Quinta do Noval Axa Millesimes Serge Chapuis

TIME AND WINE. An extraordinary tasting of Vintage Port organised by Don Schliff at the Bel Air Hotel Los Angeles.

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I have known Don Schliff for over 25 years, since he came to visit Quinta do Noval in 1994. He had a reputation even then as one of the great collectors of Vintage Port, and one of the most knowledgeable Port tasters. I thought I would put him to the test, and so decanted a bottle of the Quinta do Noval Nacional 1962. This is an extremely rare wine, and very little known. The 1963 is justly famed as one of the great wines of the world, but although the 1962 Vintage was not generally declared, the Quinta do Noval vineyard made some lovely wines that year, and in particular the 1962 Nacional, which is a wonderful wine, an austere but very pure fine and complex expression of the Nacional. This, I thought, would flummox him, and indeed anyone. However great it is, it is very rarely talked about, and very rarely tasted. We began to drink the wine at the end of lunch and I asked him what he thought it might be. In his deceptively laid back and relaxed way, he said, “Well, I don’t know. It kind of reminds me of the Nacional 1962!”

I knew from that moment that I was in the presence of someone who knew Vintage Port, and nothing since then has contradicted this judgement. Don has over the years organised some astonishing tastings in Los Angeles for small groups of sophisticated – some fanatical – connoisseurs and lovers of old Vintage Ports from his cellars in Los Angeles, and from time to time has asked me to participate.

On Sunday February 2, 2020, he invited me to be present at what was surely an historic and certainly unrepeatable tasting of fine old Vintage Ports, mostly from his personal collection.

Here is the list of wines that was put before us:

Shipper Unknown 1834
Shipper Unknown 1844
Cossart Gordon Solera 1844 Bual Madeira
Warre’s 1851
Ferreira 1858
Sandeman 1868
Sandeman 1870
Shipper Unknown 1887
Sandeman 1908
Cockburn’s 1912
Niepoort 1927
Quinta do Noval 1931
Taylor Fladgate 1945
Mackenzie 1955
Fonseca 1963
Graham 1970
Cockburn’s 1983
Taylor Fladgate 1994
Quinta do Noval 2000
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2000
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2011
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017
Niepoort 2017
Niepoort Garrafeira 1987

Rather than try to give tasting notes on each wine, I prefer to talk about the wines that particularly stood out for me. The first two in particular, the 1834 and the 1844, from that well known producer whose wines I have so often come across, “Unknown Shipper” (By this age, all trace of labels has vanished, if there ever were any, and it is rare that the cork can give very much information apart from the year of production, which is also sometimes still printed in a wax seal over the cork.) Both were remarkable, still alive, and incredibly, fresh and enjoyable. The 1844 was actually one of the stars of the whole tasting. These were very old wines. The 1834, made just 19 years after the battle of Waterloo, still had fruit, from grapes grown so long ago, in an unrecognisable world. The Duke of Wellington himself, who liked to drink several bottles of Port each day, may well have drunk this wine, which would have been 18 years old when he died in 1852. How extraordinary it is that a bottle of wine can survive so long, and form a link for us with events and people from so long ago.

This is one of the characteristics of Vintage Port. It can be an astonishingly long lived wine. It is not immortal. Even the very best Port wines have a limited life, reach their apogee, and then decline, sometimes over a long plateau of decades, and will finally reach the stage where they have nothing more to give. But they can live longer than us, and this enables us to have a relationship with them that can last for generations.

In the opening lines of his Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats addresses the Urn itself

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time

But this would equally be an appropriate address to a bottle of ancient Vintage Port, ageing quietly and serenely in the cellar of a great collector like Don Schliff.

Time plays a vital role in the development of all wines. Even simple white wines that might be ready to drink in the year following harvest require at least a few months after the harvest to make them ready to drink. Great complex wines, both red and white, may require many years ageing, in barrel, in bottle, at the winery, in the cellar of the wine drinker, in order to reveal all that they have to offer.

But time is the friend of Vintage Port in particular. You can of course drink some Vintage Ports when they are very young. One of the final wines we tasted at Don’s tasting was the 2017 Quinta do Noval Nacional, which I believe to be one of the great Nacionals the Quinta has ever produced. I am quite certain that this wine will be wonderful to drink in a century, and indeed I very much hope that a group of Port lovers like the one that was united by Don at the Bel Air on Sunday will taste this wine in 2120. But it is also a hugely sybaritic pleasure to drink this wine in its infancy today. This is no crime: just a different way of enjoying it. But time will undoubtedly allow the wine to reveal layers of aroma and complexities of flavour that are only present in a concentrated, impressive, but as yet unrevealed form today.

 Packshot_QDN_Nacional Vintage_2017._tr2

Some of the wines in this tasting I had drunk before, some of them decades ago with people who are still alive today, some with people who no longer are. Some of the wines in this tasting I hope to drink in years to come, perhaps with my sons, who are still mostly too young to enjoy them today, but with whom it will be a pleasure to observe their discovery of what great wine can be. And some of the wines I shall share with them, they will be able perhaps one day to share with their children, when I may no longer be around. These wines traverse generations, and form a link at the present moment at which we drink them both with the past and with the people with whom we may have shared them before, and with the future, and with moments to come when we will enjoy them again, or when others will. Vintage Port is a wine that permits this kind of experience.

So an event such as the tasting that Don organised on Sunday 2nd February in LA goes way beyond the fact of being just a wine tasting; it is an experience of wines in time, wines which in some cases have travelled through many decades to be with us on that day, and which in some cases have very many decades before them, during which we may get the chance to revisit them again, perhaps to share them with some of the people there on Sunday, perhaps with other people; and during which they will also be discovered by people who are perhaps not even yet born.

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To return to the wines, among the many great experiences we had that day, the stand outs for me were the following:

Cockburn’s 1912, amazingly youthful still, rich, ripe, fresh and long, with still some fruit and tannin;

Niepoort 1927, surely one of the great 1927s, still with a relatively youthful deep profound colour, complex rich, youthful and quite delicious. I had this wine for the first time with Dirk Niepoort in 1994 at his house, and it has remained on a plateau of excellence ever since, evolving slowly of course, but really not appearing to be very much older than that first great experience.

Quinta do Noval 1931. From the excellent bottling of Fearon Block Bridges and Routh, and an outstanding example of this great wine. The legendary 1931 greatly enhanced Noval’s reputation in the twentieth century. The major shippers did not declare the 1931, since the great depression had begun and they all had very large stocks of the great 1927 Vintage on their hands. But Noval has a history of eccentricity, and decided to declare the Vintage anyway. It was only as the years passed that it was realised how great the 1931 Vintage was, and the Quinta do Noval was the wine that showed this. As a result it has been a legendary wine for Port lovers ever since, much sought after, and now becoming extremely rare. I have been able to taste the 1931 a few times, and it still amazes by its youth and vigour. But not only is it still fresh, it has the typical Noval characteristics of elegance, and manages to be fine and delicate as well as long and powerful. It is recognisably typical of the Noval style, as I have come to know it in the Vintage Ports we have been making over the past 26 years, and this typicity is remarkable in a wine that is now nearly ninety years old.

The Taylor 1945 was also outstanding, and to taste this wine alongside the Noval 31 was to experience the radical difference in style between the two great houses, and indeed the two great Vintages. While the Noval was all finesse, the Taylor was monumental, rich powerful structured dense and profound, just a great wine.

Towards the end of this tasting of great old wines, there were two pairs of relatively young Noval wines, which I was very happy to see in such company.

Firstly, we tasted the 2000 Vintage Ports from both Quinta do Noval and from the Quinta do Noval Nacional. Since we first made these wines, they have been among my favourite Novals, a preference perhaps increased by the fact that 2000 has in my view not yet been recognised for the great vintage that I believe it to be. Both these wines were always very backward in their youth, closed tight and tannic, and extremely reserved. But I have always believed them to be among the great wines that the Quinta has produced, and over the past few years they have begun to open up a little and begin to reveal what they have to show. The Quinta do Noval Vintage Port comes of course from various parcels over the whole of Noval’s 145 hectare estate, representing a strict selection of the very best wines from the property that rarely exceeds 10% of the total production. The Nacional on the other hand always comes only from the tiny 4 acre parcel of ungrafted vines at the heart of the Quinta, which always produces a wine that is exceptional and quite different from the wines from the rest of the property. The 2000 wines are no exception to this, though I have always felt that the 2000 Quinta do Noval is one of the Vintage Ports from the Quinta that rivals most closely in excellence the Nacional from the same year, albeit with a different personality. Today was no exception to this: the 2000 Quinta do Noval Vintage was true to itself, still a little reserved, but very complex, spicy and fresh, with very big powerful reserved tannins, very long, very persistent. Above all very harmonious and balanced. The Nacional was all of those things, but with a few degrees more of intensity, very complete, very fine and very long. I remain convinced that this was a very great Vintage at Noval!

Quinta do Noval Axa Millesimes Serge Chapuis

We then compared two of the great recent Nacionals, the 2011, and the 2017. I thought that it was important to show these two wines at this extraordinary tasting, alongside so many great old wines from the distant past, as a reminder that great and wonderful wines are still being made in the Douro! I believe in fact that the 2011 and 2017 Nacional wines are among the greatest Nacionals that the Quinta has ever made. They are of course still babies at the moment, but already the very different styles of the two vintages are evident. 2017 was a very hot dry year, with alarming heat spikes during the summer, and drought conditions during the growing period, with rainfall down to about half the normal (low) levels we are used to in the Douro. I remember worrying before the harvest that such extreme conditions were unlikely to produce balanced wines. But I need not have worried. The result of this year of very extreme weather conditions is unquestionably one of the greatest Nacionals ever, exuberantly and extravagantly ripe, exotic, dense powerful and expressive, even at this stage. The 2011 on the other hand was the product of a much more balanced and relatively temperate year, and its style reflects this. It has always been marked by a wonderfully complete balance and harmony, intense, pure, fine fresh and long, and is also clearly one of the great historic Nacionals . I am sure that Vintage Port lovers will be comparing these two great wines for many decades to come, and should a group of wine lovers meet as we did for a tasting of old Vintage Ports in a century’s time and taste these two, I am quite sure that they will still have wonderful things to reveal.

In conclusion, this tasting, hosted by the great wine collector Don Schliff was an extraordinary event. I should mention that the various flights of Port were accompanied by outstanding food prepared by Wolfgang Puck. It was a wonderful afternoon of celebration, certainly unforgettable, certainly unrepeatable.

Laszlo Meszaros and Christian Seely

Bringing the Hangács vineyard back to life at Disznókő

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I was in Hungary on Monday tasting the outstanding Aszú wines of the 2016 harvest with László Mészáros. Tokaj at this time of the year can be either extremely cold, or enveloped in thick mist, or both. But just occasionally there are days of early winter brilliant sunshine that reveal the full splendour of this wonderful wine region, and Monday was one of those.

View from Szt Tomas outside the village of Mád of the vineyard of Disznókő (centre right) and of the Mount of Tokaj in the distance
View from Szt Tomas outside the village of Mád of the vineyard of Disznókő (centre right) and of the Mount of Tokaj in the distance

One of the main reasons for my visit was to visit the site of Hangács on the slopes above the main vineyard of Disznókő, which we are in the process of replanting. This is a very exciting project for us. Hangács has not been planted with vines since the 1960s, when it was abandoned by the then state farm which favoured plantings lower down the slopes, because easier to work with large tractors. But this hilltop site is unquestionably among the greatest terroirs in the whole of the Tokaj region, and was cultivated for many centuries before the 1960s. In the 16th century there are records showing that this particular vineyard belonged to the Balassi family, in particular to the poet and soldier Bálint Balassi.

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László Mészáros, the talented director of Disznókő, clearly feeling rather good about the project, standing in the cleared hilltop site of Hangács, with the Mount of Tokaj and the Terézia chapel in the background.

The soil is clearly well drained, as it was quite dry, whereas most of the surrounding land further down the hill with heavier soil, was still heavy from recent rains. This close up shows the distinctive volcanic soil of the Hangács parcel.

the distinctive volcanic soil of the Hangács parcel

We shall be planting 22 hectares in total here, mostly with Furmint. It is a substantial declaration of faith in the long term future of the great Aszú wines of Tokaj and a deeply satisfying project for us to be undertaking. Something which was dying and had been abandoned will live again and in years to come once again produce great wines, as it did for many centuries.

Toasting the future of Hangács with a glass of Disznókő Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos 2008
Toasting the future of Hangács with a glass of Disznókő Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos 2008

Over the years we have increasingly focussed on the individual characteristics of the various terroirs that exist within the great vineyard of Disznókő. The Kapi parcel, not too far from Hangács, has notably produced some of the more remarkable Aszú wines that we have produced at Disznókő. We have every reason to believe that in future years Hangács will be among the greatest of Disznókő’s terroirs, and it is thrilling for us to be setting in motion the process of replanting this parcel and bringing it back to life.

The afternoon finished with a glorious sunset over the Hungarian plain. This is a special place.

sunset on hangacs vineyard

To know more in details about the replanting of Hangács vineyard, visit the website of Disznókő: http://disznoko.hu/disznoko-experience/replanting-hangacs-vineyard-the-next-big-project/

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The harvest is under way at Pichon Baron

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We are enjoying a magnificent Indian Summer here in Bordeaux, and with every day that passes the harvest of 2016 becomes more remarkable.

2016 was a year of contrasts, with an extremely wet start to the year, with record rainfalls until June, and then extremely hot and dry sunny weather until September. It was in fact so hot and dry that by the beginning of September we were slightly worried, as the grapes were not as ripe as we would have liked them to be at this stage. Counterintuitively, such prolonged hot dry spells can slow down the process of photosynthesis in the vine and thus impede ripeness in the grapes. At this stage we desperately needed some rain in order to get things moving again in the vineyard, and then a prolonged period of good weather to bring the grapes to full ripeness. We might easily have been disappointed.

Rain when it came was considerable, and in theory at least slightly later than we would have liked. But this vital downpour of 30 mm on the 14th September, followed by 5 mm on the 16th/17th had a very beneficial effect, and has been followed by a prolonged period of ideal weather: cool nights and mornings, and warm sunny afternoons. This has enabled us to take the harvest slowly, picking each parcel at the optimum moment, stopping for a day or two when necessary.  The merlots are now in, and look excellent, with deep profound colour, near record levels of anthocyanes, and perfectly ripe fruit. I have just been tasting the first wines with Jean-René Matignon and I cannot recall merlots with such concentration and structure here before.

 We are now moving on to the cabernets. This was how things looked on the great plateau of Pichon Baron yesterday, Thursday the 6th October.

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The grapes are very healthy, already ripe, and analyses show levels of anthocyanes reminiscent of 2010. They taste wonderful now, but will benefit from just a few days more of these ideal conditions to achieve perfect ripeness and concentration. Next week will be grand cabernet week. We will continue to take our time, and should finish by the middle of the following week, around 18th October, somewhat later than usual. The proof, as always, will be in the tasting when the world comes to Bordeaux next spring to taste the wines, but here at this stage we are extremely happy with what nature has given us over the past few weeks, and we believe that a great vintage is in the making.

V.14&N (8)

Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port 2001 and Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2014

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I was in the Douro valley last week, where the harvest is under way. After a very wet start to the year, we then had one of the hottest and dryest summers ever, so it has been a year of contrasts. Harvest continues in excellent conditions, and we will know more about the final quality of the wines in a few weeks time, but it looks good so far.

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Here is a picture of early morning harvest at Quinta do Noval last week, cagettes in the foreground, taken from the promontory at the end of the Roncão valley, which is the midpoint of my morning run, with the Douro and some of Quinta da Romaneira in the background. This is one of my favourite places in the world. The vines here are Touriga Nacional, which we planted in 2000 and which are already giving wines of outstanding quality.

But Quinta do Noval was a good place to be anyway last week as we launched two great Ports on the same day: our Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2014 and our Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port 2001.

Click on the links above to read what I wrote about these wines on the Quinta do Noval website.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Philippe Remond

A successful Marathon for Pichon Baron

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Last Saturday was the 32nd Marathon du Médoc. As usual, we fielded a strong Pichon Baron team, of widely divergent sporting experience and ability, but all animated by the same enthusiasm for the event.

We were thrilled that one of the members of the Pichon Baron team, Freddy Guimard, won the race, with an excellent time of 2:25.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Freddy Guimard

This was the first time that Freddy ran with us, and his first Marathon win. He is the French champion over ten kilometers, and clearly a superb and determined athlete, but also entered magnificently into the spirit of things here, happily trying wines from Pichon Baron, Suduiraut and Quinta do Noval at dinner the night before.

I would like to say that these wines had a performance enhancing effect, but if this were so, it would be hard to explain why my half marathon time the next day was slightly longer than his complete marathon victory time.

Château Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Médoc - Freddy Guimard
Freddy running past our property, wearing a crown and his tee-shirt Pichon Baron
Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Freddy Guimard
Freddy with some Victory magnums of Pichon Baron after the race

Freddy was with us because our long standing friend Philippe Rémond, many times winner of the Médoc marathon, who has run in the Pichon Baron team for years, and who trains the French running team today, brought him to Pichon with a group of friends who run regularly in our team. It is both an honour and a pleasure for all of us at Pichon that this star of French athletics should be a regular visitor to the chateau and a lover of Pichon Baron and its wines.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Philippe Remond
Philippe Rémond with the Pichon Baron team before the race. My son Charles (in my arms) enjoyed the ambiance but decided not to run this year

Also in the Pichon Baron team was Yves Bruneau, the butcher of Bages, pictured here passing Pichon at an early stage of the race, as you can see from the fact that not many glasses have yet been poured.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Yves Bruneau
Patricia Doré encouraging Yves

Yves arrived in second place in the veterans category, and we were very proud to have him in our team.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Christian SeelyI came past somewhat later. This picture gives the entirely misleading impression that I am walking, whereas of course I have merely slowed down in order not to bump into Ruth Santry who is taking the photograph. The great thing about any picture taken during a race is the huge number of people visible in the background. This means they have been running even slower than me, or if you like, I am winning this part of the race. The several thousand people who have gone before rather more rapidly are of course not visible.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Marine Castel, Nicolas SantierWe served Les Griffons 2014 at Pichon, in wine glasses of course, to all the runners who felt like a restorative at kilometer five. Nicolas Santier and Marine Castel were among the volunteers who looked after the several thousand runners who took us up on our offer.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Pichon Baron volunteers with musiciansTo serve wine correctly to so many people is quite a logistical operation. Here is the magnificent group of Pichon Baron volunteers, to whom all thanks are due, together with the musicians.

It was, as always, a great day, a magnificent celebration of life and wine.

Chateau Pichon Baron - 32nd Marathon du Medoc - Philippe Rémond, Christian Seely, Jean-René Matignon Here I am at the end, clearly relieved that the running part is over, enjoying the post marathon lunch with Jean-René Matignon and Philippe Rémond.

© Château Pichon Baron – images: Ruth Santry