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by joe hyam

IN CASE any port fancier is worried, Quinta Noval is alive and well and flourishing under its new ownership, the French insurance group AXA. The group is not new to wine ownership, counting among its possessions such famous names as Chƒteau Lynch-Bages and Chƒteau Pichon-Longueville Baron.

The port house, with its picturesque estate in the Pinhao Valley in the upper Douro, was acquired from its previous owner, the van Zeller family, last year. It is now managed by AXA’s Christian Seeley who, supported by Bordeaux’s renowned wine-maker Jean-Michel Cazes, is overseeing substantial investment in the property.

Noval has lost nothing of the personal touch which marked out the Quinta and its wines. Its prize possession is a south-west facing corner of hill side where some pre-phylloxera stock has long survived. The port produced from them is known as Nacional. Only 6,000 cases a year are produced and the 1931 vintage holds the record for the highest price raised for a single bottle of port at an auction – $5,900 (about £4,000).

The opportunity at the beginning of this month to taste nine different vintages of Nacional at an auction preview at Christie’s was not to be missed. The wines, which included the 1963, 1966 and 1970 vintages, did not disappoint. They were complex, concentrated and richly endowed with the unique blend of bitterness and sweetness, softness and lingering fruit and acidity that makes vintage port such a fascinating drink. If ever proof was wanted of how a wine from a single source can vary from year to year, it was here.

While the 1980 is now drinking well, there are still years of life left in the 1963. In contrast to the 1964, it is deep in colour (not a hint of brown at the edges) with powerful tannins and fruit essences. It has, though already harmonious, further progress to make towards perfection. Something to drink on New Year’s Eve in the year 2000!

There is another chance to buy Quinta do Noval Nacional vintage ports, alongside other wines from the AXA portfolio of Bordeaux Chƒteau wines and other estates managed by Jean-Michel Cazes, at a Christie’s sale in London on 10 November (telephone Paul Bowker on 071-389 2745 for more details).

Meanwhile, if you want to build into your wine list an accessible, wood-aged port that will match the pocket of most customers without offending their palates, try Noval’s newly released Tawny and Tawny Reserve. At a trade price of £30.20 and £34 per six-bottle case respectively, they fit neatly into the price bracket between ruby and vintage character and tawnies with 10 or 20 years on the label.

Noval ports are distributed exclusively in the UK by Paragon Vintners (071-887 1800).

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