Quinta do Noval Harvest: Day 5
24th September 2006
dry with bright sunshine and scattered cumulus, temperatures rising to 27°C
Corucho, Vale do Seixo, Roncao and Quinta da Foz
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao and Old Vines (mixed varietals)
The Douro is an extraordinary place: this ancient landscape, epic in scale and wild in nature makes man seem diminutive and his place within it paradoxical. By planting row upon row of vines across tens of thousands of hectares the vigneron has nudged God's hand, sculpting and adding grandeur to a place already blessed with unimaginable breadth and a magnificent beauty. We live in a restricted age of planning regulations and protectionism, yet some of the most beautiful places on earth have been influenced and shaped by man, the Douro valley is one.
This is a day to savour true Douro light: yesterday's rain has washed away the dusty arid veil and reinstated an amazing clarity. Transforming the bleached hues of mid-day for technicolor brilliance. Visibility has been regained and now the distant hills can be glimpsed; shadows chase across the rolling landscape, alternating light on dark, lending drama to a scene of intense activity among the vines. There is a busy day ahead, sadly, Michael and Daphne Broadbent depart after breakfast and later in the morning the Dutch Guild of Sommeliers will arrive at Noval to taste a range of vintage and Tawny Ports under the guidance of Rute Monteiro. Before this I plan to spend some time in the vineyards with Antonio Agrellos, the winemaker at Noval, he has kindly offered to take me out to the picking teams in his four by four.
Vindimadores hard at work high above the pinhao valley
Making a zig-zag ascent of the steep hillside known as Corucho we rise high above the valley floor. The elevated view is truly impressive and as we crunch along Antonio explains a little more about Noval's grapes and how many parcels are planted with old vine mixed varietals - very different from other classic wine regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy, where each parcel is planted with a single grape variety. This is Antonio's life: he eats, sleeps and breathes Port wine and handles the rugged precipitous terrain with a casual regard for his own safety, though not, I am glad to say, for his passengers. He kindly notes my facial expression as he effects an extraordinarily rapid three point turn with his bulky Landcruiser, on a track barely wide enough to accommodate a lady's shopping bicycle and with a vertiginous drop I would prefer not to contemplate. The vineyards are very hard on all mechanical transport; at harvest time one imagines the estate mechanics are permanently engaged with maintenance, as the suspension of most vehicles would find these rocky tracks hard to survive. When we arrive at the top of Corucho picking of Tinta Roriz is in full swing and the vindimadores are working hard carrying boxes of grapes down the long flights of stone steps bisecting the deep terraces. This human conveyor belt makes short work of retrieving the picked fruit and boxes are filled as quickly as the men can descend and return for the next. At the base of a tier of three terraces the collection truck is parked and two men oversee the flow of grapes into the three stainless steel tanks. Everyone is good-humoured, going about his or her work with a great sense of purpose and determination. The older men and women are singing and the younger men make light work of carrying their heavy burdens down the long flights.
Fast and FuriousFrom this part of the vineyard the Quinta cannot be seen, there are two or three small stone houses perched on the broad terraces though their roofs are very well maintained, they are not habitable. Some of the stone steps extend from the base of Corucho to the very top and the complete climb of several hundred metres is exhausting. In between trips up and down to the truck, the men take a welcome break and admire the familiar view. Hitching a lift with the driver of the collection truck I travel back down the rocky track to the Quinta and discover Rute Monteiro with the Dutch Sommeliers as they begin their Port wine tasting. The sun is shining brightly through the windows of the upstairs tasting room and a film crew from Portuguese television has arrived to film events. The Dutch group are learned and informed, they clearly comprehend the quality of Noval. Some of the sommeliers represent Michelin starred restaurants in Holland and are at the top of their profession.
The Guild of Dutch Sommeliers filmed by Portuguese televisionAn array of vintage and Tawny ports are arranged along one of two chestnut tables. The Dutchmen spend considerable time making tasting notes and asking pertinent questions, while the Portuguese film crew shoot a variety of sequences. At a time like this one realizes just how much reverence is afforded these truly great Port wines and the more one is able to taste, the more one appreciates the infinite complexity of Noval and its many vintages. After a splendid lunch we bid farewell to the marvellous and entertaining Dutch and I return to the vineyards, specifically the parcel of Touriga Nacional vines known as Vale do Seixo.
Learned and informed - the sommeliers listen attentively to Rute MonteiroIt is considered one of the finest on the whole estate and the grapes
are in perfect condition, juicy and succulent, they taste deliciously sweet. My afternoon ends in the vines high on Corucho, reunited with the same band of vindimadores I encountered in the morning. Faces are becoming ever more familiar and greetings of "Bom Dia" are exchanged by all. My Portuguese vocabulary is expanding rapidly; I now know five words in total. The working day is coming to an end and so the pickers wind down and relax, if fatigue has taken its toll on the older men and women it certainly does not show, as the picture at the foot of this page clearly indicates!
A Note on Tawny Port: the Port wines being tasted at quinta do Noval today comprised mostly aged Tawnies, varying between 10,20,30 and 40 years old respectively
Sealed with a kissSpending time with these marvellous people lifts the spirit; they work hard and fit so well the landscape into which they were born. Displaying a warmth and generosity of spirit admirable in our modern age, their authenticity and durability seems to epitomise and echo the very nature of Noval's great Port wine: a combination of integrity and lack of artifice.
Tonight I will continue my intensive Port wine education in the excellent and inimitable company of Christian Seely, Managing Director of Noval. A man dedicated to the cause of copious Port wine consumption and a firm believer in handmade wines. The weekend ahead promises some legendary Ports and a meeting with the new man at AXA Millesimes, Aymeric de Gironde.