On a flying visit to the Gonzalez Byass UK tasting in London earlier this week, Imbibe caught up with the always entertaining Christian Seely, head of AXA Millésime’s wine division
Port’s awesome. Noval Port is awesome. Why make table wines?
Our central idea for table wines was to see whether it’s possible to make red wine in the Douro that expresses the greatness of the region.
Which local grapes performed best?
We tried Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) because that’s planted further upstream in Ribera del Duero, but we never got anything thrilling out of that variety on its own. It only really got interesting when we started to experiment with Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Cão.
But you have a couple of interlopers too, like Syrah…
It’s one of our new single varietal range [others include Petit Verdot and Touriga Nacional]. My idea was very much not to try and make an international wine in the Douro Valley. We just wanted to find varieties that liked it in the Douro.
I guess there would have been a few that didn’t…
Cabernet is a textbook case of what I didn’t want to happen. It became a rather vulgar varietal. It wasn’t a Douro wine, just a Cabernet. I called it my wine of shame. Mourvedre was not so blatantly wrong, it just never sang.
But Syrah and Petit Verdot have both worked well. Syrah is a very civilized traveler. It’s learned the language, settled down and married a local. It’s really adapted to the Douro.
What have you learned with Syrah as a variety?
The early ones were probably picked too late – they got a bit ‘stewed fruit’ on the nose, which we weren’t aiming for. Now we pick at the end of August when it’s ripe, but still has a lot of fresh acidity. It makes up 20% of our Cedro do Noval, so we can’t call it a DOC Douro – it’s a Vinho Regional Duriense.
Petit Verdot’s a bit left-field…
We have some of this at Pichon Longueville, and to be honest, in Bordeaux I don’t like it. It needs both water and sun, and it doesn’t get enough of the latter in Bordeaux. But if you water it in the Douro you get a rather thrilling result. We’re one of only three estates in the valley to have it. It’s an interesting story for the Douro.
Touriga Nacional makes up over half of the Cedro do Noval – how has that variety’s style changed?
Touriga Nacional has been made in different ways over the years. But I think it’s quite a delicate, aromatic variety – it’s important not to over-extract or over-oak it. Our single varietal 2016 Touriga is still a baby. If you leave it in bottle it develops a floral, rose petal character.
There seems to be a real buzz around Douro table wines.
We have definitely seen an increase in lots of small independent producers who have dynamised the region and made it more interesting. They couldn’t have done that making port. At the same time, you have the great port houses making better port than ever before. It’s never been in such rude health.
Talking of port, will you be declaring 2017 to make it seven in a row?
Most certainly. Though I’m not sure that’s news. We seem to do it every year now! Seriously, the point is that every year we’ve declared we’ve found at least a small volume of port that’s vintage quality. I’d never declare it unless I was sure that I had an amount of port that was very, very good – even if it’s just a tiny amount.
And the Quinta do Noval Reserva 2016?
It’s a small production made from the best grapes on the best terroir. We are talking Quinta do Noval vintage port quality grapes. These three grapes (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cão) blend really well together. It’s a wine that you should really keep, but people aren’t thinking about that for Douro wines.
£12.95 Cedro do Noval; £20.91, single varietals (Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Petit Verdot); £35.91, Quinta do Noval Reserva DOC Douro; Gonzalez Byass UK, 01707 274790