row upon row of terraced vines I am greeted with a damp panorama of low cloud and steady drizzle. It is only 7.30 am and the Douro weather is known to change in minutes but having consulted wine maker Antonio Agrellos last evening, the forecast does not bode well for the day ahead. He has determined there will be no picking today: a little rain is needed for the grapes and the harvest has been going so well, a slight interruption will not harm the 2006 vintage. Work in the vines will resume tomorrow morning and though there will be no picking there is much to be done elsewhere, not least in the busy Noval chais. This temporary hiatus provides the perfect opportunity for me to reveal some of the non-alcoholic treasures of Quinta do Noval and share the story of three very fine fellows who inhabit what is arguably the greatest Port wine vineyard in the Douro valley.
Though Quinta do Noval has 140 hectares under vine, many other activities unrelated to Port wine take place. Across the estate a magnificent array of fruit trees produce apples, pears, peaches, oranges and fabulous figs, along with almond trees whose gently roasted bounty provide the perfect and essential accompaniment to drinks at sunset. Well-tended vegetable gardens supply the Noval kitchens all year round - large plump tomatoes whose flesh is succulent and tender, potatoes that form the backbone of many Douro dishes, not least the delicious soups referred to earlier in this diary. The property, though not entirely self-sufficient can hold its own with truly organic produce.
Noval olive oil in strictly limited quantitiesNoval Olive Oil Production
The grey-green olive trees might provide decoration and much needed shade among the rows of vines but they too earn their place by contributing high quality olives to an award winning oil, handsomely bottled and sold in strictly limited quantities under the Noval marque.
Though the oil is pressed and blended locally, plans are underway to build a press at Quinta do Noval in the near future. Olive oil production fits very well alongside wine making and the superb quality make it very desirable, though given its limited production, demand far outstrips supply.
Soft light - Noval olive trees at sunset
Animal, vegetable and mineral all come together at Noval: Port wine is born of vines whose roots penetrate the deep veins of schist far beneath the earth's surface; the bewildering multitude of fruit and vegetables are enough to satisfy any gourmand's palate; but when we speak of ‘animal' a whole esculent vista opens up before us.
At the apex of Noval's epicurean pyramid sit three magnificent beasts: fine and noble pigs whose residence within the Nacional vineyard stimulates much respectful interest among visiting wine professionals. Each of these portly Porcos is handsome; their bristled coats, taught pink bodies and grey-black markings distinguishing them as very fine swine indeed. I am unclear as to how long pigs have lived among these ancient vines, but perhaps they too are pre-phylloxera like many of their motionless neighbours. How many pigs can claim to live within such a hallowed sanctuary and just how many receive such devoted care and attention during their short time on earth?
A stately PorcoThe Noval pigs take the air twice a day, once in the morning around 8.30am and again at the end of the afternoon. Blissfully happy rooting around on this elevated balcony, with a glorious view across the valley, their snortling and drain like grunting reverberates on the still morning air. Treated with gentle respect they enjoy a splendid existence housed in their deluxe sty high in the Nacional vines.
This form of compassionate farming is seldom seen and though their fate is predetermined, the thoughtfulness of their temporary guardians sets a fine example to piggy proprietors elsewhere.
Not always easy to persuade back in the styOn a crisp frosty day after the first new moon of the year, the traditional Noval Pig Roast is held and assorted winemakers from Bordeaux are invited, along with friends and local Douro growers. A carefully chosen butcher is brought to the Quinta in order to prepare the feast. Everyone joins in and staff and guests thoroughly enjoy the party atmosphere. Pork is one of the staples of Douro cuisine and every part of the animal is utilized.
This is an important event in Noval's calendar and such a special occasion brings together all those whose lives are dedicated to Noval and its great Port wine.
Jams and Preserves
The succulent Noval figs provide enormous pleasure to all who visit Noval during the early autumn season. There are many large fig trees on the estate and the quantity of fruit is immense, Barbara and Maria-Joao the Noval cooks, put this substantial crop to very good use by baking superlative tarts. In addition, breakfast marmalade is made from home-grown oranges and quince, with jams from all manner of berries and soft fruit on the property, including plums and cherries.
Having recently arrived at Noval I know little of Douro traditions: what I have learnt so far is that Noval almonds are very special and provide the perfect and irresistible accompaniment to evening drinks on the terrace. On my very first evening at Noval, as the sun sank beneath the hills across the Pinhao valley, I was greeted with a welcoming aperitif of ice cold Extra Dry White Noval Port and Tonic. The drink was unknown to me; though I could not help feeling this was one of those fresh encounters where something entirely new feels subconsciously familiar. This knowing sense has permeated much of my brief time at the Quinta and I am led to suspect this impossible familiarity results from Christian Seely's vivid descriptions of the Douro when I lived in Bordeaux.
Maria-Joao tap-tapping on the kitchen stepAlmonds: freshly picked and lightly roasted in the kitchens of Noval, duly seasoned with fine salt and pepper are essential for evening contentment on the terrace or drinks in the drawing room. When first I heard the daily repetitive tap-tapping on the Noval kitchen steps, it put me in mind of a Song Thrush using his beak to crack the shells of garden snails.
I soon discovered the source of this mysterious sound: Maria- Joao was seated on the granite step alongside a large wicker basket brim full with almonds. With a small hammer she cracks open each and every shell; once removed from their clam like enclosures the nuts are roasted to a golden honeyed hue. Removed from the oven, salt and pepper are liberally applied and the resultant flavour is indescribably delicious. This rare treat, when served beneath the majestic arms of the Noval Cedar of Lebanon, is truly unique.
End of the day
The rain has now stopped at Noval, it is late afternoon and the skies are clear once more. Happily, Christian Seely has just arrived from Bordeaux and Antonio Agrellos promises sunny skies in the morning and the vindimadores will be back among the vines and as busy as ever.
Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education and tomorrow I hope to tell you about some serious Port tasting at Noval in the distinguished company of the Guild of Dutch sommeliers.
The end of another perfect Douro day