Quinta do Noval Nacional 1997

Quinta do Noval 1997 Vintage Port, Portugal

To be honest, I’ve never been a passionate ‘Vintage’ Port fan: too rich and plush, generally sweeter and heavier than my sense of taste enjoys. Far too alcoholic to drink too far down into the bottle, I’d always regulated Port to sipping in small quantities on rare occasions.

Side bar here. When my daughter was born in 1997, I strategically collected vintage ports from her birth year for her to enjoy in her 20s-60s – knowing I wouldn’t be tempted to RAID the cellar. Little could I predict that she’d turn out to be Gen Z’s answer to my tee-totalling granny. 

Carrying on...My previous thoughts on Port changed recently when a dear friend brought along a very special bottle that stopped me in my tracks. It was a Quinta do Noval ‘Nacional’ 1997 – as perfect as perfection gets. Port, for me, suddenly transformed into something profound. Five months later I’m still thinking about it.

My first thoughts were how young and vibrant it still was at 23 years of age! Where Port can sometimes be more about weight and power – or, at worst, a little ponderous – Nacional was all about finesse and freshness and brightness of expression. Light on its feet and clean as a whistle, it was more wine-like than Portly. Its persistence counted in minutes, not moments.  

Yes, it had plenty of requisite dried black fruits and there were prune notes, but they weren’t pruney, as in over cooked and raisined, more like the vibrancy of ultra-fresh prunes. Back grounding all this was a deep undercurrent of bitter dark chocolate, treacle and coffee characters.  Floating above were hints of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, coriander and nutmeg. High fidelity vinosity! 

On all counts this was pitch perfect Port in every respect: aromatics, texturally, fruit to structural balance, depth, complexity... all ending in a long, long, flavor filled finish.  

Quinta do Naval’s ‘Nacional’ is considered by many to be the greatest of the greatest of Ports, with 1931 and 1963 legendary examples. Rare stuff, Nacional’s vineyard produces only enough wine for 200-250 cases each year. When released after 3 years maturation, a bottle, if you can find one, will set you back more than a 1000 bucks, pounds, euros...whatever.  Price goes up astronomically the more decades you go back.

So why is Nacional special? The old ‘Nacional’ vineyard was planted in 1925 with the region’s five main traditional grape varieties: Touriga Francesa, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Sousão and Tinta Roriz. The key here is that, rather than normally being grafted onto American roots to defeat the Phylloxera disease, Nacional’s vines and a multitude of their clonal sub-species were gathered from ancient surrounding vineyards and planted ‘ungrafted’ on their own ‘national’ roots. 

When fermented together, this rich biodiversity of vines, having dug deeply into the earth through their own root system for nearly a century, creates enormous ‘broad band’ complexity. Consequently, the vines produce around half of the juice and twice the concentration of younger, grafted vines in surrounding vineyards. 

The result is more of everything anyone would want out of a grape: aroma, texture, flavor, structure and persistence. ‘Nacional’ does this consistently, year in, year out, decade to decade, and soon to be, century to century. 

Now that I’m an older, wiser man and tempted by my daughter’s temperance, I’ve come around to Port. I must admit to enjoying a glass or two with friends, in a warm house on a cold day. And most especially with a plate of cheese, chocolate and nuts. 

Port can be lovely, heart warming, cheerful stuff and the best way to toast away the Year of the Plague.