This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See associated tasting notes on Noval, Nacional etc
Nine years ago I interviewed the Englishman at the head of AXA's wine division, AXA Millésimes. Then 44, Christian Seely spoke entertainingly but guardedly about his progression from Insead to Guinness Mahon to reviving AXA's port property Quinta do Noval (pictured, at harvest time) and then appointment in 2000 to overall responsibility for AXA's wine properties in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc, Portugal and Hungary.
But when I saw him again last week in London, presenting a vertical of Noval's most famous and virtually invisible wine, Quinta do Noval Nacional vintage port, he seemed to have thrown caution to the winds. Indiscretion followed delightful indiscretion. He had, admittedly, just flown in from Brazil, and misunderstood the time so had to start talking literally on the hoof, wines having been poured in the reverse order to that which he would have chosen (which would have been old to young).
Perhaps this confidence is because he is celebrating 20 years with AXA and has clearly had such success in fulfilling his brief of building the long-term capital value of this enviable portfolio (cunningly selling off the underperforming Château Cantenac Brown in Margaux, for example) that he is now fearless. (The picture below from his blog shows him, left, in front of Château Pichon Longueville competing in the recent Médoc Marathon with port lover and ex Luftwaffe pilot Axel Probst.) He is certainly popular, and has branched out into his own personal English sparkling wine Coates & Seely with an old Insead chum. The next release will be called Le Perfide. (He wanted to call the wine Albion but found too many builders and plumbers had appropriated the name.)
Another personal venture, Quinta da Romaneira just upstream of Noval in the Douro, has been rather less successful. As a luxury hotel in such an isolated location it proved a folly, fuelled presumably by Seely's personal love affair with the region. But, like a good Insead graduate, he has managed to find a Brazilian wine lover to take over what was the hotel half of the property as his holiday home. The quality of the Douro table wines made alongside port at both Quinta da Romaneira and Quinta do Noval has been improving impressively.
Seely led a group of us through six vintages of the principal vintage port of his beloved Quinta do Noval and then the same vintages of Nacional, the port produced in just a few hundred cases in very, very few years from a tiny parcel of vines in the middle of the Noval estate. This was the real treat of our Monday morning tasting: the chance to taste no fewer than seven vintages (the fabled 1963 was served with lunch) of a wine barely seen in the marketplace. When Seely arrived at Noval in 1993, the property's reputation had declined sharply under the previous owners. Too many vintages of Nacional had been released and, according to Seely, referring to the Douro's traditional shallow fermentation vessels, 'there were significant hygiene problems in the lagares'. Furthermore, he opined about Nacional, 'the things that happened in the 1980s show that even if you have great terroir you can certainly mess it up. You can't inject greatness into something.'
We were told he was determined that Nacional would be released as a vintage port only when the produce of this famous two-hectare plot of ungrafted vines was genuinely outstanding. ('It's always different but not necessarily better', he says.) He was lucky that this happened in his first vintage, 1994, but he has had his work cut out explaining to the AXA board in Paris why there was no Nacional between 2003 and 2011 - particularly since Nacional sells out immediately at a release price of about £350 a bottle, six times as high as the regular Quinta do Noval vintage port, and then continues to trade at ever more dizzying prices whenever it appears on the market.
Seely told us cheerily that one of the more entertaining aspects of his job, along with dining regularly with billionaires keen to get their hands on his top wines, was denying them an allocation. Henry Tang, ex financial secretary of Hong Kong and a well-known collector, was apparently determined that Seely give him some Nacional 2011 when it was released amid much ballyhoo in May this year. So, did you? we all wanted to know. Only on condition that he also bought a large quantity of Noval's Douro table wines and served them to his friends, apparently.
We tasted this great 2011 vintage of both ports as well as 2004, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994. Really knowledgeable port fans will notice that Quinta do Noval Nacional 2004 does not officially exist. Launching a vintage port involves a ramified process of submitting it to official, if sometimes narrow-minded, tasters before it can be 'declared'. The 2004 Nacional is declared but not released. It is not a popular vintage with other port shippers but Seely fell in love with it, declared it officially for the regular Quinta do Noval hot on the heels of the quite delicious 2003, and has made a tiny quantity of 2004 Nacional just to see how it comes along.
When we got to his 1997s, he told us how proud he and the estate's technical director António Agrellos were when the American wine critic Robert Parker gave both their 1997 vintage ports ('the first vintage in which I was really able to express the special character of the estate') his top score of 100 points. 'We went straight out to celebrate over lunch at the restaurant that Taylors then had in the Douro', he told us, referring to a rival port shipper, adding, almost visibly smacking his lips, 'and they were all there, so it was highly satisfactory'. In another barbed comment about other rival shippers, he commented on the detail of maximising the maceration of the grape skins that is so important in port production, describing their robotic experiments in the late 1990s 'before the other guys invented robotic lagares in 2000'.
Someone raised the issue of how several of his competitors are now making small-lot, single-vineyard vintage ports, presumably in an attempt to sell them eventually at the sort of sky-high prices that Nacional commands. 'It's sweet that they try', he cooed, 'and they can be very good. But they're not ungrafted vines…'
The whole point about the tiny parcel of Nacional vines is that they have never been, like most vines planted in Europe, grafted on to phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Some of us who have travelled in Australia and seen the lengths that growers there go to there to protect their ungrafted vines from this deadly aphid, with its own equipment (plough in this case), footbaths, fences and the like, asked why on earth he didn't do the same for the Nacional vines, the precious jewel in the crown of his favourite property. 'That's quite a good idea', he admitted thoughtfully.
See more and my tasting notes on all the wines served at the tasting and lunch afterwards in Quinta do Noval and Nacional vertical.